Africans relive horror tales of escape from Ukraine war

Date:

BBC Africa Eye releases Not our War documentary
• Okwoche: I experienced racism firsthand covering the war
• UN Secretary-General visits Nigeria Tuesday over Ukraine, Boko Haram conflicts
• Russia announces it could seize assets of ‘hostile’ countries

It’s Day 68 of the war in Ukraine that has seen about 13 million people displaced as Russia steps up its offensive. Attempts by international organisations to push for peace had yet to record success following Russia’s continued attack on Ukraine last week during the visit by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres.

More than 5.4 million Ukrainians had fled their country since the war began but beyond those fleeing, the International Organisation for Migration estimated more than 7.7 million people are displaced within Ukraine, meaning that more than 13 million people overall were so far uprooted by the conflict.

As war came to Ukraine, thousands of Africans were among the more than five million refugees who fled the conflict and as they attempted to escape the carnage, many Africans were treated like second-class citizens. Reports of discrimination at Ukraine’s borders were widespread, and acknowledged by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. 

Guterres, at the weekend, began a visit to some West African countries and he would visit Nigeria on Tuesday on his first mission to Nigeria, to highlight consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the African continent and also meet families affected by violence and instability in the Northeast to see first-hand the impact of conflict and climate change on vulnerable communities in Borno State.

Following last week’s trips to Russia and Ukraine, Guterres arrived Saturday evening in Senegal for an official visit on May 1 and 2. He would then be in Niger until May 3 before finishing his tour in Nigeria on May 3 and 4.

IN a gripping 26-minute documentary released today titled Not our War, BBC Africa Eye relives the horror of Africans caught up in the ongoing war in Ukraine. For anyone who remembers the struggle of passengers to stay alive in the ill-fated ship of the movie Titanic, it is a dress rehearsal compared to what fleeing Africans faced to get out of Ukraine.

BBC Africa journalist, Peter Okwoche, was at the Polish border reporting on the African experience days after war broke out. In the weeks that followed, BBC Africa Eye followed the story of Africans struggling to find a way out of Ukraine amid a bloody war.  

As the conflict intensified, reports started to surface across social media about the discrimination Africans faced at the borders. Dr Awofaa Gogo-Abite, a Nigerian surgeon who has lived in Ukraine for almost 14 years, filmed his escape, saying he and other Africans were stopped from crossing the border with Poland, while Ukrainians were allowed passage. He said they were held up for 18 hours.

On social media, videos appeared to show similar blockades for Africans and including footage of Africans being denied access to trains evacuating refugees to neighbouring countries.

Okwoche, who reported from Przemyśl, a small Polish town on the Ukraine border, was taken aback by the scenes he witnessed. He said: “I was so shocked at what I saw. We’ve covered conflicts on the African continent where people have fled but you’ve never seen 1.5 million people flee in one week.

“In the midst of this, there was this sub-story, to see Africans who are caught up in another man’s war, trying to flee that war and within this war, they were now fighting their own battle to get out. What struck me the most was the vacant look in the eyes of the Africans that had managed to cross over to the border in Poland. That look of still trying to understand what had just happened to them and what was going to happen to them next.

“I heard and saw terrible things that were happening in Ukraine. Ukraine is being bullied by Russia and the world is looking on for one reason or the other. For many of those displaced, their whole lives have been turn to shreds. I spoke to a Ukrainian woman who had crossed over to Poland, she had this look on her face. I said ‘how are you’ and she said ‘how do you think I am, yesterday I had a home, a job, a house, a car, my husband and a child. Today, my child and I have crossed the border into a country I have not been before. My husband is still there because the men are not allowed to come out, they are still fighting, how do you think I feel?’ She said she can’t even begin to explain how she feels because it is surreal to all of them. It’s a huge humanitarian nightmare!”
 
The BBC journalist met a number of Africans who were either working or studying in Ukraine and were now desperately trying to escape. Jessica Orakpo is a Nigerian medical student who was based in western Ukraine. She told BBC Africa Eye that while making her way to the Polish border, she was stopped from boarding a bus. 

In Poland, Peter and his team experienced racism first hand, being turned away from two restaurants and confronted by men angrily demanding to see their BBC IDs. 

Peter said: “Because of this experience that I had, this very uncomfortable experience of somebody judging me for my skin colour, it made me understand what these people who had crossed from Ukraine were telling me and for them to say it was worse on the Ukrainian side, I just can’t imagine.

“Anybody that says racism doesn’t exist in the world today is just fooling himself. Racism exists everywhere. When these stories started popping up on social media, Ukrainian officials were denying that the maltreatment happened but the proof was there. Africans were being denied access to buses and trains. Even many who had lived for nearly two decades in Ukraine were also being maltreated.”

On the message behind Not our War, he said the documentary will refresh peoples memory about what is still going on in Ukraine. “I don’t want the documentary to take away from the bigger picture of what is happening in Ukraine, of the war and destruction. But while Ukrainians are suffering, a group of Africans still in Ukraine are suffering as well and their stories need to be told. Everybody’s stories and sufferings count.
 
“Two things I have taken out of this story. One is man’s capability to be inhuman to man, because the suffering of these people was inhumane. Second is in the midst of all these ugliness, I still saw beauty because to be clear, not all Africans experienced racism as they were trying to flee. There were some people who actually said that at every place they stopped, Ukrainians were coming to help them to offer food and tea because it was freezing.

“At a point, people had to park their cars and walk in the freezing cold. People were walking for up to six, eight or 10 hours, sometimes 12 hours, just to get to the borders. Some met friendly Ukrainian guards who helped them.”

One of such is Nigerian football coach, Obi Ojimadu and his family. They have lived in Kharkiv for the past 17 years and were lucky to escape to Hungary. They were moved by the reception they got as they crossed into Hungary. 

Obi said: “Irrespective of who you are, whether you are Ukrainian or not, as long as you are coming out from Ukraine as a refugee, everyone is being well taken care of.” 

When asked about the fate of many Africans still trapped in Ukraine, Okwoche said: “Unfortunately, it is difficult to tell. We know that some of the people we spoke to while making the documentary were unable to get out immediately. We are not sure if they have got out because electric power and communication had been cut off. So, it is very difficult to get in touch with these people whether they are still in there or they managed to escape.

“While in there, I saw quite a few African governments. On social media, there was this narrative that African governments were not doing enough to bring out their citizens. That was a big lie. While I was there, the Nigerian Ambassador to Poland, Major General Christian Ugwu (rtd), was driving nine hours to the border daily to get Nigerians out. The days he could not make it, he would send two officials to go there. This is what I witnessed. The Zimbabweans were there, same for Kenyan envoys, Ghanaians and South Africans, among others.

“The difficulty is that a lot of Africans when they travel to foreign countries don’t go and register themselves at the closest embassy to say I am Nigerian but I am here. So, the government can’t know how many people are there. I use myself as an example, I am a Nigerian who lives in the UK, I have been here for about 18 years but have never been to the Nigerian Embassy in London except a few times to get my Nigerian passport. Officially, the Nigeria High Commission in UK don’t have my record of being resident in the country because I have not gone to register

Meanwhile the Ukrainian government has promised to spare no effort to solve the racism problem. Although many lives have been devastated by the conflict, many African students and residents told BBC Africa Eye they still felt that Ukraine is their home and would go back. But with no end to the conflict in sight, many question what the future holds for them and the people of Ukraine. 

RUSSIA, yesterday, suggested that it could seize the Russian-based assets of countries it deems hostile in retaliation for a U.S. proposal to sell off Russian oligarchs’ assets and pay the proceeds to Ukraine.

“As far as companies based in Russian territory are concerned whose owners are citizens of hostile countries and where the decision has been taken” to seize Russian assets, “it is fair to take reciprocal measures and confiscate assets,” said the Speaker of Russia’s lower House of Parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin.

“And the proceeds from the sale of these assets will be used for our country’s development,” he said on his Telegram channel.

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