African students trapped in southern Ukraine’s Kherson are crying out for help, as Russian forces try to consolidate their occupation of the port city.
The students told CNN they are spending most of their time in underground bunkers in freezing temperatures as Russian soldiers prevent anyone from entering or leaving Kherson.
Many of the students are terrified of the repercussions of speaking out in the media and have asked CNN to withhold their full names for fear of their safety.
“We are living a nightmare. We don’t live, we are surviving,” Christophe, a first-year student from Cameroon living in Kherson, told CNN. “The only hope … right now is when sleeping, if you can sleep. It’s hoping that tomorrow someone will tell you that you will get evacuated.”
He added: “We are students. We came here to study. We didn’t come for this. And now, you see most of your friends that were living in other cities have left. They are not in this situation. You can imagine our families calling us every day like, ‘Please, tell me there is something new.’ What am I going to tell them?”
The 23-year-old said that Cameroonian embassy in Ukraine had not responded to him, although he had reached out. After trying others in Europe, the only embassy that answered his call for help was the one in Germany.
“They said we have heard about you. We are working on it and that is all.” He says he hasn’t heard from the embassy since.
“We are not asking for anything special. We are asking for help,” he said.
The embassy of Cameroon in Germany told CNN in an email statement that they are working to get the students out of Kherson “but it is very difficult for the moment.”
Christophe and some of his fellow students have also been making public appeals for help in videos on Twitter.
Routes out of Kherson are fraught with danger and difficulty. Nigerian national Akinyemi studied in Ukraine. He now lives in Tyahynka, a small village less than an hour outside of Kherson, and works as a sailor.
He recalls those who tried to flee the city turning back at the sight of Russian military equipment.
Despite the risk, some students have attempted to flee – without much success.
“We formed a group and we noticed that virtually everybody is still here. So far, only one guy that I know of has managed to leave. No other students have left. Almost 100% is still here,” Akinyemi told CNN.
The recent graduate has lived in Ukraine since 2016 and describes a terrifying life in the shadow of a fierce Russian military presence. “[Russia] moves their military equipment virtually every day. There are a lot of checkpoints manned by soldiers,” he said.
“The Russian military in the village here told us that you can tie something white to your left hand and go to wherever you want to go but just go with your passport,” he said.
“The stores are dry. We’ve bought everything already … and [are] using firewood to cook,” Akinyemi said.
“The experience is traumatic. Even at the sound of the door, I think it’s the sound of gunshot or something,” he said. “[In the bunker], there is no internet so there is no way to stay in connection with our families back home so that they won’t be worried.”
Akinyemi believes that the solution for students stuck in and around Kherson is simple: “We need all possible means of creating a green corridor for the Kherson region like they did with Sumy.” Between March 8 and 10, all civilians in the northeastern city of Sumy were able to leave via evacuation corridors.
Students like Akinyemi and Christophe want Ukrainian and African government officials to make similar negotiations for the safe exit of all civilians in Kherson.
Nigeria has so far evacuated more than 1,500 students from Ukraine, according to the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, a federal government agency.
Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama said in a tweet on March 13 that he was in contact with his country’s ambassadors in Ukraine and Russia as they “engage the Russian and Indian Governments, as well as NGOs, in a bid to safely evacuate about 80 Nigerian maritime students in Kherson, Southern Ukraine.” India has a large number of students in Ukraine as well and has been evacuating its own nationals.
Onyeama also wrote that he spoke on the phone with a Nigerian student leader in Kherson “to reassure him of positive developments.”
Desperate for a way out
Hyacinthe, a master’s student from the Ivory Coast, says he was playing basketball in the street when he first saw Russian military entering Kherson on February 24.
“We heard people starting to run and we heard shooting,” he told CNN in a phone call.
Hyacinthe made desperate efforts to leave the city only to find that there were no trains, buses or taxis as the city was surrounded.
Taxis that would brave the journey were demanding up to 500 euros per person, he said. A steep price for students.
“We called some taxis and they said that they can come and pick us [up] but it was very expensive. Each of us would pay 500 euro per person. We don’t have that money. Until today, we are just calling trying to find a way to leave Kherson.”
Hyacinthe told CNN that just a day before, some Egyptian and Lebanese students paid the sum each to take a taxi out of Kherson via Crimea, with hopes of crossing into Russia.
Their progress is unknown. Some students have even tried exiting the city on foot.
“When they arrived at the border of Kherson, they met the Russian army. They told them that without a special agreement, we cannot allow you to leave the city,” he said.
The 29-year-old said that he knows of around 60 other foreign students still in Kherson, originating from countries such as Nigeria, Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Tunisia.
He has lived in Ukraine for four years and says that the country is a popular choice for students because of the affordable university fees.
Under Russian occupation, Kherson residents report seeing armed Russian men going door to door, checking passports, and asking for guests’ phone numbers amid growing protests.
Hyacinthe describes the resilience he has seen from Ukrainians in Kherson: “If they meet Russian troops they start to shout and protest ‘this is Ukraine!’” he said.
On Sunday, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets waving Ukrainian flags and chanting anti-Russian slogans.
‘They are always shooting’
The sounds of helicopters and shooting have become common in Kherson. “Outside is like a no-man’s land. It’s very quiet and everybody is afraid. You have to move very quickly as we don’t know when [fighting] will start,” Hyacinthe said. “They’re always shooting, every day, every night – especially in the night. Two days ago, we were without electricity and internet and network,” he added.
“Right now, we need a diplomatic vehicle to come and pick us up without any risk. We are afraid because they say it’s not safe,” Hyacinthe said.
For these foreign students in Kherson, they say they support each other by sharing everything that they have. “We always share our things, that is the African mentality. If someone has something like bread or eggs or oil, let’s have some omelets and eat together,” Hyacinthe said.
“We are brothers, no matter where you are from or which country you are from. That’s how we survive here.”
This story has been updated to include response from the Cameroonian embassy in Germany.