A Nigerian student cries after police refused to let him board a train to Poland, after six days of being turned away, at the Lviv-Holovnyi railway station in Lviv, Ukraine
A Nigerian student cries after police refused to let him board a train to Poland, after six days of being turned away, at the Lviv-Holovnyi railway station in Lviv, Ukraine. Photo: Ethan Swope/Bloomberg via Getty Images

‘We’re Hostages’: African Students Trapped in Russian-Held City in Ukraine

Kherson was the first major city to fall to Russian forces after the invasion of Ukraine. Foreign students tell VICE World News they're being prevented from escaping.

Three days into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Jeremiah Kenny, a Nigerian living in Kherson and studying at the Kherson State Maritime Academy, woke up to the thunder of missiles that announced the city was under enemy fire. 

“We were sleeping and what we heard was a weird sound,” Kenny says. “We noticed that the airport was on fire - they bombed the airport. The second bomb hit the railway, the third bomb destroyed the bridge that could take us out to border towns.”

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Four days later, on the 2nd of March, Kherson, a strategic port city of about 300,000 sitting at the mouth of the Dnieper River and close to the Black Sea, became the first major city in Ukraine to fall to Russian forces. After heavy fighting, Russian naval troops seized the city and imposed a travel ban, trapping thousands.

Kenny is one of the hundreds of foreign students from across Africa, Asia and the Middle East, stuck in Kherson, thousands of miles from home, and calling for a way out.

With Kherson captured, the students, like others in the city, have been grounded in make-shift bunkers. For them, it’s their dormitory basements. They have no heat there, they say, and have limited access to food or medicines. Worst of all, there’s no route out of Kherson, which is located in southern Ukraine, nowhere near a border.  

“The situation here is not good at all; it’s terrible because of the bombings,” Kenny told VICE World News over the phone from his dormitory, his voice quivering from a cold; at night, temperatures drop to below freezing levels. 

While some Nigerian embassy officials have been in touch with Kenny, they’ve not communicated any evacuation plans. “We have been in the basement for 17 days now, and some of us are sick. We are trying to stay strong because we got a lot of promises from a lot of people telling us they are working on a green corridor for us to be evacuated from Kherson,” he says.

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Before the war, tens of thousands of Africans studied in Ukraine, which offers relatively affordable degrees. Of some 76,000 foreign students, a quarter comes from Morocco, Egypt and Nigeria. Students from Asia and Middle Eastern countries also make up a sizeable number of the international student population. As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine intensifies, at least one Indian and one Algerian student have been killed in the fighting. Many are aware they could have tried to leave earlier in the war, but some students were put off by reports of African nationals being assaulted at the border, while others were hoping the fighting wouldn’t reach their city.

The students still in Kherson, who say they are in dire need of supplies, have bravely attempted to leave the city in recent days and weeks. But those attempts – at least three of them, Kenny revealed – have been met with resistance; Russian troops have confronted the students with weapons, which has left some traumatised.

“We are hostages now,” Kenny says. “We tried escaping through a taxi, and Russian soldiers pointed a gun at us directly and asked us to turn back. The stuff  is terrible right now, and the only people who could help us are government officials.” 

While African governments have managed to successfully evacuate thousands of students, those efforts have not reached Kherson. 

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African students who managed to flee Ukraine’s besieged border cities are currently being flown to their home countries from Poland, Hungary, and Romania; the Nigerian government alone has evacuated more than 1,500 people, including from the heavily damaged city of Sumy, which has seen some of the heaviest fighting. The evacuations in Sumy came after a public outcry and a subsequent opening of humanitarian corridors. It’s the same route students in Kherson are now calling for.

“It’s a very difficult situation at the moment,” says Chibuzor Onwugbonu, a consultant with Nigeria in Diaspora Organisation Europe (NIDO), a group that supports  Nigerians living abroad. “It has gotten to a point that some of them are falling sick.”

VICE World News has reached out to the Nigerian embassy in Russia, but they are yet to respond. Geoffrey Onyeama, Nigeria’s foreign minister, tweeted on Monday that officials are still in talks with the Russian government about evacuating students in Kherson. The Cameroonian Embassy in Germany told CNN that evacuation plans are ongoing but “difficult at the moment.”

Relief organisations working to get students out say they’ve had little success, too.

“I’ve emailed the Red Cross… emailed the embassies but I haven’t heard any word yet”, says  Danielle Ijeoma Onyekwere, the head of Diaspora Relief, founded to help Africans and other foreign nationals fleeing Ukraine. Onyekwere says she has a list of at least 200 foreigners who want to leave Kherson, including students and one professor running low on medication. None have made it out.

Dr Kemi Babagbemi – a doctor volunteering with the aid organization, Black People for Ukraine – says there have been cases of “severe depression and despondency” in some of the students she’s in touch with, prompting her to gather a team of volunteer psychologists to work with them.

Thousands have been reported dead in the war. More than three million have fled the country in what is now being called Europe’s biggest refugee exodus since World War Two. Residents under siege in Kherson are defiant and are bravely protesting the occupation despite the presence of soldiers. On Monday, Mayor Igor Kolykhaev posted on his Facebook Page that the city would not give in. He also announced that some markets would be partially open. 

But anxious students from African countries are finding it difficult to keep high spirits. Ryan, a Cameroonian student sheltering in his apartment building, is one of them. “Just bottled water [in stores], and most pharmacies have run out of drugs,” he says. “The city needs humanitarian aid. We are very depressed and sad.”