As Russia’s assault against Ukraine escalated, Jesse Gogoe, a 24-year-old medical student from Ghana who was studying in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in western Ukraine, scrambled with his friends to find a car so they could rush to the Poland border about 200 km away.
It was near impossible to find one, Gogoe told VICE World News, because thousands of people were trying to do the exact same thing. Eventually, a driver with a 20-seater van said they could hitch a ride for about $600, so they hopped on.
Gogoe said the group drove for about four hours before getting stuck in paralysing traffic with others trying to escape the war. “You could be in the same spot for five hours and not move,” Gogoe said.
They eventually ditched the ride at an unknown village and walked 12 hours on foot to get to the border. There, they waited for 15 hours and saw how Ukrainian border agents were favouring Ukrainian citizens over foreign nationals, especially those who weren’t white.
Ukrainian agents repeatedly beckoned fellow Ukrainians across the border, while holding Gogoe and his friends back. It wasn’t until the crowd of thousands waiting to get through became restless that they all managed to push through and make their way across. Some even attempted to jump barbed wire fences to get to the Polish side.
“Everyone was tired and civilians started opening gates themselves and rushing in. Due to that, people lost their stuff and others were being suffocated,” Gogoe said. He lost all his luggage, which carried his MacBook, clothes, and sneakers.
“The way we are being treated, it was such a bad experience. I wouldn't want anyone to experience such treatment,” Gogoe added, calling it “traumatising.”
Gogoe is one of tens of thousands of students from African countries – including Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon – who have been studying in Ukraine, a country that offers relatively affordable tuition for international students; Nigeria alone has about 4,000 students studying across Ukraine. As Russia continues its offensive against Ukraine, it’s unknown just how many African students have already fled, or are waiting to flee.
As of Monday, 500,000 refugees had already managed to escape Ukraine, with tens of thousands more waiting to pass through the border. Those who aren’t Ukrainian citizens, particularly people of colour, say they’ve spent days stranded at the border, where Ukrainian border agents have blocked them from crossing and yelled and assaulted them.
Kunda Zimba spent three days trying to reach Poland.
The third-year medical student from Zambia, walked 15 km alongside 20 other African students for hours from Lviv to a border town that connects to Poland
“We were moving by foot because it was impossible to stay in line and wait for a driver [to drive people to the border],” Zimba told VICE World News. The group attempted to cross at two border checkpoints, but they were unsuccessful, so they returned to Lviv. “I couldn’t walk properly on my own, and I was too cold, we couldn’t stay in the cold any longer; it was like -5 degrees outside, and we had to sleep on the road.”
James Chidiebere, a Nigerian citizen who’s been studying in Ukraine, says Ukrainian border agents were rough with him, too. He waited on the Ukrainian side of the border for four days – with little sleep and water – before he was able to cross.
“Coming to Poland was not easy,” Chidiebere said. “It was a hell for me.”
Chidiebere said he attempted to jump the fence but Ukraine agents caught him and pushed him back. “They caught me and caught my hands…. They hit me,” Chidiebere added, showing deep cuts on his finger.
He said he ultimately had to push through the crowds to get himself across, and while he’s safe in Poland now, he’ll “never forget” how he was treated.
“They don't treat us equally. I think they are racist… When you try to explain yourself they slap you. They don't treat their citizens that way.”
Owolabi Gbolahan, a doctor doing his postgraduate studies in general surgery in the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk, was in his room when a Russian airstrike ripped through the airport a few miles from his home. Gbolahan, the former President of the Nigerian Students’ Union in Ivano-Frankivsk, organised a private 100-seater bus to help transport African students to the Ukrainian-Romanian border. But there, he said the group were physically assaulted by Ukrainian immigration officers at the border.
“They are literally telling foreigners to kneel just to cross the border in a time of war,” Gbolahan told VICE World News.
In the wake of unequal treatment of African students, the African Union issued a damning statement, saying they’re “following closely the developments in Ukraine and are particularly disturbed by reports that African citizens on the Ukrainian side of the border are being refused the right to cross the border to safety.”
The statement says that all people have the right to cross international borders during conflict to get to safety, regardless of race and nationality. “Reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist and in breach (of) international law,” it says.
One student, who goes by the name Nze on Twitter, said Ukrainian authorities initially denied him and others entry across the border, with some Africans returning to Lviv after waiting for days. Nze said he and others were threatened by Ukrainian soldiers with guns, but they ultimately pushed through to get across the border. He confirmed to VICE World News that he made it into Poland safely and made it to Warsaw.
“I am glad we refused the nonsense from Ukraine military the next morning & pushed our way through,” he tweeted.
Another student, Koko, travelled to the Ukraine-Romania border, where she waited nearly 24 hours. She said on Twitter some locals threatened her group, saying they didn’t deserve to cross. Later, she said Ukrainian border agents segregated Ukrainians from foreign nationals and were allowing Ukrainian citizens to cross first, just like at the Polish border.
Tolulope Osho, a 30-year-old Nigerian business owner, has converted his office in the western city of Ternopil into a makeshift shelter for hundreds of Africans looking to make their way across the nearby border into Poland or Hungary.
“I can’t count the number of people I’ve assisted,” Osho told VICE World News. “There are lots of people in my DMs, and I can’t count them. For now, we are taking people in, those that just came from the war zone – they come here to me – a border town [ to access neighbouring countries like Hungary],” he said.
In recent days, African ambassadors have travelled to Poland and Hungary to help their citizens cross the border safely. Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, confirmed that Ukrainian border guards have been instructed to allow all foreign nationals to leave.
“It’s official: no restrictions for foreign nationals to leave the country exist. Problem is the result of chaos on the border and checkpoints leading to them,” Onyeama said.
Others are tapped into social media and in WhatsApp group chats, where they’re doing their part to support their peers who are trying to flee. Emmanuel Afriyie, a Ghanaian engineering student, managed to flee Ukraine on the 15th of February, before Russia invaded, for Ghana. He said he left because he was already worried about threats coming out of Russia. Since then, he’s been helping stranded Africans figure out how to get out of Ukraine and back home.
“The whole world is praying for Ukraine and it's appalling that Ukrainian soldiers are doing this at the border,” Afriyie said. “If you can’t get lots of people through the border at once, we get that. If there is a queue, sure. But the treatment is unacceptable.”
According to Afriyie, those fleeing are trying to cross into safer countries so they can book flights and return to their home countries. Unsurprisingly, many flights are fully booked, so he said embassies are working to ensure their citizens have places to stay in countries like Poland while they wait several days for available flights back to their home countries.
“As we speak tickets are going up every second because everyone is trying to book a ticket,” he said, adding that the main goal is to get citizens back home “safe and sound.”
“We are all trying our best.”
The Ghananian government has evacuated around 460 Ghanaians from Ukraine through Poland, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Afriyie said the first group of Ghanaian students to return to Ghana were slated to arrive at 8AM local time on Tuesday morning. “The coordination from Ghana has been very impressive based on the fact that the diplomats were every responsive, the consul and student leaders were very cooperative, and in fact, we had a lot of cases of Ghanaians living in the border countries also assisting in the efforts,” Jonas Nyabor, a Ghana-based journalist told VICE World News.
In the meantime, Gogoe, the medical student from Ghana, is now in Warsaw. He said he was “astonished” by the support he received once he crossed into the country.
“They assisted us and gave us free food, free drinks. I lost my luggage and I needed free clothes, so I got trousers and a T-shirt,” he said.
In Poland, Zimba is part of about 60 Zambians who have crossed into Poland, preparing to return home.
“I am taking myself to Zambia independently, but my friends are currently being taken care of by the government of Zambia,” Zimba said. “They have been moved to the capital city and checked into a hotel while they wait for others to make it.”