Saturday 5 March 2022



It has been six days since she left Ukraine, but 19-year-old Blessing Mushipe is still terrified.

The medical student at Karazin National University in Kharkov, Ukraine’s second largest city, still gets flashbacks of the time she and her friend had to navigate a war zone, with three pairs of clothes, water and a few snacks in a backpack.

“I still want to run whenever I hear a siren. When we were still in Ukraine, a siren meant we had to rush to the basement for safety,” she told The Sunday Mail in a telephone interview from the Polish capital of Warsaw on Friday.

Although now in a place of considerable safety, her experience has left her yearning for home.

“When news of the war started filtering in, I left Kharkov where our university is. There was nothing happening there at the time, but we left hastily, there was no time to pack and I left a lot behind,” she said.

Mushipe travelled to Lviv, to pick a friend who would be her companion on the journey to the Medyka border with Poland, which is about 90 kilometres away.

“By the time we left, there had not been bombings where we were but we would hear distant sound blasts on occasions,” Mushipe said.

What was supposed to be a clean early exit turned into a nightmare.

“Soldiers would not allow black people on trains. We wanted to board a train to the border and on three occasions we were told that black people were not allowed,” she said.

A benevolent bus driver allowed them on board and concocted a fictitious story to allow them passage.

“Soldiers were saying only women and children can pass. However, if you were a black woman, they would ask you to disembark. We were saved by the bus driver at one checkpoint when he lied that we had agreed to donate blood to the Ukrainian soldiers. That is how we were granted passage,” Mushipe said.

What was supposed to be a two-hour drive at most, took them close to 24 hours, as there was too much traffic on the roads caused by general panic and checkpoints.

“The bus driver left us at the first checkpoint towards the border and we had to finish the rest of the journey on foot.”

After trotting to the border for close to 20 kilometres, they faced yet another obstacle.

“We waited in the queue from 4pm to around midnight. The queues were moving, but soldiers would come and pluck you out and send you to the back shouting the words ‘black’ ‘black’ in their language. We were only allowed to cross at midnight, but our black counterparts who were male were denied entry,” Mushipe said.

Crossing the border into Poland brought a sigh of relief as the Zimbabwean Government and a few Poland based well-wishers had made provisions for students who found themselves stranded.

“We have been well taken care of here in Poland . . . we got here and there was a boarding house which was booked. We also have food and all the basic supplies we may need, which were organised by the Embassy. Our tickets are being processed, and we will be travelling back home soon,” a relieved Mushipe said.

On the other side of Ukraine, towards the Romanian border, another group of Zimbabweans was going through the same ordeal.

Mukudzei Makurira (21), a first year Dentistry Student at the Vinnytsia Medical University got injured at the Ukraine-Romania border.

“When we got to the Ukrainian side of the border, there were more than 4 000 people of different nationalities. We had to find a way to manoeuvre through a sea of people. We had to use force. We made a decision that one person would go to the gate.”

When Makurira was at the gate, Ukrainian police officers locked the entrance incensing the people who kept pushing against him. With an inherent shoulder injury, he started feeling discomfort on his left shoulder.

“The policemen then opened because a Nigerian girl suffocated and they had to take her to safety. People took the chance to push through and there was chaos. One Ghanaian girl fell, and I was trying to block people from running over her. Because of the commotion, the Ukrainian soldiers fired two shots into the air and a soldier came my way and tackled me,” Makurira said.

“I tried to explain that she (Ghanaian girl) was unconscious, but the soldiers were not having any of that. They took most of us black people and they made us kneel down at gunpoint. I didn’t feel anything, not because I am brave but my mind was saying this is my last moment here,” he added.

They were made to lie on the ground, essentially under arrest.

It took the sudden arrival of diplomats from the Eswatini Embassy who came to get their students and Makurira was left to cross with them.

He is now in Bucharest, with a Romanian family taking care of him and his colleagues.

The manhandling left him with a serious injury as a muscle detached from his humerus bone.

Mushipe and Makurira are among of the hundreds of Zimbabweans who had to hastily escape Ukraine after Russia entered the Eastern European country to conduct a special military operation.

Events from February 24, when the military operation was began, happened fast and many countries failed to evacuate their nationals from Ukraine.

Zimbabwe, through its Embassy in Berlin, Germany, told students to find their way into either Poland or Germany and they would be assisted from there.

Zimbabwe`s Ambassador to Germany, Alice Mashingaidze, travelled from her base in Berlin to Medyka at the Polish-Ukraine border to receive students.

“We had a list of about 212 students in Ukraine Universities and as the war began, many students in cities where they could find transport and where there was less fighting, began to leave. About 120 students registered with the embassy have left but some are still crossing the borders and some crossed and are not registered with the embassy,” said Ambassador Mashingaidze.

The Embassy had organised accommodation in Poland, but the fluidity of circumstances on the ground could not see all students use the Polish borders as would have been preferred by Zimbabwean authorities.

“The plan was initially to evacuate them through Poland where prepared accommodation would be accessed by all. The Poland border of Medyka had a queue stretching over 30km and most students had to spend three to five days in the queue and were subjected to traumatic experiences,” Ambassador Mashingaidze said.

Students who had expired passports or had misplaced their passports benefited from the special arrangement between Government and a number of countries surrounding Ukraine.

Some had to leave the Poland border and cross over through Romania, Hungary, Moldova and Slovakia.

“We needed some form of representation in these countries that our citizens were escaping to. Some Zimbabweans in the diaspora were very helpful. We created a Whats App group with all the students and the well-wishers who assisted by providing shelter and food. The Embassy also provided food and secured hostel accommodation in Warsaw to prepare them for home,” said Ambassador Mashingaidze.

The Government of Zimbabwe is providing tickets for the students to return home, and an additional return ticket which can be used when the situation normalises.

“The students were highly traumatised and some had near death experiences and one of the students was injured after being manhandled at the border and is currently under assessment in Romania,” Ambassador Mashingaidze said.

She encouraged all students to go home to reconnect with their families and process events of the past few days.

“However, some are being influenced not to go home but take advantage of the refugee situation to relocate in other countries,” said Ambassador Mashingaidze.

There is a group of about 18 Zimbabweans still stuck in the north eastern Ukrainian city of Sumy, close to the Ukraine-Russian border where some of the fighting is taking place.

“Some may have crossed and disappeared into thin air without being registered with the Embassy. We have bought tickets for 59 students as of today and some have already arrived home safely,” Ambassador Mashingaidze said.

Government has been hailed by different observers for its role in assisting students leave Ukraine and get to their homes safely.

BBC Senior Journalist, Peter Okoche, through his Twitter handle, hailed Ambassador Mashingaidze for being present at the Medyka border to personally see to it that the needs of Zimbabwean students crossing into Poland are attended to.

The Russia-Ukraine war prompted Simbarashe Moyo, a Zimbabwean Nuclear Media Physics PhD student at the Jagiellonian University in Poland, to start organising safe arrivals for Zimbabweans who were crossing into Poland. Sunday Mail


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