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Echoes from Sumy: Plight of Nigerian students stuck in Ukraine amid Russian bombing

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Kelsey Onyeka is among hundreds of Nigerian students stranded in a university located in Sumy, North-Eastern Ukraine. After Vladimir Putin’s half-hour speech declaring war on Ukraine, Kelsey’s reality became associated with gunfire, running, hiding and bombing.

For five days, her outfit has been a hooded jacket, denim jeans and shoes to enable her to run quickly when the occasion arises.

When she hears the sounds of Russian shelling, Kelsey rushes to a nearby bunker, hoping the bombs don’t find her.

“I have been disoriented from lack of sleep for days because I can’t sleep with my two eyes closed; I always expect to hear “go to the bunker” whenever the bombing starts.


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“I always have my joggers on and hoodie so I don’t have to waste time whenever I have to run,” she told The ICIR via Telegram.

With food supplies and water running out quickly in shops in Sumy, Kelsey’s calm demeanour gave way to fear.

Nigerian students, including other foreigners who attempted to leave Sumy, were sent back to the city by Russian soldiers, leaving them stranded.

Videos on social media have shown officials threatening to shoot African students, and officials chasing groups of people and foreigners reported to be stranded in Ukraine.

Sumy is located 50 kilometres from the Russian border; its closest city to the Poland-Ukrainian border is Medkya which is more than ten hours by bus.

The fifth-year medicine student with a speciality in cardio surgery at the Sumy State University is stuck with other Nigerian students; there appears no safe way out yet. 

“I am exhausted from waiting to be evacuated, and my parents are very worried because we can’t go out, and we don’t know what might happen to us if we stay here,” she told The ICIR.

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At least one million people have fled Ukraine within seven days since the start of Russia’s invasion, the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR 2022, data reveals.

“We need help to be evacuated from here as soon as possible,” she said.

Her plight mirrors the tough conditions of international students, especially Nigerians trapped in Sumy, desperate to return to Nigeria or neighbouring European Union, EU, countries until the drumbeats of war in Ukraine subside.

Stuck In A Rut

Nigeria boasts of 4,227 students in Ukraine, according to 2020 data by the Ukraine Ministry of Education and Science, making it the fifth-highest international student population at the time.

In a Twitter space organised by a Ghanian influencer, Spooky, with the hashtag #SaveSumyStudents, Nigerian students and other foreigners said they were ordered off buses by Russian soldiers at checkpoints and asked to return when they attempted to leave the city.

Mary Matthew, a Nigerian sixth-year medical student at Sumy State University, said the destruction of the major bridge leading from Sumy to Kharkiv, the closest city 177 kilometres away in Poltava posed a huge challenge.

“The only route out of the Sumy seems to be Poltava which is down south, but it’s not about whether you get to the border but rather if the people on the border lets you through,” she said.

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The African Union has condemned Africans fleeing Ukraine’s treatment following social media reports about border guards hindering them from leaving.

“Reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist” and violate international law, the African Union said.

However, Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs, tweeted Tuesday that Africans needed to evacuate the country safely while dismissing the reports of discrimination by Ukrainian officials as Russian propaganda.

Stranded Nigerians have appealed for help on social media.

A video shows dozens of students walking toward crowded borders where they waited for hours on train tracks to be allowed into neighbouring countries.

Evacuation flights have taken off from countries with borders around western Ukraine, including Poland, Moldova, Hungary and Romania, with more scheduled.

A group of members of the house of Representatives has flown to Romania to help with rescue efforts.

On Wednesday, Nigeria voted against Russia on a U.N. General Assembly resolution demanding an immediate halt to Moscow’s attack on Ukraine.

Major infrastructure within the city has been hit by Russian artillery shells in the last 24 hours, as a telecoms blackout was registered in Sumy, amid reports by residents of blasts at the thermal power plant and electrical substation, according to a tweet by netblocks.

Kelsey has spent a week in a bunker, with her luggage and essential documents ready, preparing for an evacuation when the opportunity arises.

Her immediate concern is coping with the dire situation in the absence of limited water and food.

Apart from having sanitary hygiene issues because of a lack of water without power supply, I wonder how we will survive,” she said.

Author profile

Amos Abba is a journalist with the International Center for Investigative Reporting, ICIR, who believes that courageous investigative reporting is the key to social justice and accountability in the society.

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