Nigerians who escaped Russia’s ongoing military offensive in Ukraine arrived in Abuja, the nation’s capital, on Friday, narrating how they escaped the intense bombings and missiles fired by Russia’s military forces.
The war, which has led to the death of hundreds of civilians and troops, leaving thousands injured and many more displaced, has seen millions of foreign nationals fleeing Ukraine for neighbouring countries.
As of Friday night, no fewer than 775 Nigerians had been flown back to the country. The first batch comprising 415 persons arrived from Romania in the morning while the second batch, comprising 180, arrived from Poland at about 6:30 pm. Another 180 arrived in the third batch. They were all received at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja. One more batch was being expected from Hungary and Poland as of the time of filing this report.
Some of the returnees who fled Ukraine to Romania told Saturday PUNCH how they were able to escape the invasion. Despite appeals for diplomacy and the heavy sanctions imposed by other countries, the European Union and other allies, the Russian forces, under the strict orders of President Vladimir Putin, have continued to launch bombs and missiles into different parts of Ukraine, the second largest city in Europe.
Anuoluwakintan Olawoye, a 300-level medical student at the University of Ternopil, said apart from the racial discrimination, she starved, trekked and stood for long hours. She noted that the reports of the invasion and bombs going off in different parts of the country were enough to plant fears in anybody, but that she was happy she was able to escape.
She said, “I do not wish my enemy what I went through, even though mine was not as bad as others’. There was a curfew, we starved because there was nothing to buy, no store opened and sirens blared every time! No taxis to move from one place to another. We had to trek for hours. The city was becoming vacant. We couldn’t sleep knowing that the country was at war.
“On Thursday morning, there was a bombing in Kyiv but thankfully I was in Ternopil so I escaped. Again on Friday, some parts of Lviv were bombed; Lviv is two hours journey away from Ternopil.”
Olawoye said she made for the Romanian border after trekking for hours but on getting there, she found that preference was given to Ukrainian citizens.
She added, “We got to the border around 4 pm and we were told to wait. We waited till 8 pm and they didn’t allow us (blacks) to go inside. We attempted to make a move when they called on women and children and they turned us back. They only allowed their citizens to go. It was two hours after they left that they said they would come back to us.
“We pleaded with the officers that the snow was much outside, I was shivering as a result but they did nothing. I crossed about 2 am and it was by luck. Some were not that lucky. The racism that I encountered at the Ukrainian border was not for the weak. They were pushing us aside just to allow their trucks to move. They shouted at us, pushed us and did all sorts.”
Olawoye, however, said she was treated very well in Romania, noting that she would be proceeding to meet her parents. She added that she would love to return to Ukraine to complete her studies once the war ends.
Also, Abraham Praise said she never believed she could experience such in her lifetime, especially with the bombs and missiles that had killed both troops and civilians in different parts of the country.
She said, “I trekked for three hours non-stop. I had friends who trekked for more hours. You just had to forget you have legs while you keep going. The thought of you keeping yourself alive would keep you going. Some people fainted along the road. The stronger ones among us had to give them support. I never thought I would have to experience something like this.”
Abraham called on the government to assist evacuees with therapy to get over the experience, saying people who survived war, no matter how distant, needed some counselling.
She said, “Everyone who has gone through this experience needs therapy. Although we are a strong people, to have made it out alive and be able to see your friends and families is exciting. For some of us, the future is still uncertain because of the disruption in our academics. I am in my third year while some others are in their final year and are meant to graduate in June.”
Praise added, “Although I am happy I would be seeing my family, this is not just the way I wanted it. But there is still life and there’s hope. If this is where we would have to start from to move ahead, we are ready.”
Rabia Zalka who was in Ukraine with her sister said she didn’t know if she would survive, but that to have made it back to Nigeria alive despite the invasion, rising tension, the bombing of cities and even the capture of the Nuclear plant by the Russians, meant a lot to them.
“I didn’t think it was really serious until my sister and I walked a long distance to the Romanian border. I trekked for hours. It was not easy. We were keeping an eye on each other and helping each other,” said Zalka.
Another returnee, Peter Ajuwon, said the Ukraine war should serve as a lesson to Nigerians on the importance of peace.
He said, “War is not a favourable situation. Every aspect of life gets affected. I encourage people to embrace peace in Nigeria. Our experiences crossing the border to Romania were not pleasant. Getting to Romania was hell, but we had a pleasant experience in Romania. We got a lot of support from the Romanian government and the Nigerian Ambassador there. Some Romanian NGOs showed us love too; they didn’t discriminate.”
Some of the parents and relatives who came to receive them were visibly elated seeing their children alive. Some of them had kept vigil at the airport, awaiting the return of their children.
Other parents whose children had yet to arrive were seen lurking around and anxiously waiting for their children’s return.
Mrs Zalka whose two daughters were among the first batch said she was happy to have her daughters back in the country. She told our correspondent she could not eat, she cried almost every day and prayed for the safe return of her daughters who were schooling in Ukraine.
Zalka said, “We thank God they are back with us. I was not eating, I cried almost every day and prayed fervently while they were away. I don’t have anything to say but to thank God.”
When asked about the next plans for her daughters, she told our correspondent that she would enrol them in another school in Nigeria.
She said, “I have secured admission for them in the country, so by next month they should be back in school. There are a lot of universities looking for students, particularly those from Ukraine.”
Another mother, who was very excited, told Saturday PUNCH that reuniting with her daughter was something of joy to her.
Alimat said, “Reuniting with my daughter means a lot to me. With explosions and bombings that we see on a daily basis on the television, I almost thought it wouldn’t be possible for me to see my daughter again. I have nothing to say but thank God and the Nigerian government for bringing them back.”
150 students trapped in war zone
Over 150 Nigerians trapped in Sumy, a Ukrainian city bordering Russia, have been denied access to Russia despite frantic calls made to the Russian government by the Federal Government, Saturday PUNCH has learnt.
Sumy has become a war zone in recent days, losing electricity and forcing most residents to stay in bunkers.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, said on Monday that he was having talks with the Russian government with a view to ensuring that the 150 Nigerians that had indicated interest to leave were given access to Russia.
Sumy, which is located in North-East Ukraine, is far from the Polish, Hungarian and Romanian borders and Russia remains the closest place these Nigerian students can run to for shelter.
“There are some Nigerians in a place called Sumy close to the Russian border. I have been in touch with the ambassador. There are about 150 of them who are looking to cross into Russia and we have asked the ambassador in Russia to try and get a permit for them to transit to Russia,” the minister had said.
However, Saturday PUNCH learnt that as of Friday, Russia had failed to grant access to these Nigerian students as it has continued to bomb the city, destroying the road that connects Sumy to Russia.
Confirming the situation of the students in Sumy, the Nigerians in the Diaspora Commission said the road linking Russia to the city had been damaged, making it near impossible for them to escape.
The Spokesperson for NIDCOM, Abdur-Rahman Balogun, said Sumy had become a war zone as a result of the invasion.
According to the commission, those in the war theatre were the major concern of the government after evacuating those in Romania, Hungary and Poland.
He said, “Sumy is like a war zone. The embassy has advised them to stay calm. The bridge connecting them to Russia has been damaged. They can neither go by road nor air.
We will evacuate everybody, but it has to be well arranged. They are our major concern, they have been unable to cross the border but the government is aware of where they are and we are doing everything possible to make sure they are evacuated. But in the meantime, we want to ask all of them to remain calm and not to wander about which could be very dangerous. At the appropriate time, they will be rescued.”
We are trapped, students say
Some of the affected Nigerian students told CNN that they “were trapped” and helpless.
A 21-year-old medical student, Vivian Udenze, 21 who attends Sumy State University, told CNN, “This is the 8th day since the crisis began. A lot of places have been evacuated. There are more than 600 of us who are foreigners and students.”
She said most of the group were medical students, and they were from Nigeria, Morocco, Tanzania, Congo and India, among other countries.
Udenze told CNN via the telephone that she woke up to two loud explosions around 8 am on Wednesday and heard gunshots on Thursday.
“I am so scared and time is running out. We don’t want the Russians to enter the city and meet us here. We need a humanitarian corridor so we can get out,” she said.
Udenze later said that more explosions were heard on Thursday evening at around 6:30 pm local time. The students no longer have electricity or water following the blast, she said.
Complicating the students’ escape is the fact that there is no public transportation available in Sumy, which has come over a heavy fire in recent days, leaving roads and bridges destroyed.
Udenze said she had not been able to reach any representative of the Nigerian embassy.
People have tried to contact them … I personally sent a message to someone there but I didn’t get a reply,” Udenze said.
Another student, Excel Ugochukwu, who is a first-year Business Management student, said he heard the sound of an aircraft and a loud explosion. “We just lost electricity,” he said.
He said the university had “asked everyone to stay put and in the shelters for now,” but described a constant threat of danger that makes day-to-day life tense in the city.
“There is a curfew 6 pm to 6 am. During curfew hours there are total blackouts. Street lights and lights inside the house are turned off,” he told CNN.
“There are air strike warnings periodically and everyone moves to the bomb shelter,” he added, before running to a nearby bomb shelter.
In a video sent to CNN, another Nigerian student at the university, Nnamdi Chukwuemeka pleaded, “Sumy is bordered by Russia, and as such, there is no way for us to escape. We want the international community to help provide a safe corridor for us to move out of Sumy. Things are getting serious,” Chukwuemeka said.
When contacted by CNN, the foreign minister simply stated, “We are aware and are making arrangements.”
We’ll continue to defend Nigerians’ interests everywhere – Buhari
In a related development, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd), has said that his regime will continue to defend the interest of Nigerians wherever they may be, even as the nation continues the evacuation of citizens stranded in the aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine war.
Buhari affirmed this Thursday in Nairobi, Kenya, at a town hall meeting with a group of Nigerians resident in the country.
According to a statement on Friday by the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, titled ‘Defending the interest of Nigerians is paramount to my administration, says President Buhari,’ he said, “on our part as a government, we shall continue to defend the interests of all Nigerians wherever they may be.
“We have demonstrated this over time, as we have had cause to evacuate our citizens in harm’s way abroad. We did it in Libya, South Africa and we have just commenced doing the same in Ukraine, where thousands of our citizens, especially students, are trapped by the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine.”
The President who was represented by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, commended Nigerians in Kenya for the unity that exists among them and peace with their host communities, urging them to respect the laws and be good ambassadors of Nigeria.
Buhari said the government expected their willingness to give back to Nigeria some of their resources, talents, skills and global exposure in the development of our great country, Nigeria.
In her remarks, the Chief Executive Officer of NIDCOM, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, appreciated the ambassadors for honouring the invitation, urging them to register with the commission to have an up-to-date database for easy interface.
The President of Nigerians in Diaspora (Kenya), Dr Nicholas Ozor, on behalf of the Diaspora community, expressed his appreciation to the President for always meeting with them when he is in the country as this boosts their morale.
FG gives each returnee $100
Meanwhile, the Federal Government gave $100 each to the returnees to facilitate their transportation to their various destinations.
The Director-General, National Emergency Management Agency, Ahmed Habib, disclosed that the money was meant to help them get to their various destinations.
He said, “We are evacuating over 5,000 Nigerians, the most important thing is their families are seeing them. We have 407 who arrived from Romania on Friday morning. We have three other flights coming today. As long as there are Nigerians there we would be bringing them home.”
When asked if the government would give psychosocial support to the evacuees, he said, “The most important thing is to get them back home and then move from there. There are provisions for all the evacuees, the President has already approved for all the evacuees to be given $100 each to enable them to go back to their various homes. Each and every one of them would get it before leaving here (the airport). They would be profiled and assessed before being allowed to go.”
We have capacity to evacuate Nigerians – Max Air Chairman
Meanwhile, Max Airline says it has the capacity to evacuate Nigerians as a result of the war in Ukraine. Max Air is expected to evacuate 560 Nigerians from Romania while Air Peace would convey 360 from Poland and Hungary.
This is contained in a statement issued by the General Manager of Operations, Max Air, Mr Raymond Omodiagbe, on Friday in Abuja.
The statement read, “One of the Max Air Boeing 747-400 arrived in Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Abuja on Friday morning with the first batch of 416 passengers who were affected by the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. Max Air signed an agreement with the Federal government to evacuate stranded students and other people affected by the war.
“Max Air deployed one of its Boeing 747–400, which left Nigeria yesterday evening for Romania, where the stranded persons were gathered for onward journey home.”