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‘Get out now!’ South Africans’ tales of terror, tears as they ...

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‘Get out now!’ South Africans’ tales of terror, tears as they flee Ukraine

One South African arrived in the Ukraine two days before the war started to rescue an old circus bear

Journalist
Shaun van Wyk, his Ukrainian wife Yana and daughte, Taylor. He was one of the first South Africans to make it across the border to Poland.
TOGETHER Shaun van Wyk, his Ukrainian wife Yana and daughte, Taylor. He was one of the first South Africans to make it across the border to Poland.
Image: Suppled

Desperate South Africans, including some students walking to the Medyka-Szeginie border post on the south-eastern side of the Ukraine, had to face assault by border police when the police decided late on Saturday night that only Ukrainian women and children would be allowed to cross the border.

According to one of the South Africans, the situation started getting tense when thousands of people were cramming into the crossing after some had waited for 60 to 70 hours to get into Poland.

Some of the students were kicked and manhandled when a stampede to get away from the police ensued. A South African woman’s leg was badly injured when she was trampled. Two of the students are now trapped in the area between the Ukrainian and Polish borders as the girl cannot move.

According to Hayley Reichert, a London-based South African expat who has been involved in various initiatives over the past decade, the South African ambassador to Poland, Nomvula Mngomezulu, is in contact with the girls and is on her way to the border post to assist the injured girl.

Reichert said on Sunday the situation in the Ukraine was getting critical, especially in the east on the Russian border. All train and bus services from there have been suspended and travelling in the rest of the country was hampered due to fuel supplies running out.

“South Africans who are still in the country need to get out as soon as possible. They need to know that the border posts to Poland is a mess and that the better way for them to exit the country is Uzhorod on the Slowakian/Hungarian border in the west.

"In Uzhorod they have to go into the town centre and ask for the Hungarian General Consul who will help them. I am in direct contact with South Africa’s ambassadors in the Ukraine and in Hungary and they will all be able to exit at Uzhorod.”

They need to know that the border posts to Poland are a mess and that the recommended way for them to exit the country is Uzhhorod on the Serbian/Hungarian border in the west. I am in direct contact with SA’s ambassadors in Ukraine and Hungary and they will all be able to exit at Uzhhorod.”

Reichert, Lorraine Blauw, a South African based in the Netherlands and Kim Kur run the Facebook group, Community Circle Home SA, to support the South African refugees and the department of international relations and co-operation (Dirco).

“We have a serious problem with many of those trapped not having any cash. We are trying to figure out how to open up a channel for families to send cash to assist those in need.”

South Africans who are still in the country need to get out as soon as possible.
Community Circle Home SA’s Hayley Reichert

According to Reichert, they had been asked to assist a South African, his Ukrainian wife and small child who were in a bunker in Kiev and not able to go anywhere. A South African doctor, who had been in the Ukraine for 12 years, was stuck in Odessa in the south where no travelling was allowed except with a special permit.

“We have two South Africans and a guy from Botswana stuck in Sumy right on the north-western border with Russia. They also have no means to get out of the area due to the heavy military bombardment in the area. The situation is unbearable and will get worst with more refugees streaming to the borders.”

South Africans told Sunday Times Daily how they joined hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians to walk, plead and drive from border post to border post to flee the Ukraine after Russian forces started its attack on its neighbour. Some of them made it, while at least one group was turned away at the Medyka-Szeginie border post to Poland on Saturday night.

One South African arrived in the Ukraine two days before the war started to rescue an old circus bear. Another is married to a Ukrainian and had settled down there, but has now decided to get out of the country. Yet another was in Kiev only to pick up his visa on the day the war started, to leave for a teaching job in Mexico. They all became instant refugees.

We have a serious problem with many of those trapped not having any cash.
Community Circle Home SA’s Hayley Reichert

The South Africans tell heartbreaking stories of how the border officials, even before Saturday’s skirmish at Medyka-Szeginie, would not allow any Ukrainian men between the ages of 16 and 60 to flee the country. They are considered fit to defend the country.

Shaun van Wyk (30), originally from Hartbeespoort in North West, his Ukrainian wife Yana and their five-year-old daughte, Taylor were among of the lucky ones who crammed everything they could fit into their car and drove to the nearest border the moment the Russian assault started.

He recalls how a father with his five small sons tried to cross the border but were turned back to face the war in their country instead.

“I was the first South African to make it, but we were just fortunate because we were at the border early. It still took us 22 hours to cover the last 4km. Our car was also fuelled up. When we left, the queues of cars stood for kilometres at the fuel stations.

“Our Ukrainian family, including a newborn baby, are still stuck on the other side. The men will probably also be turned back. At least the mother in the group can drive and will then proceed with the wives and children.

It still took us 22 hours to cover the last 4m. Our car was also fuelled up. When we left, the queues of cars stood for kilometres at the fuel stations.
Shaun van Wyk

“People leave their whole lives behind and without an idea where they will go. But Poland and its people opened their hearts and their homes to us. I never knew there were so many South Africans living in Poland. Whatever we might need — everyone is just so keen to help. 

“Even as we crossed the border into Poland, there were buses and people waiting to help anyone with whatever they might have needed. It was really heartwarming to feel so welcome. The South African expats will hopefully also be of help, as we only have a transit visa to be in Poland for 15 days. We will have to decide whether to wait or to go to another country.

On Saturday night cars were queueing for 60 to 80 hours at Medyka-Szeginie to get to Poland.
WAITING GAME On Saturday night cars were queueing for 60 to 80 hours at Medyka-Szeginie to get to Poland.
Image: Johan Nel

“We left our business, our home and everything behind in Ternopil (Ukraine). Because I am an IT programmer, most of my clients are based in the US. So, we drive in the morning and then stop so that I can work first. We have some dollars, but our Ukraine money depreciated tenfold, and nobody would accept it in Poland. 

“Our bigger problem is that I am paid for my work to my bank in the Ukraine and there is no way to access it. We will just take it easy for a day or two and then decide what to do.”

I had no idea where to go. I literally came to the crossing where I had to decide whether to go north towards the Polish border or south to Romania’s. When the guy behind me honked I turned left towards Odessa.
Lionel de Lange (56) from the organisation Warriors of Wildlife
Lionel de Lange before crossing the border to Romania. He returned to Ukraine to take a circus bear, who was being kept in a cage, to a Romanian sanctuary. She is currently being cared for until her safe passage can be arranged.
STUCK IN THE MIDDLE Lionel de Lange before crossing the border to Romania. He returned to Ukraine to take a circus bear, who was being kept in a cage, to a Romanian sanctuary. She is currently being cared for until her safe passage can be arranged.
Image: Supplied

Lionel de Lange (56) from the organisation Warriors of Wildlife-Ukraine (WOW) arrived in Kherson in the south of Ukraine to assist with the safe transportation of an old circus bear rescued from living in a cage. He touched down two days before the mighty Russian bear struck and fierce battles ensued when Russian forces entered the country from the southeast. 

Masha the bear was due to spend the rest of her life in a Romanian bear sanctuary, but the EU transportation was cancelled due to the closed borders. 

De Lange and his Ukrainian family had already moved to WOW’s sanctuary near Gqeberha in January when they relocated five rescued lions and a tiger to SA. He returned alone for Masha’s mission but was woken on Thursday by the sounds of the military assault. 

A fierce battle was fought for the control of a strategic access bridge at Kherson. By Friday De Lange took his rented car and decided to head for a border.

“I had no idea where to go. I literally came to the crossing where I had to decide whether to go north towards the Polish border or south to Romania’s. When the guy behind me honked I turned left towards Odessa. I was not allowed to cross the border to Moldova because I had left the rented car behind and was travelling on foot.”

A South African, Lionel de Lange, returned to Ukraine to take Masha to a Romanian sanctuary. She is currently being cared for until her safe passage can be arranged.
MASHA THE BEAR A South African, Lionel de Lange, returned to Ukraine to take Masha to a Romanian sanctuary. She is currently being cared for until her safe passage can be arranged.
Image: Supplied
I bought a bus ticket to the border but when I arrived at the bus station and saw the desperation amongst hundreds of mothers with children trying to find space on a bus, I gave up my ticket. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I had taken the seat of someone more in need.
Lionel de Lange (56) from the organisation Warriors of Wildlife

He finally got a lift and then travelled by taxi and walked to the first border crossing to Romania. He was allowed to cross as a South African because he had permanent residency in Ukraine.

“I bought a bus ticket to the border but when I arrived at the bus station and saw the desperation among hundreds of mothers with children trying to find space on a bus, I gave up my ticket. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I had taken the seat of someone more in need. At least I have a home to return to in SA. They are leaving their homes behind.”

De Lange said Masha the bear was safe and cared for and he would return later when the situation had normalised to get her to the sanctuary.

Johan Nel (25) from the Strand near Cape Town, an English teacher who has lived and worked in Europe for a few months, was another who almost made it through the border post at Medyka-Szeginie after walking some 17km.

He had problems with a visa to Mexico to take up a teacher’s post there while he was in Turkey. The only nearby city where he could access all the necessary embassies was Kiev, where he arrived on Tuesday last week.

“I was supposed to pick up my visa on Thursday but then the war started.”

I threw away half my clothes and we started walking.
Johan Nel, 25, from the Strand near Cape Town
Johan Nel from the Strand near Cape Town and Pakistani/British friend Murtaza Hameed walked to the Medyka-Szeginie border post. They were turned away just as they were about to cross to Poland when the Ukrainian border officials decided only to allow Ukrainian women and children through.
LONG WALK Johan Nel from the Strand near Cape Town and Pakistani/British friend Murtaza Hameed walked to the Medyka-Szeginie border post. They were turned away just as they were about to cross to Poland when the Ukrainian border officials decided only to allow Ukrainian women and children through.
Image: Supplied

Through Reichert’s group and after trying in vain to get a seat on a train or a bus, he and a Pakistani/British friend, Murtaza Hameed, walked and then paid $1,000 (R15,148) for a taxi to the Medyka-Szeginie border. When they saw the cars waiting for some 17km at the border, they decided to walk further.

“I threw away half my clothes and we started walking.”

At the last moment they were turned away by the border officials and had no option but to head back to Lviv, from where a bus is leaving on Monday. Once in Poland, he will pick up his visa at the Mexican embassy and then travel to Mexico to teach.

According to Reichert, the South African embassies in the region are trying their best to accommodate their fellow South Africans.

“But there are hundreds of students from elsewhere in Africa who are either stuck without money to get to the borders, or who are not allowed to cross once they get to the border posts.”

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