Linda* left Nigeria for Ukraine in 2021 to pursue a medical degree at Sumy State University. Until February 24, 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Sumy was a peaceful place for her and hundreds of other Nigerian students studying there.
“The standard of living was comfortable. Everything was affordable and great for students,” she says.
Sumy, a city in north-eastern Ukraine, was one of the first to be attacked after Russian president, Vladimir Putin, ordered an invasion that had been feared for weeks. A confrontation between the invading force and Ukrainian defenders on February 24 led to the burning down of a church. Some of the fighting took place near Sumy State University where a Ukrainian military brigade is stationed. Russian forces were at some point reported to have taken control of half the city, but Ukrainians took it back on February 25.
Three days after the invasion started, Nigerians in Ukraine like Linda and her friend, Blessing*, are stuck in the middle of the chaos in Sumy.
They’re currently staying in an apartment they rented in the city, unable to get on the road to escape to neighbouring countries like others have done. We spoke with Linda about her situation on February 25, a few minutes after she left a bomb shelter she was hiding in for safety.
“Presently, our city is in danger. We’ve heard some bombing this night. People are running helter-skelter now and they’re very scared. Students are scared. There’s no way to escape or travel. We’ve received lots of messages from people telling us to go to Poland but the roads are not safe to travel. Russian soldiers are around and they’ve started fighting already.
“Students are scattered everywhere. There are four of us in my apartment. There are more students in the hostel and we even heard about gunshots and smoke around there this night. All of them are underground in the bomb shelters now. We messaged them, but won’t know what’s happening until later.”
“The situation here does not look so good because there’s no way to get out of the city. Most people don’t even have what to eat. Everyone is stuck here.”
“We eat once a day”
The Russian invasion has disrupted socio-economic activities, including banks that are now shut down, and ATMs that no longer function for people that need to withdraw money needed for survival. Linda’s saving grace is that she was saving some money for a new phone. She wasn’t able to buy it last week, and the money is what she now depends on to survive.
“We didn’t know this was going to happen. That’s the money I’m using to buy stuff to survive. I’m sure most students don’t have money on them. Shops are running out of food. They’ve closed down. You can’t even withdraw. Banks are closed.
“We can’t be eating anyhow. I eat once a day. I have to manage what I have. Other students, I don’t know if they have food but we’ve been trying our best to help others to share food. There’s nowhere to get money.”
Travelling is dangerous
Following an initial slow reaction to the crisis, the Nigerian government’s messaging is mostly now focused on telling Nigerians in Ukraine to run towards the borders.
Poland has been one of the most preferred destinations for Nigerians in Ukraine that are trying to escape the war. The two countries share a 332-mile long border. Travelling from Sumy to Rava-Ruska, a recommended border crossing into Poland, takes at least 12 hours under normal conditions.
Travelling there right now means passing through areas that are already under Russian attacks. This journey could now take an entire day, and possibly more if people are forced to walk. There have also been reports that Africans are not being prioritised for entry into Poland and even turned back into Ukraine.
Travelling is too unsafe for Linda to consider as an option:
“We just made up our minds that we’re not going anywhere because we don’t want the war that didn’t kill us while staying indoors to kill us on the way to a safe place. You just have to be careful. The Russian troops have harmed civilians and burnt houses.
“The Nigerian government should find a means to get us out of here. I saw the news that they told Russia to not touch their citizens. Please, does a bomb know the difference between citizens of whatever country?”
“We’re not trying to exaggerate. This is what we’re facing. We can’t just tell our parents because they’ll be so scared. My daddy messaged me that he heard the news and he had to get admitted. When he told me that, I stopped telling him things that are happening. I don’t want to hear anything bad from my parents. We’re praying to God to just stop everything.”
A desperate appeal
Not much of what the Nigerian government has said directly addresses people in Linda’s situation, especially other Nigerian students, like Blessing, that are with her. She wants that to change:
“We’re begging the Nigerian government to take necessary action. They should not keep quiet about it. They should help us because we’re actually stranded and stuck here in Sumy. How can we get to Poland when the roads are not safe? We can’t even sleep. We’re so scared.
“The Nigerian government should stop saying things they can’t do. They told us to form a group. We formed a Telegram group. We’ve been in many groups, no action. They told us to fill a form three weeks ago. We filled that form, but we don’t know where they put it. I’m so disappointed I’m from that country.”
The most definite position of the Nigerian government on those trapped in Ukraine is to stay put for things to calm down.
For Nigerians in Ukraine like Linda and Blessing, they will have to do that under constant threats to their lives.