When Percy Ohene-Yeboah peered down from his high-rise apartment in the city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine on Thursday morning, the street below was clogged with traffic. People hurried along the sidewalks, wheeling suitcases behind them.
The Ghanaian engineering student went to a window on the other side and discovered why: Russian planes were flying low above the city, trying to evade missiles that rifled through the sky – a scene resembling one of his favourite video games, Call of Duty.
As reality dawned, and with nowhere to turn, the 24-year-old, packed a bag and ran to the nearest underground train station for shelter, one of thousands of African students stranded in Ukraine during a Russian invasion, with no idea of how to escape.
“In a situation like this, you’re on your own. You’ve got to find the best way to find refuge for yourself,” he told Reuters by phone from the basement of a church where he eventually settled on Thursday night.
Cities under siege across Ukraine are home to tens of thousands of African students studying medicine, engineering and military affairs. Morocco, Nigeria and Egypt are among the top 10 countries with foreign students in Ukraine, together supplying over 16,000 students, according to the education ministry. Thousands of Indian students are also trying to flee.
What was meant to be a cheaper alternative to studying in Western Europe or the United States has turned overnight into a war zone as Russian tanks, planes and ships launch the biggest European invasion of another nation since World War Two.
With flights grounded, African governments thousands of miles away are struggling to support their students. The students Reuters spoke to said they had had no help from home.
“It’s now that the reality is really hitting me,” said Ohene-Yeboah. “I think for me it’s a bit too late for evacuation and all those things.”
STAY PUT OR RUN
Ghana’s student presence in Ukraine is big enough for it to have a local union chapter. In the days before the invasion, the union sent reports about the situation to the government in Accra.
“They confirmed that they received things like that, but we never got any real reply to any of our concerns,” said Ohene-Yeboah.
Afraid of taking the road west, and without flights or money, he will stay put for now.
Others are on the move.
When Russian bombs began to fall near the capital Kyiv, 400 km (250 miles) west of Kharkiv, on Thursday morning, a group of Kenyan medical students decided to leave. They have been in touch with officials from their government, one of them said, but they must find their own way out of Ukraine.
The five students rushed to Kyiv’s train station on Friday morning in the hope of boarding a train to the western city of Lviv. From there, they aim to go over the border into Poland from where they can return home.
A spot on board the train is not guaranteed.
“It is really, really bad. Everyone is fleeing the city,” said one of the medical students, who asked not to be named.
She and her colleagues brought nothing with them in the rush, only vital documents.
“We can’t carry luggage. Luggage will make us lag behind.”
Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by Alison Williams