They moved to Kherson, Ukraine, to study. Now they live under Russian occupation

The students told CNN they spend most of their time in underground bunkers in freezing temperatures as Russian soldiers prevent anyone from entering or leaving Kherson.

Many of the students fear the repercussions of speaking out in the media and have asked CNN to withhold their full names for fears for their safety.

“We live in a nightmare. We don’t live, we survive,” Christophe, a first-year student from Cameroon who lives in Kherson, told CNN. “The only hope … right now is when you sleep, when you can sleep. You hope that tomorrow someone will tell you that you are being evacuated.”

He added: “We are students. We came here to study. We didn’t come for that. And now you see that most of your friends who lived in other cities have left. You are not in this situation. As you can imagine, our families call us every day like, ‘Please tell me there’s something new.’ What can I tell them?”

The 23-year-old said the Cameroonian embassy in Ukraine did not reply to him even though he got in touch. After trying others in Europe, the only embassy that answered his call for help was in Germany.

“You said we’d heard from you. We’re working on it and that’s all.” He says he hasn’t heard from the embassy since.

“We’re not asking for anything special. We’re asking for your help,” he said.
Cameroon’s embassy in Germany told CNN in an email that it was working on getting the students out of Kherson, “but it’s very difficult at the moment.”

Christophe and some of his fellow students have also publicly asked for help in videos on Twitter.

Routes from Kherson are full of dangers and difficulties. Nigerian national Akinyemi studied in Ukraine. Today he lives in Tyahynka, a small village less than an hour outside of Kherson, and works as a seaman.

He recalls that those who tried to flee the city turned back at the sight of Russian military equipment.

Despite the risk, some students have tried to escape – without much success.

“We formed a group and found that practically everyone is still here. So far only one guy I know has managed to walk. No other students left. Almost 100% are still here,” Akinyemi told CNN.

The young graduate has lived in Ukraine since 2016 and describes a terrifying life in the shadow of a fierce Russian military presence. “[Russia] moves their military equipment almost every day. There are many checkpoints manned by soldiers,” he said.

“The Russian military in the village here told us that you can tie something white on your left hand and go anywhere, but only with your passport,” he said.

“The shops are dry. We’ve already bought everything… and [are] Using firewood for cooking,” Akinyemi said.

“The experience is traumatic. Even with the sound of the door, I think it’s the sound of a gunshot or something,” he said. “[In the bunker]there’s no internet, so there’s no way to keep in touch with our families back home so they’re not worried.”

Akinyemi believes the solution for students stuck in and around Kherson is simple: “We need all possible means to create a green corridor for Kherson region, like they did with Sumy.” Between March 8 and 10, all civilians were able to leave the northeastern city of Sumy via evacuation corridors.

Students like Akinyemi and Christophe want Ukrainian and African government officials to hold similar negotiations for the safe exit of all civilians from Kherson.

Nigeria has so far evacuated more than 1,500 students from Ukraine, according to the Nigerians in the Diaspora Commissiona federal agency.
Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama said in a tweet on March 13 that he has been in contact with his country’s ambassadors to Ukraine and Russia as they are “involving the Russian and Indian governments and NGOs to safely evacuate about 80 Nigerian maritime students in Kherson, southern Ukraine.” India also has a large number of students in Ukraine and has evacuated its own nationals.
Onyama also wrote that he spoke phoned a Nigerian student leader in Kherson “to convince him of positive developments.”

Desperate for a way out

Hyacinthe, a master’s student from Ivory Coast, said he was playing basketball in the street when he first saw the Russian military invade Kherson on February 24.

“We heard people start running and we heard shots,” he told CNN in a phone call.

Hyacinthe made desperate efforts to get out of the city, only to find that there were no trains, buses, or taxis as the city was surrounded.

Taxis that would make the journey charged up to 500 euros per person, he said. A proud price for students.

“We called a couple of taxis and they said they can come and pick us up [up] but it was very expensive. Each of us would pay 500 euros per person. We don’t have that money. To this day we just call and try to find a way to leave Kherson.”

Hyacinthe told CNN that just a day earlier, some Egyptian and Lebanese students paid the sum to take a taxi from Kherson via Crimea, hoping to get to Russia.

Her progress is unknown. Some students have even tried to get out of town on foot.

“When they got to the Kherson border, they met the Russian army. They told them that we cannot allow you to leave the city without a special agreement,” he said.

'Help us, we're stranded': International students say they're trapped in north-eastern Ukraine

The 29-year-old said he knew about 60 other foreign students still in Kherson, who came from countries including Nigeria, Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Tunisia.

He has lived in Ukraine for four years and says the country is a popular choice for students because of its affordable tuition.

Under Russian occupation, residents of Kherson report seeing armed Russian men going door to door, checking passports and asking for guests’ phone numbers amid mounting protests.

Hyacinthe describes the resilience he’s seen among Ukrainians in Kherson: “When they meet Russian troops, they start screaming and protesting, ‘This is Ukraine!'” he said.

Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets on Sunday, waving Ukrainian flags and chanting anti-Russian slogans.

“They Always Shoot”

The sounds of helicopters and gunfire have become commonplace in Kherson. “It’s like no man’s land outside. It’s very quiet and everyone is scared. You have to move very quickly because we don’t know when [fighting] will begin,” said Hyacinthe. “They’re always shooting, every day, every night — especially at night. Two days ago we were without electricity, internet and network,” he added.

“Right now we need a diplomatic vehicle to pick us up without risk. We’re scared because they say it’s not safe,” Hyacinthe said.

For these foreign students in Kherson, they say that they support each other by sharing everything they have. “We always share our stuff, that’s the African mentality. If anyone has something like bread or eggs or oil, let’s have some omelettes and eat together,” Hyacinthe said.

“We are brothers no matter where you are from or what country you are from. That’s how we survive here.”

This story has been updated to include the response from the Cameroonian Embassy in Germany. They moved to Kherson, Ukraine, to study. Now they live under Russian occupation

Charles Jones

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