- There was panic everywhere and there were long lines at shops as people tried to get provisions
KaHlatsi-Nontobeko Mdluli left Eswatini for Ukraine in 2017 to study medicine after completing her electronic engineering degree at the University of Eswatini (UNESWA). She couldn’t find a job and so she decided to continue with her studies.
She consulted her church and with the help of her pastor she applied and was accepted to the Vinnytsia National Medical University in 2016. The City of Vinnytsia is situated in central Ukraine, about 3hours from the capital Kyiv by speed train.
In 2017 Nontobeko started her journey as a medical student. She is now five years into her medical degree with just a year before she completes her studies. According to Nontobeko the “rumours of war” began as soon as she arrived when other colleagues were discussing their experience in the earlier conflict that occurred in 2014 when Russia had taken over the Crimea and Luhansk.
Rumours of war
With the passage of time especially towards the start of the 2021/2022 academic year, news started filtering in about the possible start of another war in Ukraine. “It all began as if the whole thing was a joke and something that would not actually happen. Many of our lecturers thought it was a political rhetoric on the part of the Russian President Vladimir Putin.”
Nontobeko continues “only two students from India left early while most of us just remained there. The main reason that made us stay was that the university didn’t communicate that there was a war on the horizon. In fact, there was always the danger that we would leave and then the war doesn’t occur and we would have compromised our academic opportunity.”
“Then on the 21, February,2022, the university then realised that the war was actually a reality and they informed us that we were free to return to our countries of origin. I had to communicate with my church and inform them that I needed a flight ticket in order to fly out of Ukraine. I had expected to leave on the 03, March,2022 but by 24 February 2022 the war had already started.”
“The start of the war brought everything to a standstill. Our flight tickets were cancelled and the train from Vinnytsia to Kyiv stopped operating. From that time there was a state of panic. We started buying food that would not go stale like biscuits and we had to stock up on bottled water because tap water is not consumed following the nuclear disaster that occurred in Chernobyl on 26 April 1986.”
“There was panic everywhere and there were long lines at shops as people tried to get provisions. Money was no longer accessible even at Automated Teller Machines (ATM’s). At about 06h00 on 25 February 2022 the first rocket struck Vinnytsia. The blast was so loud that everything shook like there was an earthquake.”
“At this point there were already some students from Eswatini in Ukraine who were planning and strategizing on what the best way to reach home could be. They were discussing the option of escaping to Poland but logistically it would take 12 hours to reach there by bus.”
However, Nontobeko decided that the best option for her would be to take the route to Romania on a bus that was scheduled to leave on the 26 February 2022. She says it was very fortunate that there was no drama enroute to Romania until they were approximately 20 Kilometres from the border. “At this point we found a terrible que of people who were attempting to flee to Romania. The distance seemed to be unbelievably long. I don’t believe that I have walked such along distance, even when I was attending the Umhlanga ceremony in my youth. “
“At the exit points, the congestion was unbearable. There were two exit gates, one was for Ukrainians and the other was for all other foreigners. The extent of the congestion was such that it took us up to sixteen hours to get through the border in freezing cold weather as Europe is still getting through the last days of its winter. At some point there was even a stampede as people were pushing while trying to get through. Many of the people were traumatised including us Emaswati. It was a very traumatic experience.”
“Once we reached Romania our struggle ceased. During the entire debacle we had been in constant communication with Eswatini’s Minister of Communication, Thuli Dladla via video call. In Romania she facilitated the transport, accommodation and meals. We were provided with everything that people escaping from war needed. I doubt the minister slept at all during the period because whenever we texted her, she would respond immediately. We taken to Bucharest at the expense of Eswatini’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs which provided all the provisions including our flight tickets to Sikhuphe airport.”
Right now, Nontobeko has resumed her studies online and is awaiting the end of the war so that she can return to Ukraine and retrieve her medical degree.