Tears from South Africans caught up in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

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When she left for Ukraine earlier this week, Victoria Field had no idea she would be preparing to live in a now war-torn city. Never in her wildest dreams did she even think that her son would be called up to fight for the Ukrainian army.

Field, who lives in Gqeberha with her husband, left for her home country earlier this week. Ukraine has been besieged since Russian President Vladimir Putin started his invasion in the early hours of Thursday morning. Many countries have condemned the military attacks, but so far nobody is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Ukraine. World leaders from the G7 said they would impose the harshest sanctions on Russia, but that means very little to Ukranians, who are either hiding in underground railway stations or fleeing to neighbouring countries.

Field gathered food supplies, a fire extinguisher and oxygen masks for survival.

“My husband is very worried. We arrived at the airport on February 23 [Wednesday] and the war started in the early hours on Thursday. At 6am… a neighbour knocked on my door and said the war had started. We heard about a possible air attack, and people outside are expecting danger and they are hiding underground, under their homes. From my apartment, I can hear very heavy shelling, that is over another area [which] the Russians are trying to capture.”

She said that at the shops, where she stocked up on supplies, people were quiet and serious and there were no long queues.

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“Many were prepared and war is not new here, it was already going on for eight years.

“My son, 25, was serving as a soldier in the Ukrainian army a few years ago and he is an experienced soldier and is with family now and he is waiting on a call for mobilisation for services.“

Olena Polovchenko, who moved from the Ukraine to Cape Town six years ago, has told of how people prepared for what happened.

“I lost my home to the events of 2014, and what is happening in Ukraine is very similar to what happened in the past, just more open aggression. I have lived in South Africa for five-and-a-half years now. I was in complete shock, all of us deep inside knew this was coming since November. You could kind of see the plan, where everything was heading to. But we were just true believers and hoped it would never get this bad.”

She said her relatives in the Ukraine are living in a state of panic.

“We knew something was going to happen. I am in contact with my family and friends and trying to get all the latest information because there is so much fake news. People are running to the pharmacy and banks, I tried to do banking and Ukraine stopped international transfers. People can still draw money from the ATM and there are queues and many bank branches are closed. Schools have closed, kindergartens closed.”

Zoia Dei also lives in Cape Town and is very worried about her brother and other relatives.

“Early this morning, I woke up because my phone didn’t stop ringing. We are in almost constant contact with them. They talk about constant explosions, Russian tanks travelling around the city, the sounds of sirens and machine guns.”

President of the Ukrainian Association in South Africa (UASA) , Olesya Loubser, said their members were united here in support of all in Ukraine.

“We are a Ukrainian association in SA that unites Ukrainians living in this country, and works towards establishing ties and protecting democracy and sovereignty of the country. We condemn the attack of Russia on Ukraine.”

In a statement, the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) said the SA Embassy in Ukraine was assisting South African citizens there.

“The South African government calls for a peaceful resolution of the escalating conflict between the Russian Federation and Ukraine. The Republic of South Africa is dismayed at the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. We regret that the situation has deteriorated, despite calls for diplomacy to prevail. South Africa emphasizes respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states.”

Dirco added that SA calls on the UN Security Council to play its role in the search for peace.

“The South African Embassy in Kyiv is monitoring developments closely and is also assisting South African nationals in Ukraine.”

UASA held a peaceful protest outside the Russian Consulate in Cape Town, to add their voice to condemnation of Russia’s decision to recognise the separatist organisations of the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics”, saying such recognition was another act of aggression against Ukraine and its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Among the protesters was Ukrainian citizen Yana Semenyuk, who has been in South Africa for eight years and feels displaced as her friends and family seek refuge from the attack.

“I never thought I would live in an era where I see our nation go through such events. I only read books and now I see my family and friends looking for shelter and succumbing to harsh realities due to ambitious people in power,” said Semenyuk.

Mila Ivanova, a Russian citizen, offered her support to the protesters at the entrance of the Russian Consulate of Cape Town. Ivanova said that living in the 21st century, such atrocities should not have to happen again.

“This act of war is an atrocity and should not be happening in the 21st century. I feel for my Ukrainian friends and what they are going through. Having lived in a country where I see democracy play out okay, despite some challenges, I know there is room to make peace, all it needs is unity, and that is why I am here to offer my support,” said Ivanova.

UASA spokesperson Dzvinka Kachur called on the SA government to allow the families of Ukrainian citizens living in South Africa to be allowed to invite their families to come to the country, visa free, for the duration of the conflict.

“In a world that is still fighting poverty and facing climate change, it is quite sad that Putin still finds the place for ‘historical claims’ while there are bigger fishes to fry and greater battles to fight. That’s why we stand here today with Ukrainians around the world to defend and fight for the freedom of our homeland,” said Kachur.

By late yesterday afternoon, Al Jazeera was reporting that Russia and Ukraine had agreed to meet for talks in Minsk, Belarus.

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