Warm hugs and kisses on Thursday marked the emotional return of the first batch of 10 South African students evacuated from war-torn Ukraine, with most too overwhelmed to relive the trauma of being trapped in the troubled Eastern European country.
While nine dodged the battery of cameras and the phalanx of journalists gathered at the arrival terminal of OR Tambo International Airport to await the landing of Air France flight AF990 from Paris, 25-year-old senior medical student Vuthari Mtonga said she hadn’t expects to return home alive amid the Russian bombing of Ukraine.
“At one point I didn’t expect to come back alive. I didn’t think we would make it, but thank God the Holy Spirit is such a great help,” Mtonga said.
“Our ambassador has facilitated us to get out of the border of Hungary and Ukraine. It is such a difficult repatriation in a dangerous situation – people have to get to the border under their own power.
“I came from a dangerous area of Kharkov, where the bombs are currently taking place. It was all up to us to take ourselves to the border,” Mtonga added.
She avoided answering questions about her personal experience, saying, “I’m still traumatized by the whole experience. What I’m interested in is how South Africa can help Ukraine in this moment of crisis. How do we help the people there?
“People are being killed. I know people who have been murdered. People are being targeted – it’s a very serious situation. How can we help bring peace to that country?
“I am interested in how Ukraine can be turned into a place of security,” she said.
Mtonga’s cousin, Tinyiko Malubana, held green and red balloons and told reporters, “It’s overwhelming. I’m excited to have her home. We just thank God that she’s finally home after studying medicine in Ukraine for five years.” .
“We kept in touch with her and the whole family was concerned, and everyone prayed for her safety.”
Aspen Pharmacare – Africa’s largest pharmaceutical company – has partnered with the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation to assist with the emergency evacuation of South African students who have studied at various universities in Ukraine.
With no means of returning home, students have crossed over to neighboring countries such as Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.
Stavros Nicolaou, Aspen Group’s senior executive for strategic trade, said: “Today is a very significant moment for us as it shows the goodwill and Ubuntu of the people of South Africa. “There can be nothing worse than being stranded in a country abroad without your family, loved ones – facing an uncertain future.
“We have heard from the students and you can see that they are extremely traumatized – overwhelmed by the opportunity. “One of them has described the horrors of war.
“She said people were dying left, right and center.”
The ministry’s deputy director-general Clayson Monyela said South Africa was advocating peaceful dialogue to end the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
“We are quite encouraged that the two sides have started talking, with Russia’s foreign minister meeting his Ukrainian counterpart.”
He expected the next group of students to arrive in South Africa next week, “subject to available flights”.
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