SA traveller’s 16 hour walk to escape Ukraine bombs

Johan Nel had to endure 50 hours without sleep, many of them spent walking, just to get to safety as bombs rained over the Ukraine.


Johan Nel, 25, left South Africa in October last year to tour the world and to eventually meet up with his parents in Istanbul, Turkey, to celebrate his birthday in January. A week after his parents left, Nel decided to continue his travelling adventure by going to the Ukraine. A decision he would come to regret this past week. Three weeks into his stay in the Ukraine, the young man from Strand, Cape Town, who taught English online for a Mexican school, got woken up in the early hours of the morning by the sounds of bomb sirens. Speaking to…

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Johan Nel, 25, left South Africa in October last year to tour the world and to eventually meet up with his parents in Istanbul, Turkey, to celebrate his birthday in January.

A week after his parents left, Nel decided to continue his travelling adventure by going to the Ukraine. A decision he would come to regret this past week.

Three weeks into his stay in the Ukraine, the young man from Strand, Cape Town, who taught English online for a Mexican school, got woken up in the early hours of the morning by the sounds of bomb sirens.

Speaking to The Citizen from Hungary’s capital Budapest, Nel shared the harrowing tale of how he managed to escape the Ukraine while dodging bombings, hitchhiking, and having to face a bit of discrimination because he “looks Russian”.

Day 1 – Russia attacks Ukraine

Nel’s main reason for heading to the Ukraine, beside travel, was because his Mexican work-visa application was unsuccessful in Istanbul due to a communication barrier with the official who had interviewed him.

“I went to Ukraine on a tourist visa. I left Istanbul for Kyiv to go and apply for my Mexican work visa because I am employed by a Mexican school and I have been working online for the past few months.”

But at 4:30 AM last Thursday morning, Nel said he got woken up by the sounds of bombing.

“I heard bomb sirens everywhere and I heard bombings, and I immediately knew what was going on. I tried to evacuate myself the first day but that was not possible because there was chaos. Trains were full, buses were full, taxi drivers charged thousands of dollars to take you to borders, so, it was impossible.”

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Day 2 – Nel finds an escape partner

After realising the evacuation process would be intense and required a strategy, Nel said he decided to remain at his apartment. Due to the looming Russia-Ukraine conflict, a group of foreigners had already started a group on Telegram to work together should Russia attack.

“I tried to leave again but I couldn’t get any trains or buses. So I stayed home.

“The South African embassy contacted me and told me to get to either Poland, Romania or Hungary. At that time, I am in this Telegram group, which was started to help each other in case a war started. I found a British-Pakistani national, Murtaza Hameed. He is alone, I am alone, so we decided on the third morning that we are going to meet up at the Volkzana metro station in the central of Kyiv.”

Day 3 – A 30 hour wait to reach the border

The pair met at the arranged location of the metro station but again, they struggled to leave, Nel said.

“Every ten minutes we would have to run for cover because bomb sirens would go off and Russian jets would fly over our heads. It was crazy.”

Nel and his newfound friend came up with a plan B. This would involve a taxi ride to the border. At the time, the taxi driver decided to charge them $1 000 for the trip. With the Ukranian currency, the Hryvnia, declining, the pair split the bill but ended up forking out more than expected.

“Now we had to pay the taxi driver 42 000 Hryvnias. But we paid him. It would normally take about seven to eight hours to get to the border of Poland but with all the traffic and everyone headed that way, it took us 22 hours instead. We had enough water and enough food but along the way, we had to give away our water and food to children, elderly women, and single mothers. We felt that we were young and healthy and they needed this more than we did.”

22 hours later, the pair arrived at the border. But their act of kindness left them stranded, as they arrived to a 30km queue of cars, waiting to cross the same border. After finding out they would have to wait between 70 and 90 hours to reach the border, Nel and his friend decided to rather walk the long distance.

Emptying their bags and throwing away their belongings to lighten their luggage, Nel and his friend started their 14-hour walk to the Polish border.

Sadly, the two lost each other along the way. Instead, Nel met two South African girls, who joined him on the long walk to safety until they reached the first check point – which he described as chaotic too.

He said some people had been camping at that border for three days and nights with no water, food, or toilets.

“There was discrimination and racism everywhere. The border police hit a Nigerian with a Kalashnikov in the face. They would cock the gun in front of you and point it in front of you, threatening you. I met up with two South African girls and we entered the first check-point. I had lost the British-Pakistani national, Murtaza.”

Johan Nel and his travel companion British-Pakistani national Murtaza Hameed on their way to the Polish border where they were stuck in a 30km queue. The pair however lost each other along the way. PICTURE: Supplied

After passing the first checkpoint and a two to three kilometre walk to the actual border, only women and children were allowed through. Nel told the girls to leave him behind.

“Their safety was important. One of them was injured in the hip because she was kicked by one of the Ukranian guards. Her leg was also injured, so I encouraged them to just go and leave me. But after nine hours of queuing and waiting, I decided to go back to the centre of Lviv since it is closer to the Polish border.”

Hitchhiking on his way there, he was picked up by ex-military Ukranian officials who were heading back into the country from Poland to help fight the conflict. Nel safely arrived in Lviv and received free accommodation for one night at a hotel owned by woman known by one of his friends.

By that time, he hadn’t slept for 50 hours.

After buying himself a decent nutritious meal, Nel said he had a good night’s rest in preparation for the fourth day of his journey.

Day 4 – Plans change as Nel now aims for Slovakia instead

Nel headed for the Lviv train station and there, he met a South African called Johnny. The pair teamed up but due to the chaos at the train station with the trains instead heading to the east of Ukraine where the Russians had occupied, again, they tried to take a taxi, this time to Uzhhorod, a city close to the Slovakian and Hungarian border.

“But the taxi driver was not willing to take us. Instead, he called a bus driver he knew who was headed theret, but that bus had already left. With my little knowledge of Russian and his little knowledge of English, we managed to communicate easily and he called the bus driver and told him he was going to go catch up with him.”

After finally boarding the bus, aggressive Ukranian soldiers inspected the passengers, but heavily questioned Nel’s nationality.

“At every border check point, three or four military officers checked my passport over and over again because, they said I look Russian. When they were on the bus, they were yelling, saying I should show them my passport. I had to tell them I am not Russian, even though I look Russian.”

The bus eventually took them to a train station in Uzhhorod, where they finally found a taxi to the border of Slovakia. But from all the walking, Nel had injured his hamstrings.

The medical team at the first check-point fortunately treated him with painkillers and rubbed pain-relieving cream on his legs. Nel and Johnny were put on a bus to the second check-point at the Slovakian border.

Johnny and Nel after arriving in Uzhhorod near the Hungarian border. PICTURE: Supplied

After a four to five hour wait, the two finally made it across the Slovakian border this past Monday.

“The people of Slovakia accepted us with open arms and welcomed us and it was great. We then took a train to Budapest and that is where Johnny and I are now. We are safe and feel safe and there are no worries about our safety any more. It is so hard to retell this story.”

Nel plans to return to South Africa to live with his brother in Pretoria or his sister in Cape Town.

“I am coming back to South Africa for a week to stay with my big brother and from there I will get my visa for Mexico.”

South Africans feel neglected by their government

Nel said the only help he received were from South African ambassadors to Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Austria.

“The government back home has done nothing to help us. They should stop lying to the South African media and saying they are helping us because they are not.

“We have South African students in the Ukraine who have been studying for four to five years and most of them don’t have funds because they are there on scholarships, but now universities are bombed. They have nowhere to go. They have now wasted four to five years of their lives for these studies and what is going to happen to them now?” said an irate Nel.

This sentiment was shared by the South African International Student Association (SAISA), which was founded by Tumisang Victoria Maheso, a student in Russia.

Speaking to The Citizen, she said she had sent letters every day to the department of international relations and cooperation but were instead referred to the South African embassy in Ukraine.

“They replied to my second letter. The response they gave me is that I must refer all my questions to Ambassador Groenewald, and it doesn’t make sense because he is one of the people stuck in Ukraine. My question now is what are they doing as SA government to help the ambassador to help the students in Ukraine?

“I have just decided to find other channels to get help and proper directions. We are trying to find assistance to have students to help the students academically because we don’t want to find ourselves with students who have to graduate going home with nothing to show.”

rorisangk@citizen.co.za

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