By BOB KARASHANI
A number of Tanzanians who were in Ukraine when the hostilities broke out had by early Wednesday managed to escape into neighbouring countries with some making it back home using their own means.
This came as the Tanzanian government continued to strategise on coordinated evacuation measures in partnership with other Southern Africa Development Cooperation (SADC) member states.
Four Tanzanian students in Ukraine landed at the Julius Nyerere International Airport on Wednesday afternoon and said they had been since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
Harriet Mhina, who was received by her parents and sister at the airport, said she joined other African students fleeing from their V.N. Karazin Kharkiv National University base near the Russian border northeast of the country on the same day the bombs started raining on the city of Kharkiv.
“The first bombs landed in the early hours of the morning and we could hear them. So we decided not to waste any time,” she said.
“We travelled by train across the country to the city of Lviv bordering Poland to the west, then my group took another train to the town of Chop near the Hungarian border.”
According to Mhina, Hungarian officials provided them with lodging and facilitated their safe passage back to Tanzania.
“What I won’t be able to forget about this experience is not being able to sleep for five days straight because of jitters… we were jumping at any loud sounds the whole time,” she said.
40 hours to safety
Speaking to Tanzania’s Azam television station from the Polish capital in Warsaw on Tuesday night, medical student Evance Liseki, from the same university, said he was among a group of about 20 Tanzanians who crossed the border into Poland after spending over 40 hours on the road from various parts of Ukraine.
Liseki said they had to walk the last 30 kilometres or so to circumvent a huge traffic queue along the road leading up to the border as Ukrainians and foreigners alike raced for safety.
“We had no problems getting exit and entry visas on both sides of the border. In Warsaw we have been received by voluntary NGOs who gave us food and lodging and we are quite comfortable here as I speak,” he added.
According to Liseki, government intervention to transport Tanzanians home from the immediate danger zone and its peripheries would be welcome, however, it would need to be efficiently coordinated as citizens used different borders to leave Ukraine and are currently scattered in various EU countries and cities.
“There are too many of us scattered in different countries after leaving Ukraine through different border points. We are in contact with Tanzanian embassies in Sweden and elsewhere around the region, but we are not gathered in one place and many of us have already made or are in the process of making their own arrangements to get back home,” he said.
Speaking in Dar es Salaam on Tuesday evening, Foreign Affairs Minister Liberata Mulamula said that the government was in discussions with SADC member states that have diplomatic missions in Poland, Romania and other countries bordering Ukraine on coordinating the safe evacuation of an estimated 300 Tanzanians from in and around the war zone.
“Most of the Tanzanians still in Ukraine are in Kharkiv, which is too close to the Russian border and therefore in the immediate line of fire. We have talked to both Poland and Romania but we are also liaising with our SADC partners who, unlike us, have embassies in those countries,” Ms Mulamula said.
She reiterated the government’s earlier call for Tanzanians, especially students in Ukraine, to stay calm, follow instructions from the authorities in their localities and avoid being “scared by what they may be seeing or hearing on social media and other online platforms.”
The Tanzanian embassy in Berlin, Germany, said it had agreed with authorities in Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia to allow Tanzanians fleeing Ukraine into those countries without restrictions.
The embassy said it had also opened a WhatsApp group under the name ‘Dharura (Emergency)-Watanzania Ukrn’ to facilitate easier communications with Tanzanians still in Ukraine.
While the embassy in Germany also represents Tanzanians in those four countries, the Tanzanian mission in Stockholm, Sweden, covers Ukraine. The hotline phone numbers +4915215117558 and +46720494576 have been set up for all Tanzanians still in Ukraine to send individual status reports regularly to both embassies.
Air Tanzania Managing Director Ladislaus Matindi said in Dar es Salaam that the national carrier was in discussions with the government and “other partners” for a workable evacuation plan despite airport blockades and airspace restrictions imposed in Ukraine since the conflict started.
“The restrictions don’t necessarily mean we can’t send a plane out there. The possibility still exists and we are now in the process of working out the modalities and other factors that might be involved,” Mr Matindi said.