Tunis, Tunisia – Tunisian students caught up in the Russia-Ukraine war have given harrowing accounts of fleeing the fighting while leaving behind the lives they worked hard to build for years.
A flight to bring home 73 members of the Tunisian expatriate community in Ukraine returned this week. Operated by Tunisair, it was the fourth evacuation flight organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to fly out trapped Tunisian citizens since the Russian invasion of Ukraine started on February 24.
Last week, an army aircraft flew 106 people back to the capital, Tunis, and another two planes repatriated a total of 327 in just one day.
Tarek Aloui, the head of a Tunisian community organisation in Ukraine, estimated 75 percent of nationals had been repatriated so far. More than 1,500 Tunisians were living in Ukraine when the war broke out.
“Until the last moments before I escaped from Ukraine, I really thought the war would end soon and I would stay there,” Omar Abidi, 25, from the coastal town of Sousse, told Al Jazeera.
He returned to his homeland last week, leaving the city of Dnipro in central Ukraine, where he was in his fifth year studying medicine.
In the early hours of February 24, while he was sleeping, Abidi said, he heard a loud explosion as Russia attacked Ukraine.
“By 5am local time, I saw everyone out in the street panicking, queueing at cash machines, getting food and medicines,” he recounted. “Grocery shops were running out of basic items quickly, many of us couldn’t find bread or water even.”
With the start of the war, he left his apartment to stay with his girlfriend and a few other students in one flat, to stick together and be ready to help each other.
“We were sitting in front of the TV watching the news, smoking shisha, playing PlayStation, chatting, taking our minds off what was happening,” Abidi said. “We were just trying to be positive while keeping alert.”
The students slept with their clothes on, with the flat entrance door open in case they had to rush out to take refuge in air raid shelters.
The group coordinated with almost 250 other Tunisians through the help of Tunisian doctor Nadhem Bahri, who organised their evacuation on five buses, each carrying about 50 students. Bahri is the director of Dnipro Service, an educational agency that has been helping students from North Africa to apply to universities in Ukraine.
Initially, they headed to neighbouring Poland, but the buses had to be rerouted after air raid sirens went off in Vinnytsia, a central city, which they were going to pass through, and made their way to Romania instead.
At the end of an exhausting 30-hour bus journey, the Tunisians had to walk 55km (34 miles) with their luggage to reach the Romanian border post. Volunteers sent by Tunisia’s embassy in Romania were at the border crossing to receive the incoming students, offering them hot drinks, food and blankets.
Abidi spent only a few hours on Romanian soil until he embarked on his repatriation flight.
‘Didn’t believe it was real’
Fakher Ayed, 32, from Sousse, had established himself in Kyiv as a pharmacist after seven years of studying and five years of his business. Living a stable, rewarding life alongside his wife Olfa, 25, now six months pregnant, he did not imagine they would be forced to leave Ukraine as Russian troops assaulted the country.
“In the first two days of conflict, I didn’t believe it was real. I was convinced it was just political issues and everything would be OK,” Ayed told Al Jazeera, days after he drove into a Romanian town 35km (22 miles) from the border with Ukraine.
As hostilities approached the capital, Ayed and Olfa became afraid, grabbed food supplies, and went to stay at a friend’s house in Bila Tserkov, 30km (19 miles) from Kyiv. They watched the news constantly, hoping the war would be over soon and they could go back to Kyiv.
It was the second night there, after the sound of a bomb blast was heard nearby, when he felt it was too unsafe to remain in the country.
“I began to fear for our lives. I felt the time had to come to escape. I had to bring my wife and our [unborn] baby to safety. That was my only thought,” the 32-year-old recalled.
After gathering information from friends who fled recently, Ayed stocked up on petrol and food and set off. Along with two other Arab families, Libyan and Jordanian, the Tunisian couple left in two cars bound for Romania on a 10-hour drive.
Once they got through to the other side of the border, the two Tunisians found the staff from the Tunisian embassy in Bucharest giving assistance before flying home.
‘We didn’t know what to do’
“It was really frightening, I never thought I would experience a war,” Arij Nada Zayter, a 25-year-old student in her sixth year of medicine, told Al Jazeera. She fled the seaport city of Odesa, on Ukraine’s southern coast, before returning to Tunisia, and is currently in her hometown Bizerte, in the north.
When a bombing woke her up one morning, friends and family called shortly after telling her to leave. But she found out all airports were closed. She rushed with six other friends to one flat to stay as a group, and three others joined soon after.
“We didn’t know what to do, staying until airports would reopen or getting out of the country? We wondered if we were going to live or die,” Zayter said.
The following night, the 10 moved down into the basement of a Ukrainian neighbour. Amine Smeti, a member of the crisis unit set up by Tunisia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called the group to instruct them on how to make their way out.
A Syrian doctor, one contact representing Arab university students in Odesa, took the initiative to arrange cars to transport dozens of students close to the Moldovan border. From there, they walked for 5km (3 miles) to reach the crossing. They boarded a bus to a student accommodation three hours away to spend the night, and were taken to Romania before flying to Tunis.
“Leaving my flat in Odesa and my Ukrainian friends made me really sad,” Zayter said, her voice full of emotion. “I have passed through the best and worst times of my life there.”
Smeti assisted about 230 Tunisians trapped in the conflict zone and others scattered across different European countries.
“Currently, we’re facing logistical problems in rescuing a handful of nationals trapped in Sumy,” he told Al Jazeera. “The big problem we’re having is how to guarantee humanitarian corridors to evacuate people safely when the ceasefire is being violated.”
Thirteen Tunisian nationals escaped Sumy on Tuesday and arrived safely in Poland.
Like other evacuated Tunisian students, Zayter said, she is worried about her future and wondering if she will manage to obtain the degree she had to abandon.
“I was supposed to graduate in three months. I’m now waiting for a call from the university administration to know what I should do about my studies,” the undergraduate said.
Fellow student Abidi also shared similar concerns. “I can’t be happy right now, I have friends who are still stuck there. I can’t imagine what they’re passing through.”
Ayed expressed his anger at his predicament. “I’ve lost so much after 12 years: my business, money, life. Our home is there,” said the pharmacist.