When she watches television and sees the fighting in Ukraine every day, Rose Binta Djiele cannot sleep. She knows that her son is there, trapped and endangered.
For a decade, Adrian Djiele has supported his parents in Cameroon by working as a sailor for a shipping company in the Ukrainian port city of Kherson. Then the war erupted, Russian troops captured the city and thousands of civilians were unable to reach safety.
“It is very difficult for all of us here,” Mr. Djiele said in a brief cellphone video that reached his parents in Cameroon last week. “All we want now is just to get out of this place.”
Kherson, a city of about 300,000 people, is facing a humanitarian catastrophe as its food and medical supplies run out, according to a Ukrainian government statement this week. It said the Russian army is blockading the city and preventing civilians from leaving.
Thousands of Africans have managed to flee from Ukraine since the war began, but at least 100 are reportedly still stranded in Kherson.
“How can we sleep, seeing the bombardments every time on television?” Ms. Djiele told The Globe and Mail from her home in the Cameroonian city of Douala.
“I have to be afraid, because my son is not safe. He is a family man. His family members who depend on him are deprived of everything. How is he surviving?”
Mr. Djiele, a 35-year-old father of three, has been living in an underground shelter for weeks with other Africans who appealed for help in the same cellphone video. They say they have only enough food for a single meal a day, and they often hear the terrifying noise of gunshots and shelling around the city. Their embassies have told them to wait, they say.
“We are scared, we are living in basements,” said Christophe, a student from Cameroon who did not give his surname, in another video appeal from Kherson on social media last week.
“Many of our friends are suffering from trauma – they cannot go outside,” he said. “The girls in this room are crying the whole night. We don’t have food, we don’t have water.”
The fate of the Cameroonians has sparked debate in their home country, where some are questioning whether their government has done as much as other African governments to help their citizens. Cameroonian media have accused the government of inaction.
In a series of statements since the war began, Cameroon’s authorities first urged their citizens in Ukraine to “follow the instructions of local authorities” and then called vaguely for a peaceful settlement of the war. Critics in Cameroon have voiced skepticism, noting that the government has been unable to settle an armed conflict in its own country for the past five years.
The government says the criticism undermines its efforts to help its stranded citizens. A deputy foreign minister, Felix Mbayu, said the government has organized video conferences to provide security advice to Cameroonians in Eastern Europe. Teams of diplomats have been dispatched to Ukraine’s borders and are working with international organizations and citizen associations to help Cameroonians leave Ukraine, he said.
Ms. Djiele said her family is in despair because Adrian has been their breadwinner and main support. He also pays the hospital bills of her husband, who has Parkinson’s disease.
When he heard that Adrian was trapped in Kherson, her husband’s health worsened and he refused to take any medicine for two days, she said. “He started asking himself how he will survive without Adrian,” Ms. Djiele said.
“We plead with government and international organizations to do something quickly and take our children out of Ukraine.”
Akim Victor, an African student who lives on the outskirts of Kherson, said the situation is deteriorating every day. “Some of us tried to escape the city, but the Russian army sent them back home,” he said in a video posted to Twitter last week.
“No supplies are coming into the city. At the moment we don’t have gas again. When there’s no gas, there’s no heating. We’re using firewood for heating and cooking in the house. I want to appeal to the international community to please come to our aid and help us get out of the city.”
Black Women for Black Lives, a volunteer group, has mobilized more than 50,000 names on a petition to help get African students out of Kherson.
Food supplies in the city’s shops are dwindling and prices are rising, the group said in the petition. “The students fear for their lives. ... A lot of them have not eaten in days and are starving; many report feeling suicidal.”
Russia and Ukraine must organize a humanitarian corridor and guarantee a safe exit for the students, the group said.
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