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South African Medical Students Return From War-Torn Ukraine

South African student Vutlhari Mtonga, center-left, who was evacuated from Ukraine following Russia's invasion of the country, is welcomed by her sister Mikateko Mtonga, on arrival at OR Tambo International Airport, in Johannesburg, South Africa, March 10

South African medical students, who were evacuated from Ukraine, are now looking for ways to complete their studies. South African universities are discussing options for the students, some of whom are still shaken by the attacks they witnessed and are fearful for teachers and classmates left behind.

Concerned students have already launched a “Save Our Studies” campaign with the goal of helping about 50 repatriated medical students find spots at South African universities.

Twenty-five-year-old Mandisa Malindisa, a fourth-year medical student who was studying at Kharkiv National Medical University, is one of those who wants to get placed.

Her studies were interrupted when Russian forces entered Ukraine in late February.

She says that after a few days of hearing bombs in Kharkiv, a city in northeastern Ukraine, she and five friends decided to flee by train to the Hungarian border.

The scene at the train station, she says, was pure chaos.

“Everybody’s losing their mind. Everybody’s trying to get on it. People have knives out. People are screaming. People are fighting. People are biting each other. You know, just trying to get onto this train. We looked, we were just watching. Cause we were like this is not our train. This train is going to Kyiv. This is not for us,” Malindisa recalled.

Eventually, a train that would take them to Lviv in western Ukraine did arrive, but much to their horror it stopped in Kyiv which they’d been hoping to avoid because it’s a high-risk area. They waited there for six hours.

“When we saw what Kyiv actually looks like, everything is just burning. There’s smoke. Everyone was just looking outside the window in just terror,” Malindisa said.

After 24 hours they reached Lviv and Malindisa made her way into Hungary, where she managed to book a flight home.

Sixth-year medical student Luphumlo Ntengu is also hoping to be able to continue his studies in South Africa. He was studying at Vinnytsia National Medical University in Ukraine. Safely home now in South Africa, he says he often thinks about those he left behind.

“Yes, I am very worried about my friends and my teacher you know. Ukraine has been my home for the past six years, they are like family to me. So, it’s so sad everything that is going on there. Right now, it feels like my own home that is being destroyed like that,” Ntengu said.

The chairperson of the South African Committee of Medical Deans, Professor Lionel Green-Thompson, confirmed that schools are discussing ways to help the repatriated students.

“Issues relating to students in the [sic] Ukraine have been brought to the attention of the South African Committee of Medical Deans. We have initiated conversations around this issue. The responses are complex and we continue to discuss these things,” Green-Thompson said.

But finding places may be problematic. The professor noted that many other South African students who returned due to the COVID-19 pandemic have also been seeking placement.