“Once Irpin [an outer suburb of Kyiv] fell in the hands of the advancing Russian army, I realised I had very little time left to get out of my apartment in Nyvky.”
Kobus Olivier, the CEO of Ukraine Cricket Federation (UCF), recalls the harrowing development that forced him to flee his apartment. An animal lover and an owner of four dogs, Olivier had been prepared to wait out the Russian invasion in his apartment with his beloved pets.
“I had bought plenty of canned food. Plus, I had barricaded all my windows with mattresses and blankets, just hoping for the best. The stress was killing me you know, because you are waiting and waiting, and you don’t know when they are coming. People told me that I am completely insane, but I just could not abandon my dogs.”
But as the fighting got closer and closer, he realised that staying put was no longer an option.
“Irpin is only 15 kilometres from where I was. Also, my apartment is right next to one of the big highways, which goes directly to the city centre. The Ukrainian military had mounted machine guns on the highway with manned checkpoints every 20 metres. Any Russian tanks advancing on the city would have to go past my apartment and heavy fighting would break out. I just could not afford to get caught in the middle of that.”
Leaving Kyiv for Poland
The ongoing war has unleashed scenes in Ukraine that the country hasn’t witnessed since the horrific days of the Nazi invasion in 1941. There is widespread carnage, buildings destroyed and millions of desperate and displaced people attempting to make their way to safety. As per the latest UN figures, the total number of refugees has already eclipsed 3 million.
Hoping to join the many Ukrainians packing out buses and trains in a bid to escape to neighbouring countries such as Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Moldova and Romania, Olivier quickly realised that a ride on public transport was not feasible with four dogs in tow. Fortunately, a friend came to his aid at the right time.
“Through a friend, I managed to find this local primary school football coach called Igor. He agreed to take me all the way to Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in Western Ukraine in return for a payment of $1,700 dollars. I departed with nothing more than a suitcase, a few bags and my four dogs.”
The 615 kms drive to the city, set in the foothills of the beautiful Carpathian Mountains, took ten hours and they had to pass through numerous checkpoints.
“All along the way, I saw roadblocks every 15 kms. We were stopped and checked at every one of these. The driver had to get out, open the boot. I had to show my passport and Ukrainian temporary residency documents at least 20 times through the entire journey. So you are very aware that you are in a war zone,” describes Olivier.
However, the South African’s stay in Ivano-Frankivsk was very brief.
“I stayed 3 days in a little school hostel there with six other families from Kharkiv. All the time, I was looking for a way out, to get across the border to Poland, as the only place where you are safe now is outside Ukraine,” he says. It turned out to be a wise decision indeed as mere days after his departure for Poland, the city’s airfield came under heavy attack from Russian airstrikes.
Indian students have a narrow escape in Kharkiv
As bad as Olivier’s experience was, it still paled in comparison to what many Indian students, who make up the bulk of Ukraine’s senior cricketers, went through in Kharkiv. Thousands were forced to take refuge in the city’s ornate subway station, which was being used as a makeshift bomb shelter.
“The first day the bombing started in Kharkiv, all the Indian students had to go into the subway station. They had a horrific experience; some Russian saboteurs entered the station and shot at the Ukrainian security forces guards looking after the sheltering civilians. Our media and promotions manager Zach, spent three days in the subway station with his wife and kid. Their food ran out on the last day. It was a frightening experience for them.”
While, the vast majority of the 18,000 students were eventually evacuated, many have alleged instances of racism by border guards who would often prioritise the passage of Ukrainian citizens over them. Often, they were prevented from boarding trains or subjected to extensive delays at border crossings. Olivier wonders if these Indian students will ever return and what impact it will have on the nation’s cricket landscape.
“It’s hard to say how many Indian students come back. I presume some will, especially the 4th and 5th year medical students who were close to finishing their degrees. But this could be a month, a year from now, nobody knows Putin’s timeframe. If Indian students keep coming, there will always be cricket in Ukraine.”
The conversation then turns to the state of the facilities and the fate of cricket in Ukraine.
“We haven’t been able to assess, nobody is walking around outside in Kharkiv. The fighting there still continues; I saw videos of tanks going through the city centre. Kharkiv has been hit with thousands of missiles, we simply don’t know whether our cricket oval is still there or if it has been completely destroyed. Even some of the university buildings were basically reduced to rubble. It’s very hard to guess what is going to happen in the future,” laments Olivier.
The uncertainty of the situation also threatens Ukraine’s pending ICC Associate membership application. Olivier sincerely hopes that ICC take a charitable stance on the matter, as the circumstances are beyond the UCF’s control.
“I am personally hoping that we are granted a form of provisional ICC membership, due to exceptional circumstances. Something they can review in 2 years’ time. Because that is the only way our cricket is going to survive. If we are able to become Associate members, we will receive funding and the ICC can assist us with facilities and coaches. Without it, we have nothing and the ongoing war could even bring about the end of Ukrainian cricket. We have worked so hard, what we need now is real support from the ICC, not just in terms of advice, but actual funding,” he says.
However, Olivier remains more optimistic on the junior cricket front. He is committed to continue his teaching job online at Astor School from his new residence in Warsaw. While, the cricket camps he was running before are no longer possible, Olivier states that he will continue to incorporate some cricket through his online English classes.
“One of the advantages of having gone through the COVID-19 experience, all the teachers and students are very familiar with the online Zoom school lessons. We are re-starting our online lessons from 1st of April. I can do some online cricket lessons for the kids, talk about the mental side, show them some videos of Jonty Rhodes.”
An Unexpected Message of Support
Ironically, the war has put Ukrainian cricket on the global map and provided them with an unprecedented level of exposure. Olivier’s story has been covered by multiple news outlets such as BBC, ESPNcricinfo, Hindustan Times, The Times of India, The Irish Times and News24.
“I still get daily requests to do interviews. Just trying to make the most of a difficult situation because Ukraine cricket will never receive this level of primetime coverage again,” he chuckles.
Olivier is also grateful at the widespread messages of support that he has received from various cricket associations around the world.
“I have received hundreds of messages of well wishes for Ukrainian cricket from just about every Associate cricket member you can think off. Uzbekistan, Malta, Poland; actually I am meeting the Polish cricket President this week. However the one I cherish the most was from from Mr Ashwani Chopra; the Russian Cricket president. He said that ‘wars should be fought on the cricket field, not off the field’.”
Now in Warsaw, Olivier just signed a 6-month lease for an apartment. He admits that returning to Kyiv may take a long time.
“I definitely hope to go back to Kyiv one day. My dad passed away in Kyiv; plus I love the culture, the history and the food there. But for the foreseeable future, Warsaw will be my new home.”
UPDATE: Since this article was published, the Polish government have changed a law which only allows Ukrainian passport holders in as refugees. So all non-citizens of Ukraine have been requested to leave Poland in 15 days. As Olivier only possessed an Ukrainian work visa, he will have to depart Poland to avoid getting classified as an illegal immigrant. Olivier will be making his way towards Croatia in the next couple of days.
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