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War in Ukraine: the shattered dreams of African footballers forced to flee

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From Ukraine, Jonathan B. (he did not wish to give his full identity), 20 years old, prefers to keep the memory of happy days. The walks in the park with his girlfriend, the laughter and the arguments around large tables in the canteen of the football club. And even the borscht soup he had come to appreciate. “We loved quietly”, he repeats, still dazed by the dramatic turn his life has taken in a few days.

The Ivorian footballer, spotted in the alleys of a popular district of Abidjan by a Cameroonian agent, arrived in January 2020 at Metalist 1925 Kharkiv, a professional football club in Ukraine’s second largest city. He was playing in the reserve of the under-19 category with whom he won the Ukrainian Cup in 2021.

The midfielder had his life saved, but he is not resigned to this war that he ” do not understand “ and which put an abrupt halt to his career plans. “On February 24, I was supposed to sign a contract with a new professional club, Real Pharma in Odessa. My manager had arranged everything. Instead, that day, it was the bombings at Kharkiv airport that woke me up,” he says, from a hotel in the north of Paris where he visits a club teammate, Mouhamed Zidane Diarrassouba, 17, also arrived from Ukraine.

“We paid to save our lives”

The reunion between the two players is good child: there is little question of these nights and these days of terror. However, the exodus from Kharkiv until the 19and arrondissement of Paris was long and painful. First there was the misunderstanding on February 24, at dawn. “When the shelling started, I thought the Russians wanted to scare the Ukrainians. I was really scared when Ukrainian soldiers moved into the football academy where I was living in boarding school. Their tanks were parked outside. The site could become a target,” says Jonathan B.

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The young man takes refuge with the club’s cook for a few days and then decides to leave. At the Kharkiv station, he [se] glue » to four African students who are also trying to flee. ” An agent refused us access to the train for no reason. Except maybe our skin color. We waited for eighteen hours in freezing cold before a policeman took us on board, in exchange for 300 dollars [270 euros]. We paid to save our lives “, he reports, still angry.

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