Bombs, fear, iffy survival: The escape story of Ghanaian footballers in war-torn Ukraine

Over four million people have been displaced by the Russia-Ukraine conflict...

Photo Credit: Bernat Armangue/AP

Somewhere in Ukraine, little Vira stands helpless, hopeless and hapless – beside her even more dejected mother. At just two years of age, she probably isn’t aware of the carnage and blood being spilled within and outside the city.

Gently strapped in her diapers, her bareback visibly displays some characters. Those characters, written in blue ink, are contacts of family members transcribed on her back by her mother, in the hope that if she (mother) gets killed and Vira survives, her child would eventually end up with a relative where refuge would be guaranteed.

Around the same time, several kilometres away in the Poltava region of central Ukraine, Ghanaian footballer Najeeb Yakubu had just woken up to a text from his club, FC Vorskla Poltava. The message was straightforward: “Stay home!”


Najeeb, a former Ghana U17 national team player, was born in New Town, a suburb of Accra, but has been plying his trade in Ukraine over the last four years.

Since joining Vorskla Poltava in 2018, he has never seen anything like this. Confused and curious, the 21-year-old tried to get a better understanding of what was happening, and he would soon realise his worst fears.

“Nothing was working,” he told “No cars, no train, no bus, the banks are not working, the restaurants are not working.”

It was a weird day. The much-talked-about invasion of Ukraine by Russia had finally happened and, unfortunately for the defender, Poltava was one of the cities targeted. On February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin ordered the first strike and Ukraine has not known peace ever since.


Russia’s foremost bomb attack targeted Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, before separate explosions were recorded in other cities across the central European nation in the days that followed. The chaos of it all forced women, children and families to start fleeing the country.

Day after day, the various cities became depopulated; the ginormous civilian settlements steadily overtaken by armed Russian military on the streets.

Those who took off in the early days of the conflict managed to find their way to Poland and other safe countries to seek refuge. The latter-day escapees, however, weren’t so lucky.

Just like Najeeb, another Ghanaian footballer, Raymond Frimpong Owusu, was also taken by surprise at his base in Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. Born in Ghana’s Garden City of Kumasi, Frimpong only moved to Ukraine in 2021 after impressing at the Gold Coast Football Academy.

Having never witnessed a war in his life, the Zorya Luhansk forward initially took everything he saw in the news for granted.


“The conflict is happening in Kyiv, [and] I’m staying far away from that zone,” he thought. He would soon realise that his reasoning was utopia and as the deafening noise from exploding bombs drew nearer and nearer to his residence, he knew the situation was serious.

Terrified by the happenings around him, the 19-year-old decided to get out of Ukraine to preserve his life.

"I planned to stay in Ukraine,” Frimpong confessed to German tabloid Ruhr Nachrichten, “but then bombs began to fall, rockets exploded. I heard them with my own ears. The war came very close and I was scared. I decided to flee.”

Those who tried to leave Ukraine via Poland were met with several challenges, but it was the easiest way out of the war-torn country compared to other routes. Frimpong escaped to Germany via Poland by bus – a journey he describes as “scary.”


“The road to Germany took a lot of energy. It's scary, I've never seen war before,” the teenager said.

Frimpong was among those who got out of Ukraine early before the conflict escalated. At the time, not many people had resolved to leave the country, but when the cities got more and more dangerous to inhabit, the Polish border became a rowdy scene.

A Cameroonian footballer who plays in the amateur ranks in Dnipro said exploitation became the order of the day.

“Automatically, the transportation fare increased because those drivers saw it as an opportunity to make money. Four of us paid $200 for a distance of 71km. The drivers covered just 15km and abandoned us. We trekked 56km,” he told the Newframe on condition of anonymity.


“Security put Africans on one side and allowed just whites to cross. We were stranded at the border for one day. Some people for two days, some three days. The condition was unchanged. We had to return to the train station.”

According to him, racist treatment was also meted out to the Black people among the fleeing party, with White folk given preferential treatment. In his words, “we the Blacks were not allowed to sit in the train” and “we travelled from Lviv for 24 hours standing in very tight spaces,” adding that “they preferred giving seats to dogs rather than a Black guy.”

Similarly, a Nigerian medical student Jessica Orakpo, originally based in the western city of Ternopil, who was also trying to flee the warzone said she was forced to walk for several hours to the Polish border after the taxi she chartered to take her there spent two days in unmoving traffic, as hundreds of vehicles conveying escapees choked the highways.

Narrating her ordeal, Orakpo said being Black meant that she also faced discrimination and racism as she attempted to move towards safety.


“The term ‘walking’ is traumatizing me,” she told the BBC. “I walked for 12 good hours and it’s not an exaggeration. The traffic warden saw me and said I should go to the shelter to sleep.

“But when it was time to get on this bus, the Ukrainians said: ‘Just Ukraianins!’ Literally, as a Black person, I even lied that I was pregnant, they didn’t care. I was begging. The official literally looked me in the eye and said, in his language: ‘Only Ukrainians, that’s all.’ That if you’re Black, you should walk. And that was an additional eight hours from where we were. By car, it would’ve been a 30-minute journey.”

These were grim moments for all caught up in the skirmishes but, even among those trapped in Ukraine, there were levels to their suffering. Ukrainian footballer Taras Stepanenko had to improvise by borrowing a leaf from the war movies he had grown up watching.

He wasn’t even sure if his efforts would be enough but his family – a wife and three children – was looking up to him to do something and so he had to try anyway. Seeing the fright on their faces and the trepidation in their voices, the Shakhtar Donetsk captain hid them underground in his basement.

Stepanenko hoped his makeshift shelter would keep his family safe but then explosions began in the middle of the night. Thuds of artillery thundered from a distance and left his children, aged eight, seven and four, in a blue funk.


For a man who had featured against Real Madrid and Inter Milan just a few weeks earlier in the UEFA Champions League, his new reality – of going into hiding, of looking hopeless and powerless, of not knowing if he’ll ever play football again or have his family close by for one more night – left him fretting.

Unlike Najeeb and Frimpong who knew no one, though, Stepanenko was a community man, born and bred in Velyka Novosilka, near Donetsk. So he teamed up with a neighbour who had a gun and they both stood watch as quasi-snippers while hiding at a vantage point.

“If anyone came in, I had to be ready,” the footballer told The Athletic. “I only had a baseball bat. But if I saw somebody coming, I would put a message in our WhatsApp group and my neighbour would come with the gun.”

And that is how they got by that traumatic night, keeping watch in the biting cold, before fleeing their homes the next morning when the explosions subsided.


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “senseless war” following the growing number of casualties with each passing day.

But it is in such difficult times that the altruistic nature of humans comes to bear. Support began pouring in from far and near as the world sympathised with those stuck in Ukraine.

Najeeb’s case wasn’t that bad, though, despite all the roughness. He too wanted to flee, but he neither knew whom to seek help from nor where to go. That changed when he was contacted by Ghanaian journalist Fentuo Tahiru, and the footballer narrated his ordeal in Ukraine.

What started as a mere interview would become his ticket out of the country. When Fentuo spoke to the footballer, the journalist realised he was helpless and had no idea how he was going to leave Ukraine.


Touched by Najeeb’s sad story, the journalist got in touch with someone at the Ghana Mission in Bern, Switzerland, to help with his evacuation. Luckily, help came as Najeed and other Ghanaian students were moved to the Hungarian border. Once they were out of Ukraine, they felt safer.

Even better for Najeeb and his colleagues, the government of Ghana through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had also begun efforts to evacuate Ghanaians in Ukraine.

On March 1, 2022, five days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the first batch of Ghanaians evacuated from the country safely arrived at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra.

The irony, though, is that Najeeb was not on that flight. While in Prague, the 21-year-old defender opted to move to Germany to seek other opportunities rather than join his compatriots to Ghana.


Both Najeeb and Frimpong may have found themselves on different paths, but the comforting news is that they survived and the pair ultimately escaped war-torn Ukraine and avoided being added to the damning statistics of casualties of the conflict.

Others, though, weren't that lucky as many continue to stare death in the face while desperately trying to keep themselves and their families safe.

Thousands of women and children have been maimed as a result of the ongoing conflict, while over four million Ukrainians have fled the country as refugees – an unprecedented exodus in Europe since World War II.


The Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine says as many as 176 children have been killed and more than 324 injured. Two Ukrainian footballers Vitalii Sapylo (21) and Dmytro Martynenko (25) have also become football’s first losses in the conflict.

The scene at the various borders continues to be that of despair and misery, as thousands race against time to leave Ukraine. Families are being separated not only due to the excesses of the conflict, but also by a decree from the government forcing men who are 18 and above to stay back and contribute to Ukraine’s war effort.

Jordi Escura, a coaching staff of Ukraine’s women’s football team, was a witness to the devastation. Escura and the head coach of the team Lluis Cortes, both Spanish, left their hotel in Kyiv in a haste and travelled 21 hours in a car before taking a 12-hour train to arrive at the Poland border.

There, Escura said, he witnessed all manner of forlorn goodbyes as the men who were staying behind said adios to their families. There were tears as fathers hugged their children – some toddlers – and grasped their partners.


The howling and bawling from wives being separated from their husbands and sons was more palpable as minibuses conveyed them away. From sharing homes and waking up to hugs and kisses, the window pines of the moving cars were now the only means of contact with their loved ones. And the farther the minibuses drove away, the thinner that connection got until all that was left were broken hearts.

“Some parents hide the reality. But for the women, leaving behind their husbands, it was really hard," Escura told the Athletic. “I saw them saying goodbye at train stations, really not knowing if they will ever see the person they love again.

“Of course, Lluis and I were grateful to cross the border, but for refugees, this is not a happy moment. It is to leave their dads, their husbands, their properties, their schools, their belongings; you feel the sadness, the tears in their eyes, the pure anxiety. I just felt this immense sense of privilege. Simply because I have a different passport, I was able to leave.”


Meanwhile, several other footballers and athletes in Ukraine have their futures shrouded by uncertainty after the country’s topflight league was suspended indefinitely.

In March, FIFA ruled that the contracts of foreign footballers in Ukraine would be suspended until the end of the current season, effectively bestowing upon them free agent status so they can train with other clubs.

As of the time of filing this report, Najeeb hasn’t responded to texts about his exact whereabouts since deciding to head to Germany rather than return to Ghana.

Frimpong, though, has been training with Bundesliga giants Borussia Dortmund, who opened their doors to the Ghanaian upon his arrival in Germany as a refugee. Photos of the teenager training with the likes of Erling Haaland and Jude Bellingham recently went viral and the player himself couldn’t believe his luck.


From dealing with bombs, fear and iffy survival, the forward is rebuilding his football career in an environment that is conducive and free from the turbulence he witnessed during his last days in Ukraine.

“I was fleeing a war and now I'm training here at Borussia Dortmund,” Frimpong effused about his upturn in fortunes within a matter of days. “And I took a photo with Erling Haaland after training. That's crazy!"


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