Israeli Arab passengers arriving from Ukraine via the border with Romania on an Israeli ‚Israir‘ rescue flight are welcomed by their family upon arrival at Israel‘s Ben Gurion airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, on 1 March 2022

Ukraine conflict
Israelis, Arabs, Iranians in harrowing exodus from Ukraine

Israelis, Arabs and Iranians are landing back in their home countries to the tearful relief of relatives, as evacuations of nationals caught up in the Russian invasion of Ukraine gather pace. The Middle Eastern evacuees have been forced to make harrowing escapes through the war zone to board repatriation flights in neighbouring countries, after Ukraine closed its airspace to civilian traffic at the start of the invasion.

One of the first flights, bringing home Israeli evacuees, landed at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv from Romania. Badr Tawil, 23, a student who fled Ukraine's under-fire second city Kharkiv, said he had escaped chaos. "We just woke up once and we heard the sounds around us. Bombs everywhere," he said. "So we decided to leave, just to leave Ukraine."

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Monday his office had helped 4,000 Israelis flee Ukraine since Russia invaded. "We will do everything to not leave any Israeli behind, or any Jew behind," he told journalists.

Many of the Israelis repatriated on Tuesday were members of the Arab minority, who make up 20 percent of the Jewish state's population.

A student, who identified himself only as Hussein, described a terrifying escape. "For four days, we have been sleeping in staircases and train stations," he said.  "We had a really difficult time without food. I was in Ukraine in Kharkiv. It is the last year of my studies, but now I left everything to return."

Uda Abu Saied, whose son Muhammad returned on the flight, said she had been terrified about his safety.  "I wasn't sure if my son would return or not," she said. "He was in the most dangerous place. They went on their own with the bus for 24 hours, and I imagined all kinds of scenarios like a missile hitting and killing them, or maybe that they would get captured."

Family members wait for the arrival of Israeli Arab passengers arriving from Ukraine via the border with Romania on an Israeli ‚Israir‘ rescue flight at Israel‘s Ben Gurion airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, on 1 March 2022 (photo: JACK GUEZ / AFP)
Relatives at Ben Gurion airport wait for a glimpse of their loved ones: Uda Abu Saied, whose son Muhammad returned on the flight, said she had been terrified about his safety. "I wasn't sure if my son would return or not," she said. "He was in the most dangerous place. They went on their own with the bus for 24 hours, and I imagined all kinds of scenarios like a missile hitting and killing them, or maybe that they would get captured"

The foreign ministry said on Monday that one Israeli had been killed in Ukraine, when the convoy he was travelling in came under fire as he tried to reach neighbouring Moldova.

Iran's state media said a first repatriation flight carrying 100 students and other nationals fleeing Ukraine landed in Tehran from Poland at around 7:00 am (0330 GMT). They included at least one family with a child, television footage from the arrivals hall showed.

"We went through a nightmare"

More than 10,000 Arab students have also attended university in Ukraine, drawn to the former Soviet republic by its low cost of living.

In Tunis, a group of 106 Tunisian students and a baby arrived on a special repatriation flight by military aircraft from the Romanian capital Bucharest. In emotional scenes, they were welcomed by relatives. Foreign Minister Othman Jarandi, who was at the airport, said a further 480 Tunisian students would be repatriated in the coming days via Romania or Poland.

"We went through a nightmare, through a war," said engineering student Aymen Badri.

Fellow engineering student Hamdi Boussaa said the situation inside Ukraine had escalated very quickly. "At first, we told each other that we couldn't just leave and abandon everything. But on the second day... we began to be afraid. Our families and friends were worried and that made us worry."

Boussaa's mother, Hejer Boukabeba, said she was happy to see her son safe and sound. "I am happy for all those who have managed to return home and I hope all our children will be able to be repatriated," she said.

A student (R) evacuated from Ukraine is embraced by her relative upon her arrival at the Tunis-Carthage airport on 1 March 2022 (photo: FETHI BELAID / AFP)
Home at last: in Tunis, a group of 106 Tunisian students and a baby arrived on a special repatriation flight by military aircraft from the Romanian capital Bucharest. In emotional scenes, they were welcomed by relatives. Foreign Minister Othman Jarandi, who was at the airport, said a further 480 Tunisian students would be repatriated in the coming days via Romania or Poland

Other Arab governments are also planning repatriation flights.

Morocco, which has around 8,000 students enrolled in Ukrainian universities, said it was organising special flights from Bucharest, Budapest and Warsaw on Wednesday and Thursday. Evacuees will be charged 750 dirhams (70 euros) per head for the one-way trip to Casablanca.

Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, has 6,000 citizens in Ukraine, more than half of whom are students in Kharkiv. An Egyptair plane was heading to Bucharest Tuesday afternoon "to repatriate Egyptian students in Romania," government spokesman Nader Saad said.

The Palestinian foreign ministry said it was scrambling to assist about 2,600 nationals trapped in Ukraine, hundreds of them students.

Jordan's foreign ministry said 415 of its nationals had made it out of Ukraine over the past few days.

More than 660,000 people have fled Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion last week, the UN refugee agency said on Tuesday.    (AFP)

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