Attack on Ukraine: The escape of Kobus Olivier
Ukraine Cricket Federation CEO Kobus Olivier survived five days in his Kyiv apartment while the city was being bombed, before escaping to Poland. Here’s his story
“Have you heard the sound of death?” asks Kobus Olivier with a phlegmatic smile. “I have. And it is not pretty.” Ensconced in a “comfortable, spacious country house” in Poland’s Glowno village —about 100 km from Warsaw—the escape of Ukraine Cricket Federation CEO from his war-ravaged country is finally complete. Olivier now has the perspective and perspicuity to revisit the days when he was a sitting duck for the Russian bombs.
It began on February 24. Olivier, an early riser, stepped out of his building at 5 am to walk his four dogs when he heard what he calls “the sound of death.” The first Russian bomb had been dropped, and the South African knew the war had begun.
“It was nothing I had ever heard before, and I don’t wish to hear it again. I don’t wish it even on my worst enemies,” he says. Olivier was mentally prepared though.
“I had some SOPs ready. I was barely out of my apartment block when I heard that first explosion. It was eerie. Not many people are up that early. It was quiet, dark and cold, and suddenly there was this massive explosion. It was straight out of your worst nightmare.”
Olivier ran back into the building, took the elevator to his seventh-floor flat and blocked the windows with mattresses to stop shards of glass from flying in. He then took his dogs Tickey, Oliie, Kaya and Jessie to the washroom and waited for the bombings to stop.
“There must have been more than ten explosions, one after another. The sky was lit up in a shade of orange and yellow, one could see plumes of smoke at a distance. I knew some strategic military infrastructure had been hit.”
Olivier doesn’t tell how long he was holed up in his washroom—“I have lost sense of time. I must have been there for 4-5 nights at least”. But he remembers frenetic calls from friends across the world. He remained calm.
Preparing for the attack
“I knew this was coming; I emptied my bank account and changed the money to dollars. I stocked provisions to last a month. I purchased dog food, dried fruits and other ready-to-eat foods that don’t need cooking so that I was not dependent on electricity supply to warm the food or cook.”
Olivier’s planning was in sharp contrast to the nonchalance of a majority of disbelieving Ukrainians who never thought an invasion can happen. In the days preceding the attack, the South African would go about warning people of a strike, but was never taken seriously.
“I feel neither the Ukrainian government nor the people anticipated this. When I tried to warn people, I was ridiculed or labelled a Western propagandist. The fact is, not a lot of Ukrainians speak or understand English, so they don’t watch international media. The local media kept saying Russia was bluffing, while organisations such as BBC and CNN claimed the opposite. Having travelled the world, I could gauge which information was correct and so I planned for such a thing.
“However, nothing can prepare you for the war. The bombs, missiles and fire are real,” said Olivier, who doubles up as Director of the Astor chain of schools in Ukraine. An administrator who also teaches spoken English, he is credited with building a junior cricket programme in Ukraine.
Cricket, understandably, was the last thing on his mind as hours melted into days in his washroom. Soon, the Ukrainian government imposed a curfew, issuing shoot-at-sight orders.
“I would go into the rooms or kitchen briefly, just to get something to eat or drink. The dogs need to be walked, so I would walk them around the house and return to the bathroom as soon as I was done.”
It wasn’t long before the air-raid sirens started to go off. Olivier recalls the sirens to be sporadic at the start, but as the Russian attack intensified, they were heard regularly, sometimes nine-ten times a day.
“It was horrific. It was like a call to die. I began to think, ‘what if a bomb lands on my apartment, what if a rocket hits my house?’”
At night, the residents would move to the double-storey basement parking that served as a bomb shelter. There was barely enough space to accommodate the families, and none for Olivier’s pets.
“I decided to stay put in my washroom, with my dogs. No way I was abandoning them. I had come to Ukraine with them and decided I would leave with them. I know they wouldn’t abandon me either.”
That meant Olivier would spend the nights alone in the building.
“It was frightening, to be honest. Imagine being alone in a 13-floor building. There was a war being fought just outside. I could barely sleep. My body clock went haywire. I lost my appetite. One day, I suddenly started feeling dizzy. That’s when I realised I hadn’t eaten in two days.”
Lift to flee city
Few days later, the government relaxed the curfew, opening a five-hour window for people to buy essential goods. Olivier went to a “huge, huge supermarket” only to realise it was bone dry. “There was a very long queue outside, and as soon as they opened, the items flew off the rack. I managed to get in after waiting for an hour, and there was no milk, bread, nothing.”
Olivier went back to his apartment. A few calls later, an unknown football coach agreed to drive him to Ivano-Frankivsk, a 17th-century city in Western Ukraine. It is also a two-hour drive from Lviv city, a temporary base for most embassies that have shifted from Kyiv. It is just 70 km from the Polish border, making it a hot spot for those fleeing the war.
Packing a suitcase and taking his dogs, Olivier hopped onto the car. The drive to Ivano-Frankivsk, Olivier says, usually takes around six hours, but it took 10 hours due to heavy traffic.
“I was told all shelter homes at Ivano-Frankivsk were booked. It is not a huge city and has limited infrastructure, so I called someone at my school who rang up a director at a school there. The school, which was also serving as a temporary shelter for the public, made room for me and my dogs.
“The approach to Ivano-Frankivsk was straight out of war movies—soldiers with automatic rifles positioned behind gunny bags, a check-point every kilometre, the overbearing military presence. I passed through 8-10 such posts, and was almost turned back from the last post as the guards had a problem with my South African passport. Again, I had to call someone at my school to help me out.”
Olivier recalls Ivano-Frankivsk as quiet and peaceful. “There was no sign of war there.” On March 11, Russia launched a high-precision, long-range attack on the military airfields of Ivano-Frankivsk.
Olivier stayed there three nights. That’s when he met Larissa and her teenaged daughter Dasha, who were planning to go to Poland. “I had no plans. All I wanted was to reach Poland somehow. When I met them and they offered to drive me across the border, I was the happiest man on earth.”
They started the next morning, but a usual two-hour trip, took 25.
“The initial part of the journey was smooth, but as we came closer to the border, the traffic began slowing down. Soon, it was bumper-to-bumper. The women sat in front. I was at the back with my dogs, and the suitcase between my legs for 25 hours. We covered the last eight km in eight hours. I couldn’t feel my legs. It was a ride to hell.”
Out of the window, he could see endless rows of people walking in freezing cold towards the border. A forgotten memory came alive. Over 15 years back, Olivier, on a holiday in Munich, visited a former Nazi concentration camp named Dachau. Having devoured countless documentaries and movies on the Holocaust and Hitler’s Germany, he thought he could absorb the shock and horror such a visit would entail.
“Nothing can prepare you for the real thing. In that concentration camp all those years ago, I could picture rows of Jews walking to their deaths. I have seen black and white documentaries of hunger and deprivation during WWII days. And there I was, sitting in the car for 25 hours, running for my life in the 21st century, reliving those movies in colour.
“The sight of women and children walking to the Polish border in minus 3 degrees broke me… Wars are a blot on humanity.”
Resume teaching work
His immediate plan is to begin online classes. The school is not in a position to pay teachers, so Olivier has started an online fund-raiser. “We can’t let our children suffer. We can’t kill their dreams,” he says, still unsure of his next stop or the future of Ukraine Cricket Federation. Ukraine is expected to get the status of Associate Member at the ICC AGM in July.
Olivier’s rough estimate is that Ukraine has close to 500 cricketers to play at the senior level, comprising mostly Indian medical students. Among juniors (6-17 age group), the country has over 2,000 kids.
“I find Ukrainian girls really talented. They have a bright future if given the right direction. Kharkiv, our cricket hub, has been bombed really badly, so I don’t know what remains of our cricket ground there.”
For the man who calls himself a “cricket nomad” thanks to his stints as coach and administrator in South Africa, Kenya, Netherlands and Dubai, guiding Ukraine to Associate membership will be a significant personal milestone. He had moved to Ukraine four years ago with his father.
“Kyiv will always hold a special place in my heart. My father passed away in the apartment that I had to abandon. I got three new dogs there. Someday, I wish to go home.”