Ukraine diary: South Africa’s ambassador talks peace from Kyiv’s air raid shelters

South Africa's ambassador to Ukraine Shoayb Casoo says that getting both sides to the negotiating table remains a priority.


Image : Chris Bishop

As the missiles and drones rained down on Ukraine in March, South Africa’s man in Kyiv was talking peace in between trips to the air raid shelter.

Russia has intensified cruise missile attacks on Kyiv and Ukraine has retaliated with strikes on Russia’s limping Black Sea fleet.

Veteran South African ambassador Shoayb Casoo (pictured above) had spent years running the embassy in Saudi Arabia. Naturally, he hoped for a comfortable final posting after a lifetime in the foreign service. Instead, he got Kyiv in the eye of a storm.

“The Russians can send 100 missiles at night. The noise. (From) five to eight or seven in the morning on Saturdays. You just hear the noise and then hear the explosions. And windows vibrating. And the shouting,” Casoo says over a coffee in a café in downtown Kyiv.

“We have three bunkers. In compartments. You’re sharing a compartment, 1.5 metres, not even that. And if you’re sharing it with two other people you don’t know, there is no other space for your bags. You have to lie down. For 19 hours. It’s difficult.”

Casoo represents around 18 South Africans left in Ukraine, largely contracted professionals, and knows most of them by name. He runs the diplomatic mission from his residency, with one vehicle, and hopes for a peace that he admits faces many barriers.

“The most critical one is going to be the one of territorial integrity. And it’s going to be the most difficult. You know that Russia is saying clearly that these are our territories. Our view is that these are territories taken by force. The UN Secretary General said we respect Ukraine and its internationally recognised borders. So that’s the position of the UN and the position of South Africa as well,” he says.

South Africa has been criticised by some in the West for its equivocal stance on the war in Ukraine. President Cyril Ramaphosa has launched several attempts at African-led mediation of the conflict with limited impact, but has continued to enjoy warm relations with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin throughout the war and actively pursues trade opportunities with Moscow.

But Casoo says that South Africa remains focused on getting the parties to return to direct negotiations.

“What happens at the negotiating table of the two parties we don’t know, but we don’t think that you can bring peace if the two sides won’t talk. At the moment they are so far apart,” he says.

Rebuilding a nation

Many people in Ukraine are sanguine about the titanic struggle for survival their country is locked in. Well-off people have already move their families to safety Poland, Austria or Turkey; those that are left behind bear the war with relaxed resignation. In the cities, well dressed Ukrainians in nightclubs often don’t bother going to the shelters.

In many ways, the heavily defended port of Odesa is bearing the brunt of the missile attacks. The frontline is less than and an hour away by road.

Most of the drones are shot down by machine gunners on the coast, but those that get through have damaged more than a score of historic buildings.

One of the entrepreneurs working hard to try to fix them is builder Yenheni Gevrik.

When the Russian invasion came, Gevrik and his workers joined up together to fight.  He bought his own ammunition, body armour and helmet because, in the chaos of the early days of the invasion, there was not enough to go round.

Six of those workers died on the front line. Gevrik, who won two medals for bravery in the marine infantry, ended his fighting days after a leg wound.   

“I escaped that one time, maybe I will be lucky again,” he says through an interpreter.

Now Gevrik is back in the frontline in the battle to rebuild his home town of Odesa.

On this cool sunny Sunday morning, Gevrik surveys the damage wreaked by a drone. 

It hit an apartment block that had stood for more than 100 years in downtown Odesa. The strike came in the first months of the fighting, in July 2022 – the family that owns it fled to Vienna.

Gevrik has no doubt he can fix the shattered building in weeks; the only question is who will foot the bill given that insurance is scarce in Ukraine.

Attempts are being made in Odesa to gather funds from businesses, government and aid agencies for the rebuilding job.

The war changed him, Gevrik says; it made him concentrate on the future of his wife and four children.

Yet he has no regrets about fighting. He keeps the ammunition he bought in his wardrobe just in case the Russians come knocking. 

“I think the war will stop only when Russia stops,” he says.

From Star Wars to total war

For now the air raids go on. Ukraine has even got a smartphone app to notify citizens about expected raids. Each one is announced with a sickening low siren and a voice that is strangely familiar to fans of Star Wars.

When the latest attack is over, the voice says: “The air raid is now over, may the force be with you.”

It is the voice of US actor Mark Hamill, who played Star Wars hero Luke Skywalker for over 40 years and is now an ambassador for United24, which raises money for Ukraine’s defence.

“He’s cool,” says a Ukrainian looking up from his smartphone in an air raid shelter in Odesa.

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Chris Bishop

Chris Bishop is founding editor of Billionaire Tomorrow; founding editor of Forbes Africa; former head of programming CNBC Africa.