DONETSK, Ukraine (AFP) – Wissam Fawzi left Iraq in 2006, hoping to put the horrors of war behind him and study dentistry far away from the sound of bombs. Unfortunately, he picked eastern Ukraine for his new home.
“I wanted to move to Donetsk because there was war in Iraq. There was shelling in Baghdad in 2006. It was very hard,” said the 29-year-old.
But now he is studying at the University of Donetsk, in a city that has become the main stronghold of pro-Russian separatists fighting a violent eight-month war against government forces that has claimed at least 4,300 lives.
“I knew some people in Donetsk that told me the town was pretty, that people were nice,” said Fawzi in fluent Russian.
Donetsk has been shelled almost daily for months. The explosions resonate around the walls of the university which only a year ago was named the best in Ukraine.
“Sometimes it’s scary when the shelling is getting closer, when the noise is very loud, when I get the feeling that it’s landing right next to us,” said a 23-year-old Indian student who did not give his name.
Signs dotted around this 84-year-old institution indicate the nearest bomb shelters.
“My parents are also being shelled. And now they are scared for me,” said Mohammad Jaro, a 24-year-old from Syria.
The university says there were more than 2,000 foreign students from 57 countries studying here before the war in the medicine, dentistry and pharmacy de-partments. Only 84 students are still here.
Most came from the Middle East, Africa or former Soviet republics – attracted by low fees and a good reputation, said Bogdan Bogdanov, the 43-year-old head of the medical faculty.
He took over a month ago after his pre-decessor decided to leave the region, which has been cut off from all financial and public services by the Ukrainian government.
The university – at which all students spend their first year learning Russian – was one of several that built global ties during Soviet times with the aim of educating the elites of developing countries and sending them home imbued with Communist ideology.
“We have very strong ties with these countries and we’ve maintained them to this day,” said Bogdanov.
Beyond the fear of the shelling, another issue preoccupies the students: who will issue their final degree? And will it be recognised abroad?
With the rebel authorities hoping for independence or to join Russia, it is an open question.
Bogdanov said he hopes to soon be issuing degrees with a Russian stamp on them, but some students are worried the chaos and confusion will put all their hard work to waste.
Haidar Al Humrani, 25, from Basra in southern Iraq, has made his choice: he is leaving to study in Odessa, a town in southern Ukraine under government control.
After several years in Donetsk, he finds it hard to leave, but said he cannot risk returning home without a degree.
“I was used to Donetsk. My friends, my apartment are here,” he said, looking downhearted as he headed to the administrative office to pick up his transfer papers.
For others, the decision has been taken out of their hands – they have planted their roots too deeply.
“I’ve spent five years here. I like it. I got married here,” said Bsharat Wusab, a 22-year-old Jordanian, who says he will not leave.
“I love it as if it was my home town.”