The South African who saves Ukrainians from the war


The South African who saves Ukrainians from the war

A baby in a garbage can. A little girl who couldn't say goodbye to her father. These are some of the things that make Johan Oldenburg repeatedly return to Ukraine to take refugees to the Netherlands. Eighteen months since he first went to the war-torn country with two buses, ANNELIESE BURGESS talks to him about what has happened since.


JOHAN OLDENBURG emigrated from South Africa 25 years ago. “Not because I didn't love my country or my people," he says, “but because as a gay man, I didn't feel like I fit into a system where you had to have a boy and a girl and a church and a house and a Labrador." His father was Dutch, so he moved to Europe. A quarter of a century later, he is a successful businessman in his adopted country but still speaks perfect Afrikaans. We talked on Zoom.

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When the war broke out in Ukraine, Johan and his husband were at their home in the south of France. “I felt a calling to help, and at first, I donated money to an organisation." But it didn't feel like enough. His memories of emigrating haunted him. “I knew what it felt like to arrive in a foreign land with two suitcases and no money, and you have to try to build a new life from nothing. So I told my husband, ‘I can't just sit here'."

Johan rented a bus in the Netherlands, had it refurbished so they were safe, and took drove to the western part of Ukraine, where there were thousands of people who had fled from the east, from cities such as Donetsk, Zaporizhia and Mariupol that were being bombarded by the Russians and were under siege. They streamed across the border into Poland, trying to escape the war.

“It was absolute chaos. I stood there at the border making sandwiches, and you felt so helpless in the face of this incredible trauma and suffering and hardship and desperation. It's something you can't imagine."

Some of the women who fled from Ukraine to the Netherlands, and whose stories are now being told in a kykNET documentary made by Martelise Brink (bottom with Johan).
Some of the women who fled from Ukraine to the Netherlands, and whose stories are now being told in a kykNET documentary made by Martelise Brink (bottom with Johan).

Johan's bus eventually left with 52 women and children, but not before a few heart-wrenching experiences.

“The worst was the woman who threw her baby into a garbage bin. They were being shot at, and in the chaos and running away, the mother thought her baby would be safer in a garbage bin than with her. And she placed the three-week-old baby, along with her bank card with her name on it, in a garbage bin. Can you imagine that? We were able to reunite that mother and baby in Poland eventually," he says.

“I didn't just want to drop off people in the Netherlands with buses," he continues, explaining how he became increasingly involved. “We wanted to help them feel welcome and find their footing in this complete stranger's land."

The first group of people were accommodated in a vacant nursing home. Over the past 18 months, more places to stay have been added, including on Johan's own property, and hundreds of other people have been helped to escape from Ukraine. “It deeply affected me to see how status fades away when people find themselves in such a situation," he says.

“One of the women on the bus was an Olympic swimmer; there was a professor of architecture, a cook, a cleaner, an accountant, a doctor, even a nuclear physicist. And here in the Netherlands, they are willing to do any kind of work just to send a bit of money back home for their sons and husbands who are fighting there. The doctor is now cutting hair. The professor is stacking shelves in a supermarket."


He tells a touching story of a little girl and her mother who came to the Netherlands in April last year on those first buses. The girl couldn't come to terms with the fact that she hadn't said goodbye to her father. Johan comforted her with a promise that, when it left his lips, he didn't know he could keep.

“I told Alicia that I would make sure she could say hello to her dad again before the end of the year. But the man was a soldier in Ukraine, and soldiers can't leave the country. As the year went on, I became more and more anxious about how I would keep my promise. Eventually, a miracle happened. Through the embassy, a special arrangement was made for Alicia's dad to get a 10-day pass, and he was granted permission to come to the Netherlands. I went to pick him up. We woke Alicia  at four in the morning on the 24th of December."

Johan shows me a cellphone video of the meeting. He wipes away tears. “Sorry, it still gets me every time," he says. “That cry comes from deep in the gut, actually from the core…"

Alicia's father celebrated Christmas with his wife and daughter (and “a bunch of other Ukrainians") at Johan's house the next day. “It was a very special day," he says. “Just after New Year, Alicia's father and I tackled the 11-hour journey back to Ukraine. Back to the war."

I ask Johan about South Africans who support Russia's position in the war. “People who justify this war need to have their heads examined. Honestly. It's complete, utter violence, and it's heartbreaking to see. And it's not just the poor Ukrainians; my heart also breaks for those Russian boys who are going there. It's a death sentence. Thousands of Russian moms and dads are losing their sons."

Johan shakes his head. “I have a friend who lives in St Petersburg. And I said to him the other day, ‘Vlad, imagine if this becomes a war between Europe and Russia. And imagine we reach the border, and I have a gun for Europe and you have one for Russia. Who on earth is going to shoot first? We can't shoot each other.' And he says that's exactly how he feels about the war in Ukraine. How can Russians and Ukrainians want to kill each other? You know, it's like people from the eastern Transvaal shooting people from the western Transvaal."

Johan feels a connection to Ukraine and was there again recently, this time trying to provide food for more than 400,000 refugees living underground in Lviv.

“It's one of the things I'll never forget. When we were in the east at one point, taking generators for the people living underground… You go into these cellars and it's pitch dark. And you shine your flashlight, and all these people are sitting on beds, looking like bats. You only see eyes. It's horrendous and terrible, but it's about survival, because above ground there are too many bombs and violence.

“And you know, I have now seen it with my own eyes. I have smelt it. I have tasted it. Out of peace, war can emerge. People in South Africa should not take it for granted that it couldn't happen to us too. We must work on tolerance and love for one another. And constantly seek the commonalities rather than the differences."

For the Ukrainians, the Netherlands is a foreign culture, Johan says. And vice versa. But his passion is to try to make this small community of refugees feel at home in a foreign land. “We may not always understand each other, and we may have different opinions about certain things, but there are things that bind people across cultures: like enjoying good food and gathering around a fire. We must find ways to enjoy life together and seek what unites us, because it is the focus on differences that causes wars."

*The documentary, 'n Pad na Oekraïne, will be broadcast on kykNET (DStv channel 144) at 8 pm on Sunday, August 20. It will also be available on DStv Stream.

♦ VWB ♦

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