PUBLISHED: 19:06 EST, 2 June 2012 | UPDATED: 19:13 EST, 2 June 2012
Levi Nwankwo is a law-abiding, peaceful man, but as he walks briskly through Donetsk, the Ukrainian city in which he lives, he is in a state of high alert.
That is during the day. At night, he will travel only by cab. As a student, it’s a luxury he can ill afford, but after dark the streets aren’t safe. At least, not for a black man.
The 27-year-old Nigerian is 6ft tall and capable of defending himself but there was little he could do when he was ambushed by a gang of extreme Right-wing thugs last August.
Warning: Angella Johnson outside the Shakhtar Donetsk Stadium in Donetsk which will host England’s game against France
He says: ‘I was escorting a friend home one Sunday at about 9pm. I didn’t want him walking alone at night. We had just stepped out of the door of the student hostel when suddenly five young white guys appeared out of the dark and started calling us racist names.
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‘They were holding large stones in their hands, which they threw at us. We took cover in a shop doorway and called my friends in the hostel with my cellphone. When the cavalry arrived, our attackers fled like the cowards they were.
‘I had only been in the country five months and it was very frightening. If I had not already paid my money to the university, I might have got on the next flight home.’
Levi, who is studying engineering, describes living in Ukraine as ‘very scary for black people’. He says: ‘There’s a 50-50 chance something really bad will happen to you because of your skin colour. I know another African student who was beaten so badly by skinheads last year that he lost the hearing in his right ear.
‘His dad insisted that he transferred his studies to London. I don’t think the police even got involved. When we tell them about a hate crime they usually use it as an opportunity to extort money from us for some fictional misdemeanour with our papers.’
Open Hostilities: Racism and violence against ethnic minorities is thought to be rife among Ukrainian football fans who are seen here waving a Nazi swastika
We are talking on the street and Levi points to a shop nearby from which another Nigerian was dragged and then beaten by Right-wing extremists.
‘The worst thing is that so-called decent citizens will either walk or look on, without saying anything,’ he says.
Levi has mixed feelings about Ukraine co-hosting the Euro 2012 football tournament with Poland.
‘I love football but it’s dangerous to go to local matches,’ he says. ‘We are afraid to go unless it’s in a group. I won’t go unless there are ten or more of us.
And we make sure that we are the first out of the stadium. I don’t think I would say to British blacks that they can come here and be safe. But I hope that, if they do, local whites will realise we are all God’s creatures.’
Armel Wilfried, a 27-year-old economics student from the Ivory Coast, is another who was lured to Ukraine by the low student fees and easy admittance to degree courses.
‘We can live well here,’ he admits. ‘But the racism is very bad.’
The police and government have been criticised for not taking any serious action to counter the problems of hate crime – brazenly on show as football fans carry out a Nazi salute
He has two more years of his course to complete and is in no doubt that the European Championships, which start on Friday, should have been staged elsewhere.
‘Some people don’t go out at night, others do so only in a group,’ he says. ‘They are scared of being beaten up.’
Armel has lost count of the number of times a complete stranger has approached him to say: ‘What are you doing here, monkey?’
He adds: ‘They can be either young or old, male or female. It’s almost an everyday thing, so you learn to accept it.’
Armel recalls a recent fracas that occurred when he was having lunch in a cafe near the central market.
‘Five young men with close-cropped hair sat at a nearby table,’ he says.
‘One of them jabbed his finger in me. His face was red with anger and he snarled that I had no right to be in the country.
‘He said it was for whites only and that banana-eating monkeys like me should go back to where we come from.’
Almost every black man I approached in Donetsk last week told me they had suffered a racist physical attack. And all had been verbally abused – several times.
It seems not much has changed in this part of the world in the 20 years since I visited Krakow in Poland and was followed by three young men who made ape noises and shouted insults about bananas.
What is happening in Ukraine today brings to mind the kind of racism that black people in Britain used to face – in the Sixties, my mother once fought with a woman who asked to see ‘her tail’.
All three of England’s group matches are to be played in this former Soviet republic, but shocking and disturbing scenes in a Panorama film of football fans giving Nazi salutes and instigating racial violence on the terraces have led to calls for black and Asian fans to boycott the tournament.
Indeed, the Foreign Office has advised people of colour to be extra vigilant about their personal safety if they follow the England team.
Gangs of racist football hooligans in Ukraine were filmed training camp in woods outside Kiev for violence against visiting fans during this month’s European championships
Indignant Ukrainian authorities insist there is no problem. Yet there is evidence that the level of intolerance towards immigrants here is actually increasing.
According to a national poll in 2011, only three per cent of the country’s population want to see Asians living in their country – for Africans the figure is 2.6 per cent.
And statistics show there has been a steady rise in hate crimes over the past two years.
One expat Ukrainian living in London had warned me that Donetsk, where England will play two of their three group matches, was a grim backwater stuck in a time warp.
And there are even reports of racially motivated murders taking place in the capital, Kiev.
Despite being in the regional power base of President Viktor Yanukovych – who has helped to channel millions of pounds into improving the city’s infrastructure – Donetsk is, like much of Ukraine, a stamping ground for neo-Nazi extremists.
People are either poor or very rich – there is no middle class. The political freedom that followed the 2004 orange revolution seems a distant memory as opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko languishes in prison on trumped-up charges.
Thugs: Members the Patriots, a racist gang of football hooligans, hold weekly training camps in a secret location where new recruits are trained for combat – here showing a journalist from Panorama their knife fighting skills
Little wonder then that former England footballer Sol Campbell and others, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are furious that Fifa has seen fit to hand the country such a prestigious international prize. Campbell even suggested that non-white fans going to Euro 2012 risk returning in coffins.
The police and government have been criticised for not taking any serious action to counter the problems of hate crime. In truth, most attacks go unreported because victims believe that the authorities will turn a blind eye.
The few female students from Africa I meet complain about being verbally abused. Zhasira, a 30-year-old Angolan, says: ‘I was on a trolley bus and when I went to sit next to a woman she said very loudly that she didn’t want to sit next to me. I was very upset.’
Eric Matoukou is a Cameroonian footballer who plays in defence for Ukrainian team Arsenal Kiev. Every time he gets the ball, fans start making monkey sounds.
Fears: One expat Ukrainian living in London had warned that Donetsk, site of the Donbass Arena, pictured, where England will play two of their three group matches, is a hotbed of racism
He believes the local people lack exposure to the wider world but is hopeful that Euro 2012 could help to change attitudes: ‘They will have the chance to discover that many Europeans are black too.’
The Panorama exposé, and the piece about it that the film-maker Chris Rogers wrote for this paper last week, have forced the authorities to take action and clamp down on racist hooligans.
The local police chief has warned of tough sanctions but many believe that there is no real desire to tackle the problems.
And as Panorama editor Tom Giles pointed out to me: ‘As far as we know, since the film was broadcast, no Polish or Ukrainian politician or football or police official has publicly condemned or even expressed any concern about the events we filmed or about the experiences described by the two black footballers who play full-time in Poland. Nor, for that matter, has anyone from UEFA.’
As I travelled around Donetsk, no one made obscene gestures or monkey noises. No one made any remarks about bananas, or said anything untoward.
Yet I had a nagging sense of unease, of a sort I have never felt in London, or indeed in any other Western European city.
Can Euro 2012 begin the process of change that is clearly needed?
I hope so.