New Delhi: The first batch of Indian nationals evacuated from crisis-hit Ukraine arrived in neighbouring Romania Friday, a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared war on the former country.
While the Narendra Modi government is facing external pressure to take a stand on the Russian invasion, on the domestic front, it is fighting a battle over the evacuation of thousands of Indian nationals, including students, stuck in the besieged country.
A day after Russia started bombing the Ukrainian cities of Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol, paralysing a major chunk of the country, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) Friday activated its camp offices in Lviv and Chernivtsi towns of western Ukraine, official sources told ThePrint.
MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi announced the evacuation of the first batch in a tweet Friday, saying “Indian officials… will facilitate their travel to Bucharest for their onward journey to India”.
The first batch of evacuees from Ukraine reach Romania via Suceava border crossing.
Our team at Suceava will now facilitate travel to Bucharest for their onward journey to India. pic.twitter.com/G8nz2jVHxD
— Arindam Bagchi (@MEAIndia) February 25, 2022
The evacuees, most of whom were students, were ferried to the Romanian border onboard 5-6 buses operated by the MEA’s special camps. They are expected to reach India late Sunday or early Monday, depending on the immigration situation there.
Before the invasion, only 4,000 Indian nationals — out of an estimated 20,000 in Ukraine — were able to return in light of initial advisories about the security situation.
Meanwhile, a group of 40 Indian medical students at Danylo Halytsky Medical University, Lviv, managed to reach the Ukraine-Poland border on foot. They were reportedly dropped around 8 km from the border point by a college bus, according to ANI.
The process of evacuation has been made difficult because of Ukraine shutting down its airspace. An Air India plane that took off to bring Indians back from Ukraine Thursday, was turned back to Delhi.
As a result, the MEA Thursday had to work out alternative routes for the evacuation process. A control room was also set up and made operational on a 24×7 basis.
On Thursday, the external affairs ministry dispatched a team of Russian-speaking officers to those land borders of Ukraine where the impact of war is still minimal.
Apart from the Romanian border, MEA officials will also be stationing themselves along the Krakowiec land border in Poland. In Hungary, a team will soon be reaching the Zahony border post opposite Uzhhorod in Zakarpattia Oblast of Ukraine, and in Slovakia, they will be posting themselves for smoother travel of Indians via the Vysne Nemecke land border.
On Friday, the MEA sent additional Russian-speaking officials to its camp offices in Ukraine.
Even so, it will not be easy for the students to reach these border areas due to the complete breakdown of public transport in Ukraine, as hundreds and thousands of Ukrainians flee in fear and despair.
According to sources, evacuation flights for the stranded Indians are being arranged and the transportation cost will be completely borne by the government.
Meanwhile, the evacuation of Indian nationals from the war zone has become a political hot potato.
The Congress has alleged that the Modi government does not have the capacity to safely evacuate the Indians stuck in Ukraine, and that India’s global image has plummeted. Meanwhile, its student wing NSUI protested in front of the MEA Friday, while parents appealed to the government for help.
India will support diplomacy & dialogue: Jaishankar to Ukraine
External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar spoke to his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba on the phone Friday, and discussed the issue of safe evacuation of Indian nationals.
He also told Kuleba that in the entire crisis, India will support “diplomacy and dialogue as the way out”.
Received call from Ukrainian FM @DmytroKuleba.
He shared his assessment of the current situation.I emphasized that India supports diplomacy & dialogue as the way out.
Discussed predicament of Indian nationals, including students. Appreciate his support for their safe return.
— Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) February 25, 2022
Jaishankar has also spoken to the foreign ministers of the border countries from where Indian nationals will be evacuated.
Students in Kharkiv living inside bomb shelters
ThePrint spoke to two students who are currently at Kharkiv National Medical University, who said they are now living in a bomb shelter in their hostel, completely cut off from others.
Kharkiv is a small, heart-shaped city just north of the Donbas region near the border where heavy fighting is taking place.
“There’s no space to move or stand in the bomb shelter because the ceilings are so low,” Ishita Choudhary, 20, who has been hiding out in the underground bomb shelter for two days, told ThePrint over the phone, adding that the students were informed Friday that the nearest metro station had been hit by a missile.
“We hear shelling every three hours. We have to also choose when to make a run for the mess to go have food. Sometimes, if we are in the mess and shelling is going on, we’re told to wait there till it stops, which can take a long time,” she added.
Choudhary further said her parents are waiting for her to be evacuated to Poland or Hungary, but that seems unlikely for a few days. “My whole family, even my 10-year-old sister, keeps asking me when I will come back. It’s a very difficult situation,” she added.
Aditya Agarwal, 17, is among several Indian students enrolled at Kharkiv National Medical University who are now stranded in Ukraine.
“I came to Ukraine last November for an MBBS degree. We knew there were tensions between Ukraine and Russia, but we thought it was like India and China border tensions, that wouldn’t cross into the mainland. We didn’t think much of it,” Agarwal, who is currently taking refuge in the underground bomb shelter, told ThePrint over a WhatsApp call.
“In the past few weeks, we started hearing rumours that there could be a repeat of 2014 [when Crimea was annexed by Russia]. Some of my friends booked tickets and left but some of us, especially those who were keen to get a temporary residency certificate (TRS), chose to stay. That was a mistake,” he added.
“Last night, I had a flight to head back to India. I was at the bus station waiting with a ticket to Kyiv. But then, when the invasion happened, there was no chance to go to the airport,” he said. “My flight got cancelled and I came back to the hostel. Every night this week, we’ve heard sounds of shelling,” he added, saying the university has provided ample food supplies, but water in its canteens is “quickly running out”.
The Jaipur native said he keeps thinking of his family back home. “The university authorities have asked the Indian embassy to move us to west Ukraine, because right now we are too close to the fighting. From there, maybe we can be airlifted from a neighbouring country like Poland. But for now, all we do is wait,” he added.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)