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Personal items left behind, tanks spotted: Last batch of students recall 4-day Ukraine evacuation

Nearly 700 Indian students in Sumy were evacuated from war-torn Ukraine after travelling over 900 km west to Lviv on the western border, and catching evacuation flights via Poland.

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New Delhi: As the last batch of nearly 700 Indian students in Ukraine’s Sumy were evacuated from the conflict zone and brought to India Friday, ThePrint spoke to several students who recalled that they were given little time to pack before boarding buses to Poltava Tuesday, forcing many to leave behind books, clothes and other personal items in a rush.

“The [Indian] embassy had told us to pack light, only the essential items. I left behind a pile of clothes, notes and books. Some of my friends left behind laptops. We just carried some documents and shirts because it was a live or die moment,” 22-year-old Sheikh Abrar, a Sumy State University student from Jammu and Kashmir, told ThePrint in a telephonic conversation.

Many students heaved a sigh of relief post a 4-day journey comprising a bus ride from Sumy to Poltava, a train ride from Poltava to Lviv — over 900 km west on the western border — and another from Lviv to Poland ended. In Poland, students boarded three evacuation flights — Air India, IndiGo and an IAF aircraft — arranged by the Indian government under ‘Operation Ganga’.

The journey came days after they were forced to boil snow amid a water shortage, and witness continuous shelling.

“Students from Sumy are returning today to India. Their evacuation was particularly challenging,” said External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar Friday.

Speaking to ThePrint, students noted that they spotted several Russian tanks on the way to Poltava, and recalled that what would normally be a three-hour drive to the neighbouring city took 10-12 hours due to road blocks.

“The line of buses were accompanied by Red Cross ambulances,” said Niranjana Santosh, 22, student of Sumy State University, who arrived home in Kerala late Friday.

This was the last batch of students evacuated from war-torn Ukraine. Last week, the students released a viral video saying they would walk to nearby Mariupol, at their own risk, after which the Ministry of External Affairs urged them to stay indoors. Ceasefire violations in Mariupol also halted the students’ plans.

“When we made that video saying we are prepared to go to Mariupol, it was out of frustration,” explained Santosh. “There had been no water for days and barely any food. Then we decided not to go ahead after the [Indian] government told us to stay inside. It was good we did that because the ceasefire in Mariupol ended up being a big failure.”

Also read: 80% foreign medical graduates fail India’s licence exam. Here’s what they end up doing instead

‘Getting safe passage through Russia was wishful thinking’

On 7 March, the Indian government said students in Sumy would be evacuated through the country’s western borders via Poltava. ThePrint reported that students were relieved, claiming that they had not received any advisories, specifically for Sumy, since the war in Ukraine broke out.

“At one point we didn’t know if we would be evacuated through the Russian border or through western borders. But after students in [the outskirts of] Kharkiv were taken to Lviv, it was clear to us that we will be evacuated in the same way — through the western borders itself,” explained Santosh.

Earlier this month, when the war had entered its second week, Russia said it received India’s request for evacuation of its citizens stranded in Ukraine through Russian territory, and that it was working on how to provide humanitarian corridors.

Anandhu Krishna, a fifth-year student at Sumy State University who hails from Kerala, said lack of transportation delayed evacuation efforts in Sumy and even though the Russian border was so close, safe passage couldn’t be provided.

“The biggest problem in Sumy was transportation. You must have heard of students in Kharkiv catching trains and buses to Lviv but the situation was very different in Sumy. Railway tracks had been destroyed and there was continuous shelling everyday non-stop,” he told ThePrint.

“Sumy is just 50 km from the Russian border but getting safe passage was wishful thinking. It wasn’t practical. There wasn’t even a proper ceasefire for humanitarian corridors in Mariupol after two attempts. In the end, we had to travel to the other side of Ukraine,” he added.

‘Relieved my son is back’

Indian parents were also grateful to be reunited with their children.

Tahira Banoor Khurshid, 58, whose son Itoo returned to Jammu and Kashmir Saturday, told ThePrint: “I’m so relieved my son is back. He and his classmates were facing many problems — there was no drinking water for days and no gas in their stoves so they couldn’t make food.”

She further explained that the family will have to consider other options to help Itoo complete his education.

“Itoo is in his third year [in Sumy State University] and returning to Ukraine to complete his studies is obviously not an option, not even in the near future. I don’t know how he will complete his education but we will find a way,” Khurshid added.

Also read: ‘Up to you to leave, we see no immediate threat,’ Indian embassy in Russia to students


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