Chandigarh/Lucknow: On Thursday, Gulam Ahmed Mohiuddin Salman, a fifth year medical student of Dnipro Medical Institute of Traditional & Non-Traditional Medicine in Ukraine was all set to board a flight back to India with three other Indian students.
“We reached Kyiv Wednesday and we were at the Kyiv airport Thursday to board an evacuation flight. Suddenly we heard that we have to leave the airport because all flights are cancelled. The airport authorities told us to get out of the airport as Kyiv was being bombed. It was scary,” recalled Salman, whose family is from Hyderabad.
He added: “We ran out of the airport and heard sounds of bombardment. We did not get any vehicle outside the airport and we just kept running for 4-5 kms. While we were running, we heard sounds of bombs exploding some five-six times. We were scared and could not believe this was happening to us.”
Salman’s experience is similar, at least in some measure, to that of 23-year-old Sarthak Upadhyay, a third-year-student of the Kharkiv National Medical University in Ukraine.
On Thursday, Upadhyay, a third-year-student of the Kharkiv National Medical University in Ukraine, left Kharkiv for the Kyiv International Airport in the Ukraine capital. Travelling with him in the bus were 13 other Indian students currently studying in Ukraine.
But when the bus reached Kyiv, the students found the airport gates to be locked. The bus then took the students to the Indian Embassy in Kyiv, but that too was locked, said Amod, Sarthak’s father, and a resident of Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh.
“It was an Air Arabia flight that was confirmed for Thursday. However, while on his way to the airport, my son informed me that he had received an email saying that the flight had been cancelled,” said Amod.
As the Indian government started efforts to evacuate Indians in Ukraine Thursday, following Russia’s invasion of the country, among those desperately looking for a way out are thousands of students. According to the estimates of the Indo-Ukraine Medical Students’ Guardians Association, an estimated 16,000 Indian students (many of them medical students) are stranded in Ukraine. The association was formed earlier this month as parents of these students feared the Russia-Ukraine crisis to be taking a turn for the worse, said Pankaj Dheeraj, the association’s convener.
Ever since their fears came true Thursday, families have been trying to remain in touch with these students, even as intermittent connectivity issues made them lose touch at times. Meanwhile reports coming in from the war-torn country speak of students holed up in basements of universities or elsewhere running out of food and essentials, as they desperately wait to be evacuated and brought home.
Also read: India to bring back 1st batch of Indians stranded in Ukraine, but many evacuation hurdles ahead
Holed up in basements, running out of food
Unable to get in either at the airport or the Indian Embassy, Upadhyay had tried to find a hotel Thursday, but with charges having gone up approximately five times, to become as high as 10,000 hryvnias (Ukrainian currency) for one night(about Rs. 25,000), it was something he could ill afford, said his father. The 23-year-old was roaming the streets of Kyiv, said Amod, when an Indian friend who has rented accommodation in Kyiv called him and told him to come over to his flat.
“The two are currently together,” said Amod.
Salman and his friends on the other hand had found a bus to take them to Kyiv Medical University, about 10 kms away from the airport. “Ever since we have been holed up inside the basement of Kyiv Medical University hostel, which used to be a gym before. There were already many students from Kyiv Medical University when we reached here,” said Salman.
In universities across Ukraine, students have talked about taking similar refuge in basements. But even if that is secure for the time being, the students say they have little to eat.
“There are at least 200 students in this one small basement. “I don’t have anything to eat or drink. Other students in the basement are sharing whatever they have to eat. But no one here has much food or water,” Salman told ThePrint.
He added: “We have come to know that some students who managed to reach the Indian embassy have been put up in a school. Our hostel in-charge is in touch with the Indian embassy. We request the Indian government to evacuate us from here as soon as possible. The situation here is very bad. The sounds of bombs were heart wrenching,” he added.
Stranded in the same hostel basement is Ghaziabad’s Deepshikha Jha, a second year student at Kyiv Medical University, who too can see food running out.
“We have only chips, bread and biscuits, not proper food. The water supply in the hostel basement has been stopped. There was a blast yesterday in the building behind our hostel. We don’t even have proper space to sit. We are stuck here,” she told ThePrint
Jha also sent a plea for help. “Please help us as soon as possible. All we can say to our government and embassy is that please evacuate us from here as soon as possible.”
The situation is similar for Musala Ashraf of Patna, who has been hiding in an underground rail station at Kharkiv with seven friends since Thursday.
“I woke up to the sounds of bombs exploding outside. We got scared and worried. We ran to the supermarket to get food to stock up in case the situation gets worse. Right now, we have shifted underground in a metro station where there are lots of people and many Indian students,” said Ashraf, a medical student at Kharkiv National Medical University.
He added: “We have been here since Thursday afternoon. We don’t know how long this war will last. We have only limited food and water. There is a lot of panic. Right now our phones are working so we can talk to our families. We don’t know how long the internet will run here. We are hearing blasts outside. We are very scared. We don’t have any fresh food supply. We can only request the embassy and government to take steps so that we come to India. We are calling for urgent help,” he said.
Also read: India’s stand on Ukraine unclear as Russia finds Modi ‘appreciative’, US says not fully resolved
Prayers for safety
Meanwhile, back home in India, families are resorting to prayers to keep up their strength.
Family members of Ritwik Varshney, a fourth year medical student at Kharkiv National Medical University, organised a hawan Thursday to pray for his safety. His parents lips move in constant prayer even as they make video calls to him. According to last information received, the 22-year-old has been hiding in a bunker in Kharkiv.
His mother, Dr. Anjum Varshney, has been chanting the mahamrityunjaya jaap (recited for someone’s long life) for her son and urges the government of India to ensure his safe return.
In another part of UP, Saharanpur resident Najma Rao has been busily seeking dua for her grandson, Rao Ammar’s safety. Ammar, a student at Lviv National Medical University, is among those stranded in Ukraine.
“Till yesterday, we were trying to keep in constant touch with him, but he was losing internet connectivity intermittently. We last spoke to him around 4 am (India time), when he informed us that some soldiers (they are unsure of which country) had reached their apartment in Kyiv and have been been banging their doors. He, and some other Indian students are hiding in the basement of the apartment complex,” said Shazia Rao, Ammar’s aunt.
Many parents allege that the Ministry of External Affairs’ (MEA) advisory to students to return, which was first issued last Sunday, was also delayed.
“The students are stranded now. The advisory came very late. My son’s flight was scheduled for Thursday and the flight was cancelled without any reason being cited. The advisory should have come earlier, not when the situation has already become so bad,” said Amod.
On Thursday, the day Russia declared war on Ukraine, Foreign Secretary Harsh V Shringla had said, “It’s a very complicated, very evolving situation. It’s obviously you know, certain areas there’s conflict. We can’t have a single sort of advisory that fits all situations. We have to evolve, we have to see where we are, and which part of the country you are located in, what the situation is.”
Singla added: “Generally, if we are advising that if you find yourself in a certain difficult situation, then you should remain in secure areas and shelters etc. If you can, you move westwards towards the borders with some of the countries, I mentioned. And these advisories will be continuously issued, these helplines are for that purpose so that depending on the situation that advice can be given. One important step that we’ve taken because a number of our students were reluctant to leave because the university authorities had said the classes must be offline. We have now persuaded all the universities and institutions to allow online classes and therefore students can actually leave without having to face the strain of not being able to or missing out on their classes.”
Helplines, email assistance
The MEA has issued helpline numbers for assistance. The Embassy of India in Ukraine has also set up 24-hour helpline numbers for students and Indian nationals in Ukraine and advised them to follow the official Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages of the Embassy, along with the official website for information
The UP government too has started a helpline and opened a control room for parents and guardians of students to receive updates on the situation.
According to an order issued by additional chief secretary Manoj Kumar Singh Friday a nodal officer has been appointed to coordinate with the MEA and the Embassy of India in Kyiv.
“In coordination with MEA, the government of India and the Embassy of India in Ukraine, the nodal officer will facilitate the return of the students or persons from UP currently in Ukraine. The state government’s 24X7 helpline will be 0522-1070 and 9454441081 and email ID will be firstname.lastname@example.org. The students/ persons belonging to UP who are in Ukraine are requested to follow the advisories issued by the MEA, government of India and the Embassy of India in Ukraine,” states the notification issued by the UP government on Friday.
The wait for rescue
Students stranded in Ukraine told ThePrint, however, that the Indian government’s plans for rescue and evacuation should keep in mind the location of the students.
“The government is saying they have a rescue plan and the Indian embassy has told us they will move us to other countries. But we are very close to Russia’s borders. The government’s plan will work only for those Indian students who are living near the western borders. All the rest of us, who are in places like Kharkiv, Kyiv, Odessa, Sumy, Zaprozhye, we have no hope of crossing the thousands of kilometres to the western borders. We have no cars, no trains, no buses, no way to get out on our own. The situation is getting worse with every hour as supplies run out,” said Ashraf..
He added: “The government of India will have to come up with an evacuation plan for Indian students in cities near the Russian border as well.”
Meanwhile another medical student in Uzhhgorod, near the Hungary border, who did not wish to be named, told ThePrint that evacuation in those parts had already started and they were waiting for their turn.
“The Government of India is currently evacuating Indians through the Chop-Zahony route on the Hungarian border near Uzhhgorod and the Porubne-Siret route on the Romanian border,” she said.
“The first batch of Indian students have left Chernivtsi from the Ukraine–Romania borders. We have been advised to stay in touch with student contractors for orderly movements of students. They have also been advised to carry passports, cash preferably in USD for emergency expenditures and other essentials. They have also been asked to take out printouts of the Indian flag and paste it prominently on vehicles and buses while travelling,” she added.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)
Also read: Don’t plan regime change in Ukraine, we are not the US, says Russian embassy in India