Mumbai: They have been through an ordeal that they won’t ever forget.
For the 219 Indians, mostly students studying medicine in Ukraine, who were evacuated from Bucharest, Romania, and arrived in Mumbai Saturday, mounting anxiety and helplessness marked the past few days.
But, mostly, it was characterised by rising terror.
ThePrint spoke to several students caught in the midst of a global crisis, and put together a timeline of the horrors and hardship they faced before a safe exit out of war-torn Ukraine.
Challa Sudarshana, a 22-year-old student in Bukovinian State Medical University in Chernivtsi in Ukraine, is in the final year of medicine and is a native of Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh.
After news broke about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Sudarshana, along with 200 Indian students, booked a flight back to India, as advised by the University.
The flight was scheduled on 24 February from Kiev.
Sudarshana left her hostel in Chernivtsi — in western Ukraine, near the Romanian border — and took a bus arranged by the university to Kiev. It was a 10-hour drive to the capital.
“On 23rd night we took the bus and we were safe till five in the morning,” Sudarshana told ThePrint.
Then, as the crisis mounted, the airspace over Ukraine was shut and flights were suspended in and out of Kiev.
“Our tickets got cancelled because the situation in Kiev was critical. We were very tense,” she added.
However, when her bus was still about 40 km from Kiev, the organiser of the evacuation received an instruction to turn back.
Even citizens in Kiev were leaving the city, as it was not safe, she would later learn.
As the journey back to Chernivtsi started, the roads were blocked with traffic. “At one point, we spent 10 hours stuck in traffic without moving,” Sudarshana recalls.
“We saw military personnel and vehicles on the road and were very concerned for ourselves as well as for the Ukrainians,” she said.
However, she was confident that as Indian citizens, they would not have to face trouble because of the embassy, and that there would be some way to leave the country.
‘Hectic and terrifying journey’
“It was unimaginably hectic and terrifying. We suffered for want of food and water also,” Sudarshana said, recalling the journey.
Because it was supposed to be a 10-hour-long night journey, she was carrying packets of chips, biscuits and water bottles, just like the other students.
But during the long road back, such meagre provisions were soon over. Roadside eateries were closed down too. Luckily, some grocery shops were open.
“We senior students had to take care of the other students. Some of us got out and luckily could get some biscuits and water, on which we survived,” she recalled.
Finding washrooms was another ordeal. While going to Kiev, petrol pumps were operational. “But while coming back, all the pumps and facilities were blocked by cars of those who had left Kiev. There was no space to go anywhere, so we had to go by the roadside,” Sudarshana said.
“It was difficult for the girls and to avoid going to the bathroom, we drank less water and were even dehydrated,” she recalled.
However, after nearly 30 hours, on 25 February at 1 pm, the bus reached Chernvitsi. By that time, the embassy had arranged a safe exit to Romania and she found her name on the list.
At 2 pm, Sudarshana started on another journey — this time to the safety of Bucharest, Romania, from where she took a flight back to Mumbai.
‘Fleeing Ukrainians, a pitiful sight’
Second-year MBBS student, 19-year-old Varshini Sri, from Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, was among the first students to have been evacuated out of Chernvitsi via Romania.
Unlike Sudarshana, Varshini stayed put in her hostel until the embassy arranged for the safe exit.
“Initially, when the news of the war broke, we went out and bought groceries for 10-15 days, withdrew a large amount of cash and amasses all essential items.”
Soon, however, the announcement came that the Indian embassy in Ukraine was making arrangements for the evacuation of students.
Since Chernvitsi is near the Romanian border, there wasn’t such panic and fear as seen elsewhere in Ukraine, she said.
“Kiev is very tense but in Chernvitsi there was no fear as such. Near the border, there was little tension…the embassy arranged everything.”
However, Varshini feels for the plight of Ukranians.
Seeing locals leave their own homes in headlong flight from the spiralling conflict is not a good sight, she told ThePrint.
“All were carrying luggage, even small kids were dragging bags…it was pitiful.”
Because of heavy traffic, people left their cars and started walking towards the border.
“There was a two-hour-long queue at the border and it was very disturbing to see kids walking in such a state of exhaustion,” she said.
‘We want to finish our studies’
The first batch of students that arrived in Mumbai Saturday from Romania were mostly studying in Chernivtsi. However, the students, all of them pursuing medicine, still wish to complete their education.
“Currently, our classes are online, but we hope that we get back and attend physical classes,” Varshini said. “College people supported us a lot and we are pretty sure we will get back to our college and our offline classes will start soon.”
Sudarshana, the final year MBBS student, said she has to write an exam at her university and wished that the war was over soon, so she could go back.
Arya Chavan, a resident of Kolhapur, had gone to Ukraine just two months back to study medicine. “I had just started enjoying my studies. I hope I can go back and study again,” he said.
Arrangements by state governments
Medical students from Chernivtsi arrived late Saturday night at the Mumbai airport. More flights are expected in the coming days.
In the first flight, there were students from Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra.
M.K. Reddy, representing the Andhra Pradesh government, told ThePrint that they were taking care of food, accommodation and the onward journey of students not just from Andhra Pradesh, but also Telangana.
“We would streamline the process and after the arrival of students, not just from this flight, but subsequent flights, we will help them in their journey to Hyderabad,” he said.
Twelve students of Karnataka arrived in Mumbai and the state revenue department arranged everything for them, revenue minister R. Ashoka told ANI.
The Bihar government is also assisting their students and working with the Ministry of External Affairs closely.
Meanwhile, Maharashtra Deputy CM Ajit Pawar told mediapersons in Pune that there are 1,200-2,000 students from Maharashtra in Ukraine and details of 366 students have been received by the state government so far.
“My friends in Kiev and Kharkiv are in a critical situation and I request the Indian embassy and the Indian government to take care of all students who are stuck,” Challa Sudarshana pleaded.
“They don’t even have transport to go to neighbouring cities, so please help them and get them evacuated as soon as possible,” she added.
(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)