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Business News/ Politics / News/  In search of a passage to India, from harrowing Ukraine

In search of a passage to India, from harrowing Ukraine

Indian students share their harrowing experiences and the struggle to get home as bombs fall all around them
  • With the war expected to intensify, the Indian embassy in Ukraine has shut down. Students in Kharkiv have been told by the embassy to leave immediately, under all circumstances
  • People gather in a subway, using it as a bomb shelter, in Kyiv (also know as Kiev), Ukraine, on Wednesday. (Photo: AP/PTI)Premium
    People gather in a subway, using it as a bomb shelter, in Kyiv (also know as Kiev), Ukraine, on Wednesday. (Photo: AP/PTI)

    TORONTO : September 2021 marked a liberation of sorts for Surbhi and her classmates at the Kharkiv National Medical University in Ukraine. After being forced to attend online classes as the covid-19 pandemic spread, they were elated when the institution announced that it was starting in-person classes for the fall semester.

    Surbhi, who had cleared the highly competitive National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for medicine, had decided to pursue a medical degree in Ukraine as it was far more affordable and far less competitive than in India.

    Ukraine's pull
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    Ukraine's pull

    In December 2020, she received her admission into the Kharkiv National Medical University, but the covid-19 pandemic struck. Within months, universities across Ukraine moved to remote learning.

    Surbhi moved back to India but returned to Ukraine again in September. Here, she rented an apartment in Kharkiv with two friends, one from Kolkata and the other from Ludhiana.

    Over the last decade, Ukraine has become the go-to destination for thousands of aspiring students from India who want to study medicine. The ease of getting admission and the cost—70% less than in India—have been the main pull. This has even led to a mushrooming of agencies in various parts of India facilitating admission to Ukrainian universities.

    Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, has a population of 14 million people, of which at least 100,000 are students. But little did Surbhi and the others know that six months after in-person classes began, they would be caught in the crossfire of a bloody war as Russia invaded Ukraine. There are several thousands of Indian students stuck in Ukraine struggling to get out.

    Enemy at the gates

    Russia’s full-scale military strike on Ukraine entered the seventh day on Wednesday. Kharkiv, in the north-east of Ukraine, not far from the Russian border, has come in for intense shelling. As they see the gruesome images of death and destruction in Kharkiv on their screens, the people of Ukraine are getting a glimpse of what lies in store for other cities if the war does not end.

    On Tuesday, the Ukrainian government said eight people had been killed in a Russian airstrike on a residential building in the city. Earlier, Russian missiles had destroyed an administrative building, killing an Indian student.

    After their first talks since the war started failed to secure a breakthrough on Monday, Russia continued to target residential areas in Kharkiv indiscriminately. That day, curfew had been lifted for a few hours, allowing residents to stock up on groceries and essential items before returning to shelter in make-shift bunkers in their building basements.

    Surbhi had just returned to her apartment after buying biscuits and flour. Even from a distance, she could see the rising smoke and hear bombs explode. “We had to walk to a supermarket close to a metro station. There were long queues when the market opened up. We stocked up on biscuits, and as I entered the apartment we got a warning that there would be heavy shelling," Surbhi told Mint on a WhatsApp call.

    Through the call, the 22-year-old stayed composed, describing life in a war zone that until a week ago was her university town. Shock and fear have triggered the instinct for survival, as Surbhi and her friends looked to somehow get through each day. “We pack our bags, fill water bottles and prepare food that will last us through the day," she said. When the sirens ring and the explosions get closer, the students rush to the basement of the building. “The last two days we have felt the bombing getting closer. We know this because our window panes have started rattling," she said. Our call lasted for 10 minutes. “I will charge my phone now and call you in the evening," Surbhi told me.

    A student dies

    On 28 February, several students from Kharkiv packed their suitcases in an attempt to catch a train from Naukova station on the Kharkiv metro line to get to the capital Kiev in the north-cental region of the country. Upon reaching the station they were told that foreign nationals would not be allowed to board the train.

    I called in the evening to see how Surbhi and her friends are doing, only to find they were rushing to the basement. “Would love to chat but there is no network at all in the basement," she said. Some of the students planned to make another attempt to get to the railway station to take the train to Kiev but noticed the military unit next to their apartment armed and regrouping for a new round of firing. Perhaps this was when 20-year-old Naveen Shekharappa, a student from Karnataka, who was waiting in a grocery store queue at an administrative building in Kharkiv, was killed by Russian bombs. He is the first Indian national killed in the Ukraine-Russian war.

    On Tuesday, the government confirmed that Shekharappa had died following the intense shelling of Kharkiv. “With profound sorrow, we confirm that an Indian student lost his life in shelling in Kharkiv this morning. The ministry is in touch with his family. We convey our deepest condolences to the family," external affairs ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said in a tweet.

    Shekharappa’s death is a grim reminder that the Indian government has an uphill battle in ensuring that the 2,000-plus students trapped in the north-eastern parts of Ukraine, in cities such as Kharkiv and Sumy, are safe. These are the cities that are close to the border with Russia. A road journey towards the western border with Poland or Romania is 17 hours long, and life threatening, as Russian forces march towards Kiev.

    Mixed signals

    The Indian government has demanded that Russia and Ukraine provide safe passage to Indian nationals in conflict zones. The students Mint spoke to, however, said there is no clarity about their situation. While there were clear signs that Russia was preparing to launch an attack, it was not until 25 February that a full-blown war began. “We have been questioned about why we didn’t leave two weeks ago, when the advisories came in. But we had received mixed signals about the situation," said a student, who did not want to be identified.

    The student said an agent had assured them nothing would happen. Moreover, the university demanded 100% attendance and leaving the country would result in the students missing an entire academic year. “We did not want to miss our classes and we took this as a message that our stay was essential," explained the student.

    It was only on 24 February, after the Ukranian government imposed martial law, that universities announced a two-week vacation, till 13 March. “Martial law has been declared in Ukraine. Karazinites, stay at home with your families. Remain calm, sensible, take care of yourself and your loved ones! Remember, safety is a priority now!" read the announcement from Karazin Kharkiv Medical University.

    Fear in the bunker

    In Sumy, Niranjana Santhosh, a fifth-year medical student, has been sending SOS messages to the MEA’s helpline. Her videos show a group of scared students in bunkers as the city above gets bombed. There are 700 Indian students now waiting to be evacuated from Sumy, 48 km from the Russian border.

    On 27 February, in a call with Mint, Niranjana pleaded for help. “We have food supplies only for two days and we don’t know when we will get out. It is really scary," she said. A resident of Thrissur district in Kerala, Niranjana, 22, said most of the evacuation efforts by the Indian government were concentrated on the western side of Ukraine, from where it is far easier to evacuate people. Every night, power is cut and students are advised to remain in their bunkers. On the morning of 28 February, Niranjana sent a voice message to Mint, saying the situation seemed “sort of ok". She and her friends took a taxi to buy groceries.

    “It is not easy to stay in a bunker. It is too dusty. Of course, we know this is a war and we must adjust, but it is just hard," she said. The uncertainty over evacuation from Sumy is adding to the students’ frustration. Indian government helplines have told students that they will be evacuated through the Russian border in a couple of days’ time, but they have no way of knowing if this information is reliable. For students in Sumy, the option of taking a train to Kiev is also ruled out as the rail lines are not operational.

    On 1 March, the mood in the bunkers in Sumy turned sombre as news of Shekharappa’s death reached the students. That evening, sirens went off, sending the students scurrying down to the bunkers. Power was cut and the street lights were switched off.

    While the students cower in their bunkers, their worried parents are hanging on every piece of information trickling out from the MEA. Diya Singh, whose daughter is stuck in Ukraine, told Mint she was shocked to see visuals of bombings in residential areas. She has been urging her daughter to leave the city as soon as safely possible and not wait for the ministry’s assistance.

    Calls to Surbhi’s phone remained unanswered on Tuesday. On WhatsApp, her last seen status was 10 am Ukraine time. Her friend Sarbori said they had managed to get out from Kharkiv and were going cross-country on a train to Lviv in the west, barely 70 km from the border with Poland. It was going to be a 13-hour-long train journey. “I don’t have much charge. We will text you once we reach a safe place," she said, signing off.

    Aman Joon, 21, from Chandigarh, has already made it to Lviv. The student of Karazin Kharkiv National University is making his way along with 19 classmates to Budomeirz on the border with Poland. They left Kharkiv on 1 March. “We managed to arrange a bus five hours after reaching Lviv. We had to arrange for food, bus, and train all by ourselves in Ukraine. The Indian government is helping once we cross the borders. In Ukraine, the train fare is free and they even provided some food. Right now I am totally exhausted but I would like to talk about what I saw only after I reach the border."

    Relief at the border

    Help awaits once they reach the border. In an advisory dated 1 March, the Embassy of India in Poland said: “Indians presently in Lviv and Ternopil and other places in western Ukraine may travel at the earliest to Budomierz border check-point for a relatively quick entry into Poland."

    Alternatively, they have been advised to travel south for a transit via Hungary or Romania. “Those who enter Poland from any other border crossing where Indian officials are not deployed may kindly travel directly to Hotel Prezydencki … in Rzeszow where all arrangements have been made for their stay and from where Operation Ganga flights to India are being operated regularly," the embassy said.

    On 2 March, the evacuation of roughly 1,200 students in Kharkiv’s hostels began. The students were told Indian embassy officials have left Kiev. An agent named Hardeep Singh and his friends walked the students to the railway station for immediate evacuation out of Kharkiv. The students were urged to just get on the trains and leave. It will take at least two days for everyone to get on a train and many may have to wait near the station.

    From the looks of it, things will get worse before they get better. On the evening of 2 March, the Indian embassy in Ukraine posted this tweet from its account (in capital letters to underline the urgency): “Urgent advisory to all Indian nationals in Kharkiv. For their safety and security they must leave Kharkiv immediately. Proceed to Pesochin, Babaye and Bezlyudovka as soon as possible. Under all circumstances, they must reach these settlements by 1800 hrs (Ukrainian time) today."

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    Published: 02 Mar 2022, 11:41 PM IST
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