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New Delhi: With the Russian-announced ceasefire failing to hold, the plan to evacuate over 700 Indian students from the city of Sumy, which is one of the frontlines of fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces, had to be aborted at the last moment after students were “packed like sardines”.
On Monday morning, the Russian ministry of defence announced that it would open humanitarian corridors in at least four cities of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Sumy and Mariupol from 7 am GMT at the “personal request” of French President Emmanuel Macron.
The Russian announcement was followed by maps published by the RIA news agency. The corridors for civilians to leave Kyiv and Kharkiv led to Belarus and Russia, respectively. The corridors led both to Russia and other Ukrainian cities for two cities, Sumy and Mariupol.
With over 700 Indian students stranded at Sumy, New Delhi was looking to quickly get them out in a gap between the intense fighting, either to the east to the Russian border or towards the relatively peaceful western Ukrainian cities.
In Sumy, hopes were raised when the Indian embassy tweeted on Sunday night that students were “advised to be ready to leave on short notice”. The embassy had also stationed a team at Poltava city to “coordinate the safe passage of Indian students stranded in Sumy to Western borders”.
But by mid-afternoon, the first attempt to get the Indian medical students out from Sumy had to be abandoned, with the ceasefire failing to be agreed by both sides.
The Indian Prime Minister held phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, calling for a quick evacuation of Indian students from Sumy.
The Russian president again alleged that Indian students in Kharkiv had been held “hostage” by “radicals”, who managed to leave “only after strong international pressure was exerted on Kiev”. Russia has repeatedly claimed that over 3000 Indian students were being held “hostage” by Ukrainian nationalists, which has been publicly denied by the Indian government.
According to the Kremlin’s readout, Putin conveyed that Russian military personnel were “doing their best to evacuate Indian citizens from Sumy”.
The sharp differences between the Russian and Ukrainian sides over the humanitarian corridors came to light on Monday, with Kyiv outraged that Ukrainian citizens would have to evacuate into Russian territory.
Accusing Russia of using “people’s suffering to create television picture”, a spokesperson of the Ukrainian president said, “They are citizens of Ukraine, they should have the right to evacuate to the territory of Ukraine”.
Both sides have already failed twice to start civilian evacuation from the besieged port city of Mariupol, where hundreds have been trapped without food and water.
Late on Monday night, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk posted on Facebook that Russia had taken “hostage” 2,046 students from 27 countries by not allowing them to leave from “hot areas”. Giving a breakup of the foreign students, she stated that it included 659 Indians, 400 from Nigeria, 144 from Turkey and another 160 Chinese students.
“If tomorrow we manage to launch the humanitarian corridor from Sumy to Poltava for women, children and elderly, we will get the foreign students out as well,” she wrote.
For the Indian students, the last 24 hours have been an emotional roller coaster.
An 18-year-old medical student narrated that they had been first told on Sunday night that buses would arrive to pick them up at around 8 am on Monday. “But, around 11.30 p.m. (on Sunday), we were told that the ceasefire has not been confirmed, so the plan has been abandoned”.
Bitterly disappointed, most of the students slept in late on Monday, assuming that there would be no evacuation. “Around 7.30 am today, we were suddenly told that we had to get ready and the buses were ready to arrive at around 9.30 am. The Ukrainian government had apparently agreed to the ceasefire. We were rushing to get ready and also to wake up our friends in different rooms,” she said.
There was a strict priority on the boarding line-up when the buses arrived. “First Indian girls, then Indian boys and after that Pakistani and Bangladesh students could get on the bus.”
With around four to five buses arriving to transport the 700-odd students, the plan was to pack each vehicle to the gills.
“We were packed like sardines in the first two buses. Two people were sitting together on each seat, one on top other. And then we were told to get out, and the ceasefire was not holding,” she told The Wire.
Another medical student said they had foodstuff to last one day longer. The Indian students were living across nine floors in two buildings in the compound of Sumy State University. The water supply had returned intermittently, but only on one floor.
“We still haven’t heard anything so far if the evacuation will happen,” he said.
For Indian officials, the fate of the Mariupol ceasefire – as well as that of Monday’s attempt – has shown that mere announcement of a cessation of hostilities cannot be taken at face value, especially in a war zone. With the students having to be evacuated in slow-moving buses, it would be difficult to take a risk unless there was a concrete implementation of a ceasefire for several hours, which would prevent the worst-case scenario of the convoy ending up in the middle of resumed fighting.