'How Do We Reach the Borders?': Indians in Ukraine Struggle to Escape Russian Invasion

“They have not started any evacuations from Kharkiv. Here there are bombings every few hours and even minutes, but they are evacuating people from Chernivtsi, which has barely seen any aggression.”

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New Delhi: As the Russian attack on Ukraine continues, countless Indian students and professionals remain stuck in different parts of Ukraine.

Amid blasts, cross-border shelling and some efforts by the Indian government to evacuate citizens, Indian students caught in the intensifying military crisis feel they are being left to fend for themselves.

A 24-year-old student in Kharkiv, Nadeem Mandelia, has been living in the underground subway of the Naukova metro station for almost two days now. Mandelia, a student at the V.N. Karazin Kharkiv National University, told The Wire, “This station is 500 metres away from my hostel. In between explosions, I am running back to my hostel to procure food items, those also won’t last long.”

Mandelia laments the Indian government’s alleged inaction. The government, he said, is evacuating Indians from Chernivtsi, a city which is barely 20 km from Romania. “They have not started any evacuations from Kharkiv. Here there are bombings every few hours and even minutes, but they are evacuating people from Chernivtsi, which has barely seen any aggression,” said Mandelia.

Originally from Rajasthan, Mandelia and his other Indian friends in Kharkiv are watching while their fellow students from other countries are evacuated by their respective governments.

“Locals seem prepared, they’ve seen a war before, they know where to hide and how long to stock up supplies, but us, we are still waiting for help which we cannot see anywhere near us,” Mandelia continued. He claimed that at least 7,000 Indian students are currently stranded in Kharkiv, with no access to any evacuation drives.

“I have filled hundreds of evacuation forms, but nobody is here to ensure our safe exit.”

Payal Mulani, another student from Rajasthan at the Petro Mohyla Black Sea National University, is living in her hostel basement with 146 other Indian students stranded in Mykolaiv. “Locals have been throwing gas bombs and petrol molly bombs at the Russian military now,” said Mulani, as she spoke to The Wire amid explosions.

The Russian military also bombed the strategic maritime town of Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine on Saturday night. One substantial blast lit up the skyline at around 6 pm local time. Heavy shelling vibrated throughout the outskirts of the town, sending residents into deeper panic and dingy basements.

Mulani and scores stranded with her are running out of supplies and have claimed that they have not been able to establish any contact with the Indian embassy. Scared and anxious, these students are fearful of moving even an inch out of the basement as they continue to hear explosions every few hours.

Anindita Maiti, a 23-year-old student at the Kyiv Medical University, has been living in an underground parking lot of her building since she and her fellow building residents heard bombs go off in eastern Kyiv. As Kyiv braces for an escalated Russian assault, residents are witnessing the capital city being dug up with bunkers to safeguard people for as long as possible. Maiti said, “There are bunkers all around my building, all we know is that we’re scared.”

People lined up outside a food store in Kyiv. Photo: Special arrangement

According to Indians in Ukraine The Wire is in touch with, there is an increasing number of locals and foreigners who are stuffing their belongings into cars and leaving Kyiv for locations that still remain untouched by the Russian military.

Yashika Sethi, a 27-year-old Indian teacher, has now left Kyiv for Lviv, to make her way to the Polish border. “We stood in the queue at a gas station for three hours so that we could leave Kyiv.” During her journey from Kyiv to Lviv, Sethi told The Wire, she heard explosions every few hours. Lviv, which is 80 km from the Polish border, has been warned about air raids by the Ukrainian authorities, along with Ternopil, Sumy, Chernihiv and Mykolaiv.

At the Polish border near Lviv. Photo: Yashika Sethi

With nearly 16,000 Indians marooned in Ukraine, the Union government has assured all its citizens in Ukraine that they will take all possible efforts to bring them back safely.

But for Indians stranded in the country under attack, questions of safety and evacuation hit hard. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, even if they evacuate us, not everyone will be able to reach the Ukrainian borders with Hungary and Poland,” said Rajnish, a doctor working in Kyiv who only wanted to use his first name, as he complained of late action on the part of the government.

While the Indian government’s teams head to Ukraine’s borders to help evacuate Indians and ensure their safe exit and return, many like Pradeep Singh, a 23-year-old student at the Mariupol State Humanitarian University, are taking shelter in bunkers and underground subway stations. Social media is still flooded with students and professionals pleading with the Indian embassy in Kyiv for assistance and guidance as they witness explosions and bombings every few hours.

Indian students located in areas such as Rubizhne, to the north of separatist region Luhansk, have shared that the region has been completely swamped with Russian military forces, their vehicles pinned with the Russian tricolour.

External affairs minister S. Jaishankar on February 25 held talks with Hungary foreign minister Peter Szijjarto about escape routes from Ukraine. Exit points along the Romanian border have been identified, and Slovakian foreign minister Ivan Korcok has also expressed willingness to facilitate the evacuation of Indians.

Students have been advised to carry their passports and cash (American dollars), as well as their COVID-19 vaccination certificates, the government’s advisory has said. Students have been also advised to print out and prominently display the Indian national flag on their cars or buses. In view of the intensifying battle, the family members of Indians stranded in Ukraine protested near the Embassy of the Russian Federation in central Delhi on February 26, for the safe return of their relatives.