Indian Student Recounts Escape From Ukraine

Indian Student Recounts Escape From Ukraine

Indian student, Gouri Shankar Parida, 25, said he was scared, although relieved, when he boarded an evacuation bus on Tuesday (March 8) that was going to take him from the war zone at Sumy State University in eastern Ukraine.

An earlier escape plan, just a day before, had fallen through after a planned safe corridor was no longer viable with renewed fighting between the Ukrainians and Russians.

More than 1,200 students from India, Africa and West Asia were trapped at the university for nearly two weeks after the first Russian missiles began raining from the sky and Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine.

Sumy had seen intense fighting, including in the university’s vicinity, making escape near-impossible for the students, including around 700 Indians studying to be doctors.

“I was so nervous (to get on the bus). We saw tanks moving up and down from the university and missiles landing (over the last two weeks),” said Mr Parida, who spoke to The Straits Times, while on a train from Lviv to Poland on Wednesday. “But then it was so horrible (back at the university). We had almost no food and no drinking water.”

The students’ dire situation inflamed public opinion in India, adding further pressure on the government to evacuate them.

One Indian student was even killed in Kharkiv, bringing the war’s fallout brusquely into Indian homes.
The rescue operation started out as one for just Indian students but it ended with other foreign students as well after Indian officials got in touch with the Red Cross in Ukraine to join the students’ convoy for added safety cover.

Phone calls between top leaders in India and those in Ukraine and Russia, as well as hectic parleys involving Indian diplomats on the ground, put together a narrow window to get the students out – the last of more than 20,000 Indian nationals stuck in Ukraine.

A team of officials was flown in from New Delhi to assist the Indian Embassy in Ukraine and others on the ground. Sources said Indian embassy officials went on the ground to see if bridges on the way were intact.

The evacuation finally began in the morning on March 8 with a ride in a convoy of 35 buses, including 12 for Indian students from Sumy to Lokhvytsia, 150 kms away.

This, government sources said, was the hazardous part of the journey with embassy officials asking students, who had been live tweeting their war experience, to stay off social media to prevent attracting unwanted attention.

In Lokhvytsia, buses were changed and the students taken to Poltava. They then took a train to Lviv and finally boarded another train to the Polish border. The entire journey took nearly 48 hours.

The successful evacuation culminated an anxious fortnight for the Indian students who on March 5 had even threatened to begin walking given mounting worry over their safety. They put up a brave front, holed up for several hours daily in their hostel basements with essentials such as water and electricity severely curtailed.

“We are not a target but we could have been hit. This was a very difficult operation in a conflict zone where there was no ceasefire,” said an official who did not want to be named.

A contingency plan to evacuate through the Russian border on the east was shelved as a result of huge logistical challenges, including Ukrainian bus drivers unwilling to risk a journey further east.

Multiple ceasefire violations have endangered civilian evacuation attempts in Ukraine.

Among those evacuated on March 8 was Mohammed Aasif Tariq, another student who became a symbol of the desperation endured by the Indian students stranded in Sumy.

A video of him scraping snow off a bench and putting it in a polythene bag to heat later for water had quickly gone viral on Twitter.

The 24-year-old said he felt really happy to be able to finally leave Ukraine even if thoroughly exhausted after travelling more than 1,000 kilometres. “Now all I want is to reach India,” he told ST on the phone on Thursday from Rzeszów in Poland, where he and others had arrived earlier that morning.

“We had security, the Red Cross was there, ambulances were ahead and behind us. The police were there too. I didn’t feel threatened at all,” said Mr Tariq, describing his journey to Poltava.

India’s external affairs minister S Jaishankar, in a tweet on Friday, noted that the evacuation was “particularly challenging”. He thanked all those involved, including the Red Cross.

The students returned to India aboard three flights from Poland on Friday.

Mr Parida’s thoughts were focused on reuniting with his family in Odisha state, in the eastern part of the country.

“I will first go back home and see my parents and eat as much as I can because we thought we would die of hunger in Sumy.”

The students interviewed by ST were keen on finishing their degrees, eventually.

“If the situation improves, we will surely come back to Ukraine,” added Mr Tariq.

David Philips