“The situation in Kharkiv is so sensitive, we cannot imagine where the bomb will blast next.”
As the news of 21-year-old Naveen Shekharappa Gyanagoudar's death, amid shelling in Ukraine's Kharkiv, trickled down to other parts of the world, another Indian student, 23, sat cramped among several others at a hidden location in the same city. Speaking to The Quint on the phone on Tuesday, 1 March, she said: “Please ask the authorities to evacuate us from Kharkiv as soon as possible.”
But she was not keen on disclosing her name for the purpose of this article for fear of “increasing the worries of family back home" in Madhya Pradesh (MP).
Karnataka's Naveen was standing in a queue at a Kharkiv supermarket to buy groceries when the Russian shelling began. Speaking about how she is managing food and water, the 23-year-old MP student said:
“Yesterday (Monday), we went out for an hour while the shelling had stopped. We went to the supermarket. But now supermarkets are closed after shells were dropped over them, so we aren’t getting anything now. The Ukrainians are saying that they will help and they will distribute things. Let’s see what is going to happen.”
On being asked if she even has enough supplies to last another couple of days at least, she said they are managing.
“We can manage with what we have till we don’t have to move anywhere, as we can conserve our energy. If we have to move 20 kms to reach somewhere, then we will need more.”
Some of those staying with her left on Tuesday. They took off on foot and walked several long kilometers to get to the railway station.
“But there are no taxis right now. They are not working. If they are working, they are taking 100 dollars. It is very bad – both expensive and unsafe – to take a taxi right now because there is so much shelling going on."
“Nobody is saying you can’t go, because it is your decision. But everybody is saying if you want to leave, you have to do it at your own risk.”23-year-old student in Kharkiv
When Students Go 'Missing'
"...Last seen at Romania border."
"...Last seen at Poland border."
"...If anyone has any info, please DM us or inform us on Telegram."
Twitter account Team SOS India has recently been inundated with such posts as thousands of Indian students remain stranded in and around Ukraine while the country combats Russian invasion. The account also runs a Telegram group for communication of information and SOS calls.
According to Harsh Goel, an Indian student, who recently undertook a long and arduous journey from Ukraine’s Ivano-Frankivsk to a refugee camp in Romania, many students go "missing" amid the chaos of exodus and crowds on the borders.
Another Indian student, Aditya Gaur (22), who recently made it to Budapest (Hungary) from Dnipro (Ukraine), claimed that around 10-15 students are said to have "gone missing" at the Romania border.
A student's absence may ring alarm bells, Goel says, if he loses his phone, his battery dies, or he is separated from his friends.
“Presently, my friends are all in different shelters and I am with a group of strangers. If my phone battery had died, perhaps, I too would have been dubbed missing,” says Goel.
Sometimes, according to Nitesh Singh, founding member of Team SOS India, entire groups of friends leave together but get separated during the course of the journey and are unable to remain in touch.
“If we are not able to connect with them, we put them on a separate list which is for tracking them. We don’t say “missing” as in (literally) missing. We have the perception that they may have run out of battery or something. What we do is we ask the team to connect with them via WhatsApp call or messages. And when we get connected with them, we connect them with anyone who may be on that route.”Nitesh Singh
It once took them approximately 36 to 37 hours to re-establish contact with a first-year-college student, said Singh, adding that she is now safe and in Romania.
“We believe that if you are together, you can overcome any problem,” Singh added.
Frost-Bitten, Tired, Scared
And problems are aplenty. For Harsh Goel, the journey to Romania's refugee camps was not free from strife.
“The day the war began, we realised we had to leave,” Goel said. But ATMs were running out of cash, grocery stores would not accept anything but cash, and just making it to the border was not enough.
“The students, ourselves, collected money and arranged buses, and came to the Romanian border. There was nothing there, no official, no shelter, no blankets in sub-zero temperature. Only one Romanian organisation had arranged food and water. Nothing except that. And there were approximately 2,000 students wanting to get out.”
They waited in long queues amid adverse conditions, many frost-bitten, several giving up and turning back, until contractors from their universities arrived and expedited the process, because there were no other officials around to help the students out.
Until they could finally get through, many students had just stood there in queues refusing to budge even for food or rest, because if they did, someone else was likely to take their place and they would have to go all the way to the back of the queue again, shared Goel.
The journey of Anand Meena, a student from Uttar Pradesh studying at the Ternopil National Medical University, to Bardejov, Slovakia, was similarly wrought with difficulties.
The cab dropped his group 30 km from the Polish border, they walked 12-15 hours in sub-zero temperatures just to get there, waited for a similar period of time in the cold, faced alleged misbehaviour by the Ukranian guards, only to not be allowed to cross over to Poland.
Then they were sent in two buses to Lviv city, where, on arriving, Meena and his group continued to wait.
But no vehicle arrived to transport them out of the country. So the group booked a car through an agent and made their way, by themselves, first towards Uzhhorod and then towards Slovakian border – where finally the Ukranian forces too, which had doled out purported bad behaviour on the Polish border, treated them well and helped them in.
“Indian Embassy has helped us a lot," Meena further shared. "The volunteers gave us food, and they have put us up at a nice hotel in Slovakia free of charge."
But Meena had only one request from the reporter:
“Please convey this to the authorities, that we be sent back to India, even from Slovakia, as soon as possible. Even though we are safe now, we are concerned that the war may still come to us here.”
As Meena shares that the locals have told him that he will be able to get on a flight back to India in about three days, he maintains that he will only be able to feel safe once he is home.
Meanwhile, 22-year-old Aditya Gaur, who recently reached Budapest from Dnipro, after 48 hours of struggle, told The Quint:
“The government advisory says you can travel free-of-cost in trains, but there isn’t any significant assistance given by the Indian Embassy at that level. If a contractor is serious, they will get us one or two buses, otherwise none at all. It is an ordeal just to get entry into the trains, with the Ukrainians trying to keep us out as we are foreigners and they too want to get to the borders.”
He also specified that while they were offered immense support and assistance by both Indian embassy and nationals on arrival at Budapest, there was constrained embassy support in making it to the border – a journey mired with danger and difficulties.
“But at least we somehow made it out. Many are still trying to. And the situation is much worse in places like Kyiv and Kharkiv," he lamented.
Team SOS India's Nitesh Singh, on his part, pointed out that like Kharkiv, the town of Sumy too is very close to the Russian border (two hours away) and therefore, crumbling under the impact of war-related violence.
"But no one is talking about it. We are unable to get through to the embassy's phone numbers. More than 600 Indian students are stuck there, and in need of urgent evacuation," Singh said.
Escaping Shells, While Awaiting Clarity in Kharkiv
The 23-year-old student from Madhya Pradesh, hiding in Kharkiv, has, as of Tuesday evening, been able to stay in touch with her family. However, she said that the people she is with are scared that they will lose electricity in one or two days.
“And if the electricity is gone then we will also not be able to talk on the phone,” she points out.
Her other concerns include going back to India and not being able to return to Ukraine to finish her education, for want of money.
But her main concern plainly is: what to do next. With the embassy saying one thing, and others around her saying another, and the borders remaining crowded and the incessant shelling and firing that is underway in the area, the 23-year-old awaits clarity and information.