Shaan Ali’s family and neighbours in Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr have been praying for over 24 hours for their son's safety. His grandmother, unable to hold back her tears, has been staring at the door and the phone hoping for better news.
People in Ukraine had been warned for weeks that war with Russia was imminent, but the attacks on Thursday have rattled them.
With Russia announcing a military operation in Ukraine, thousands of Indian students enrolled in Ukrainian higher education institutions—mostly studying medicine—are in a state of panic and are pleading with authorities to ensure their safe return to India.
“The situation is very critical. We've been hearing noises of bombs and we are living in fear. The locals here are trying to flee to a safer place. The Air India flight was also cancelled so we are unsure of what we can do now,” said Shaan, a final-year medical student living in Kyiv.
'Worried if Internet Services Will Be Suspended'
The situation was under control in other towns until Wednesday night, but a missile attack reported in a residential district in the eastern Ukrainian town of Chuguiv in the Kharkiv region, has raised alarm.
Anju Singh, a teacher of Kendriya Vidyalaya in Dehradun is anxious about the safety of her daughter who is pursuing her second year in medicine in the region.
“I spoke to my daughter and she said that the internet has been shut down. Other places too are facing this threat. We don't know how we will reach them,” she said.
“We are scared of the internet services being shut down. We are working on how to get a sim card for international calling. We have been informed that there is a safe shelter nearby so we can go there if needed. But we are still apprehensive,” said her daughter.
‘With Airspace Shut, Indians Stranded as They Await Evacuation'
From Kharkiv to Chernivtsi, Indian students and professionals living in different parts of Ukraine started arriving on different flights at the Delhi international airport 11 pm onwards on Tuesday.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has left more than 20,000 Indians—mostly students—stranded in the war-torn country. With the Ukrainian government closing its airspace for civilian flights, they are now stranded as they await evacuation.
Students said that residents are quietly flying out of Kharkiv, which is around 40 km from Ukraine’s border with Russia.
Preeti Kokriya’s daughter, who is in her first year of college, was supposed to return on 27 February to Dehradun.
“But now in the present situation all flights have been cancelled. Our children are worried. They tried leaving their hostels but then got stuck on the way in the train. We are watching TV all day and are getting very scared. We request Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi to ensure the safe return of all the Indian kids," she said.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has written to External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar stating that there are 2,320 students from Kerala who are currently pursuing their education in Ukraine. “Many of the students are staying back as they do not want a break in their studies. I request your kind intervention to make necessary arrangements for their return by arranging special flights,” the letter read. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin too raised the issue that about 5,000 students from the state are stranded in Ukraine.
The External Affairs Ministry has set up a control room that will work to ensure the safe homecoming of stranded Indians.
‘A Mixture of Chaos and Calm'
Many Indian students stranded in Ukraine have the same story of anxiety and fear as the escalating situation is hampering their access to basic things like food, water, and money.
Abdul Masjid Khan of Uttar Pradesh’s Kasganj has been glued to the TV set since last evening. His daughter, Jia has been video-calling them every hour to show the deafening silence in the streets since the blaring of siren in the morning, following missile attacks.
“We have appealed to every authority to evacuate us to safety. We are tweeting to the Indian embassy, university, local officials. Many are gathered outside the hostel hoping to speak to the authorities. The students are standing in queues already to get water. There is a mixture of chaos and calm here,” she told her father on a call.
All that her mother wants is “to have her baby back home“.
Meanwhile, Sudharshan from Kerala’s Kozhikode is hoping the situation doesn’t escalate. His daughter, Jhansi, had gone to Zaporizhzhia State Medical University in December 2021. While the students in the area have not faced any issues so far, they are growing apprehensive of the safety factor.
“She is staying with three of her friends and they are cooking their own meals. They have some provisions now and have decided to go and stock up. They get water from outside so are really hoping their supply isn't cut off,” he told The Quint.
He added that at least 65 Malayali students are studying in the same university and so they have been trying to book tickets together in order to facilitate their travel.
“They don't even understand the gravity of the situation because they don't have access to media as much as we do. We have been calling them regularly and updating them. And it is not just about bringing our kids back. We want this situation to de-escalate and also the government needs to ensure that our children’s lives are not threatened.”
‘Flights Cancelled or Too Expensive’
Indian students told The Quint that when the Indian embassy asked the students to leave Ukraine a few days ago, all flights to India were booked out. It was impossible to get a seat on a flight to India easily before 6 March, said a student.
On Thursday, the Indian embassy in Kyiv issued an advisory urging Indians in Ukraine to “maintain calm, and remain safe wherever you are, be it in your homes, hostels, accommodations or in transit.”
A Kashmiri native, Firoz Ahmed, who is studying at Odesa Mechnikov National University said that even if flights are available, the students are unable to book them.
“We are very anxious about the situation and whether this will become a war-like situation. We received an advisory from the United Kingdom that we can leave the country if we wish to. But the ticket prices are too high and so we request the Indian government to make travel arrangements," he said.
“Once we received the advisory, we searched for flights. But either they were cancelled or the very few ones listed were all fully booked. And the one or two seats available is costing us lakhs. How can we afford this? Can the Indian government please look into this?"Ovais Ali Khan from Uttar Pradesh
Sabitha of Kerala’s Kozhikode is in shock and has been mumbling prayers. She told The Quint that her daughter Navya is strong but “she is a child and can’t live in an alien land where they hear bombs being dropped.”
(With inputs from Vivek and Shakir Mir.)