As the Indian Embassy issues urgent advisory upon advisory for Indians to leave Kharkiv by 6 pm (Ukraine time) fearing an escalation in attacks — on foot if no other means of transport is available — students in a small town three hours away appeal for evacuation.
A close look at the map of Sumy, a small city in the in the north-eastern region of Sumy Oblast reveals its proximity to the Russian border (only 45 kms away) and the vast distance one must cover to arrive at the western borders of Poland, Hungary, Romania, Slovak Republic, and Moldova.
As Ukraine came under attack by Russian forces on February 24, nearly 600 Indian students were stranded at the Sumy State University. All of them medical students, are now appealing to the Government of India, to evacuate them through an alternate route, through Russia.
Within the confines of the university, as air attacks and firing by Russian and Ukrainian troops increases, the students are scared, and time is fast running out on their supplies.
Siyona Ganesan, a 19-year-old, second year MBBS student, reports that she heard blasts at 7.30 am on Wednesday morning and has since been sheltering in a bunker. "They were close to our hostel," she said.
(Video courtesy: Sonam Kumar)
Radhika Sangwan, a fourth year MBBS student, also said, "We have been spending most of our time in the bunkers. The blast this morning left the building shaking, we are very afraid".
On the day of the attacks
All roads from Sumy lead to the cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv, the hub for transport. When the attacks first took place on February 24, students were caught unawares and attempted to flee Sumy. "There were no buses, no trains and no taxis that we could pay to get to the cities. Besides, the attacks began in Kyiv, and it was risky to go there," says Kuhu Kataria, a fourth year MBBS student who hails from Panipat, Haryana.
"We hear that the roads from Sumy to Kyiv and Kharkiv have also been damaged or blocked to prevent entry of Russian troops. Besides, Russian soldiers are on the streets," added Sangwan.
With no hope left, the students are spending their time making videos appealing for help that are now all-over social media.
They are advised not to step out of their hostels for grocery or any other such needs and there is no staff left in the public hostels they live in. "There has been no staff all week, the hostels and the bathrooms are dirty, and we are having to ration our food supplies lest they run out. For now, we are receiving daily supplies courtesy of our agents, but we don't know when that will stop," explained Sangwan.
Every floor on the hostel has its own kitchen and students are cooking their own meals of dal and rice, and "trying to eat as less as possible". The city too, they said, is running out of food supplies.
They have made attempts to reach out to the Indian embassy but have heard of no evacuation plans for Sumy. "The only way to evacuate us is via Russia," claimed Kuhu.
BOOM also spoke to their agent, 28-year-old Joseph Renish, who seeks evacuation himself, with his Ukrainian wife and infant. He told us that only 70-100 students from Sumy State University were able to leave the campus before the attacks, and 576 remain stranded there.
"I spoke to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) this morning and they have assured me that evacuation will take place through the Russian border and their representatives are already on their way to Moscow," he said. "When the city council alerts us of air raids, we ask the students to go their bunkers. Sumy is being used as a passage by Russian troops to go Kyiv," he added explaining that evacuation through Russia could also lead to hostility from Ukrainian civilians who are now armed.
"Besides there are landmines on the routes to Kyiv and Kharkiv to prevent the advancement of Russian troops", he said.
Why didn't they leave sooner?
While a small number of students managed to leave the country before the attacks, most of the student stayed back to attend classes. Part of the problem here seems to lie with the university that issued no notices of caution and actively discouraged the students from leaving.
"When we told our teachers that there were some students returning to India and asked them if we should leave too, we told, 'Are they stupid? There will be no war'", said Sangwan.
The students also reported that their classes remained offline until a day prior to the attack. "The college also made 100 percent attendance compulsory and for those of us in the final year, months away from receiving our degree, a trip back meant reworks and losing an entire semester," said Kataria.
On February 23, hours before the first attacks occurred, students from the university received an email notification that urged all Indian students to travel back to their country. "We booked our tickets, mine were for February 26, my friends for February 24 February, but it was too late by the next morning," said Siyona.
Renish also cites the lack of enough flights as one of the reasons why students couldn't leave in time. The students, he says, are stocked with supplies for the next three to four days, with foods that he could help source for them. "We have also supplied some items that will last them two weeks, but we hope that we are all evacuated much before that," said Renish.
The students, however, claim that they have been hearing talks of evacuation "in a day or two" right from the day of the attacks and no longer know what to believe. "We are sitting here in our rooms, and bunkers, trying to keep our spirits up, but by now, they are broken," said Sangwan.
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