Indian students at Polish border.
On February 24, Russia announced a 'military operation' on neighbouring Ukraine after weeks of simmering tensions between the two . Air raids were reported from several parts of Ukraine and panic descended on the population, including an estimated 18,000 Indians stranded there who were now waiting for embassy's help to be evacuated.
The Indian government had operated three evacuation flights before the military operation began in view of the growing tensions in the region. The fourth flight was scheduled on the day of attack, but had to return without any evacuees on-board after the Ukrainian air space was shut, adding to the woes of stranded Indians.
The Indian embassy in Ukraine had issued advisories in view of rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Alternate evacuation routes via from the borders of Romania, Hungary, Poland, Slovak Republic, and Moldova were later activated. So far, six evacuation flights have brought back 1386 Indians from Ukraine under Operation Ganga.
As the fighting reached the streets of Ukraine, with major cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv coming under attack, Indians stranded in Ukraine, most of them students, started walking towards the land borders. However, for most of them, reaching the borders and making it past has been a grueling task.
Video clips coming out from the Ukranian borders show large groups of students queued up in sub-zero temperatures with no access to food or water, braving snowfall, while the borders open to let them in, in small groups.
Abhinav Kumar, a medical student studying in Ternopil, arrived in Romania after spending three days standing at the border. "There was no tent, no shelter, and no representative of the Indian embassy. We spent long hours standing or hiding inside a petrol pump," he said over a call.
"There were over 2,000 students waiting with our group of 40 and it snowed twice. We were provided food by a Ukrainian NGO helping out stranded students," he added. The gates at the Romanian border, Kumar said, opened only a couple of times every 24 hours, and let over a dozen students at a time. Women were given priority, but many had to still wait.
Making it on their own
The capital city of Kyiv, and other major cities Kharkiv and Odesa, have witnessed blasts since the day of the attack. Students were forced to take shelter in bunkers and underground metro stations. The night of February 26 was particularly tense, according to 23-year-old Deepika Gulati, an MBBS student in Odesa.
"We sat in silence under the light of a candle, away from the windows, taking cover in kitchens and bathrooms as we heard repeated blasts and firing on the streets. There was also news of Russian soldiers being caught on the streets by the Ukrainian military forces and civilians. We asked the embassy about their evacuation plans for Odesa. We were advised to stay indoors for safety. To be evacuated, we had to travel to one of the listed borders at our own risk," she said.
With no hope of improvement in the situation, Gulati boarded one of seven buses that left the Odesa National Medical University. She paid approximately Rs 10,000 for a 20-hour bus journey that dropped them 8 kms short of the border. "Ours was the last bus to leave the campus and we heard a blast while we were leaving," she said.
After waiting for over three hours, amid a bout of snowfall, Gulati crossed over to Romania. She believes, her relatively speedy entry was no more than a stroke of luck. She now awaits another journey to Bucharest for an evacuation flight back home.
Deepak Goyat, another medical student who arrived at the Romanian border from Odesa following an 18-hour bus ride and over 10 kms on foot, was able to pass through after a wait of 24 hours. "Far lesser than others who had been waiting there for over two days. They were letting in 40-50 students in a day and there were over 2,000 waiting," he said adding that he was in touch with the Indian embassy and was assured entry and a short wait-time.
Same story, different border
The first set of students looking for evacuation headed to the Sheyni border between Ukraine and Poland. Here too, there were reports of Indians spending days in a queue, ill-treatment at the hands of Ukrainian officials, and sub-zero temperatures.
We contacted two students who were at the Poland border and while they hoped to cross over, we couldn't confirm their arrival in Poland. "My friend from Ternopil spent over 20 hours at the border and couldn't cross. He had to return," said Goyat.
News spread fast through the numerous Facebook and Telegram groups dedicated to Indian students in Ukraine seeking evacuation, and students made a beeline for the Romanian border. "Everybody was heading there because the border was letting students in more frequently in comparison to Poland," said Gulati.
The students also reported that the Romanian border had begun letting in more students on February 28.
The Indian government, as part of Operation Ganga, is also looking to evacuate Indian nationals through Hungary, Moldova, and Slovak Republic. None of the students we spoke to could confirm entry of students through the Ukraine-Slovak border.
However, the situation at the Hungarian border isn't too different. Harsh Vardhan and Sohan Chaudhary, medical students, with their group of friends have spent the last three days to cross the Ukraine-Hungary border. But, to no avail. "We first went to the Chop-Tysa border and weren't allowed to enter despite an 18-hour-long process. We were asked to pay $150 each in bribe to the Ukrainian officials. We then proceeded to the Luhansk border and have since been waiting in the extreme cold. We haven't had anything to eat in the last three days," Chaudhary said.
As per Indian embassy's advisory, entry to Hungary is being facilitated by their staff at Uzhhorod border. It further states that it is possible for Indian residents to enter the country through other borders but a long waiting time in absence of embassy officials might be creating hurdles.
Chaudhary did try to get in touch with the embassy officials whose contacts were listed on the helplines. "Our calls weren't received, and our messages remain unanswered".
Home in a new country
None of the students we spoke to remember interacting with Indian embassy officials at border crossings. Some of them met with officials after arrival in Romania and were assured speedy flights back home. "Most students before us have had to wait no more than 48 hours and we are expecting the same," said Goyat.
In Romania, they are housed in shelters, provided with food, water, warm clothing, and sanitary napkins. "Some of the students were also handed SIM cards to call home," said Gulati admitting that it was a warm reception following the icy and scary journey there. "We hope to fly back soon, but leaving Ukraine and arriving here has been a relief. We don't mind waiting here," said Gulati.
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