Indian students who had returned from Ukraine after Russian attacks in February this year, months later, are in doldrums again. As new semesters in their Ukrainian universities begin this month, some have chosen to return despite the risks.
On October 19, amid an escalation of hostilities in Ukraine, the Embassy of India in Kyiv, issued an advisory for Indian citizens including students, urging them "leave Ukraine at the earliest by available means".
For students who have only travelled back to the country in the last month, this has had made little difference. They are not returning to India despite the advisory. BOOM spoke to a few students who have returned to Ukraine to understand why they are not leaving the war-torn country.
Sahil Nain, a final year student of the O.O Bogomolets National University in Kyiv, returned to the country from his hometown in Ukraine on September 30. "Over 50 percent of the Indian students (nearly 200 of them) in the final year in my university have returned. Some students from the third year have come back, too," he told BOOM over a phone call.
Classes began in October first week, and Nain is attending a combination of physical and online classes.
In other parts of Ukraine too, students have chosen to return. Abhishek Uppal, a final-year student at the Donetsk National Medical University (DNMU) flew in on October 1, the day physical classes in his university began. "I spoke to the Indian Embassy in Ukraine and was told 2,500 Indian students have returned to Ukraine. Those in badly affected areas like Kyiv and Lviv are being migrated to smaller cities," he said.
But, why are they back in Ukraine?
Even though the National Medical Council (NMC) approved the Academic Mobility Program for medical students last month, following order from the Supreme Court of India, transfers aren't a viable option for everybody.
Furthermore, the NMC released a list of 29 countries where admission transfers would be accepted but mentioned only three universities, all based in Georgia.
"Getting a transfer in my final year will mean losing a semester and additional expenses. I will be paying two semesters worth of extra fee along with an agent's fee of about three to four lakhs. Besides medical fees in most other countries are higher than Ukraine," Nain said.
For Uppal too, who is in the relatively safer Kirovograd region of Ukraine, the additional costs remain a deterrent for a transfer. "The NMC doesn't allow online classes for medical students and stipulates the completion of 54 weeks in Ukraine," he said.
Sandip Bharadwaj, a fifth-year student in the Bukovina State Medical University in Chernivtsi, Western Ukraine, made the difficult choice to avoid losing a semester due to admission transfers. This, despite his parents and relatives advising him against the journey back to the war-town nation from his home in NCR. "Over 200 Indian students have returned to my university," he claimed.
How did they get there?
The airspace over Ukraine remains closed to the ongoing attacks and traveling to Ukraine directly from India is no longer an option. Most students BOOM spoke to, opted for a transit visa from neighbouring Moldova and continued the onward journey to their respective universities by road.
"The flights cost Rs 50,000 with an additional Rs 10,000 for the transit visa. The cab to Kyiv from Moldovia also costed Rs 8,000. Normally, I would spend an average of Rs 25,000 to travel to Ukraine," said Nain about the rise in travel costs.
For those in Western Ukraine, Romania and Moldova have been the popular options for transit visas owing to their proximity to the border areas.
What about the security situation?
The situation in the capital city of Kyiv, Nain confirms, remains tense. "Every time the sirens go off alerting us to impending air raids, we seek shelter in bunkers. Hostels, homes, hospitals, there are bunkers in every building here," he said.
"Over 30 percent of the infrastructure in Kyiv is destroyed, government offices remain shut, banks are closed, and we have been warned of upcoming power cuts," Nain who shares an apartment with his friends there, told BOOM. He added that his parents call him every two hours to check on his safety.
The situation in Chernivtsi and Donetsk is relatively better. "Smaller cities are in better shape. We do hear the sirens getting activated every now and then and there is a curfew in the city every night starting 10 pm. We just stay indoors to keep ourselves safe," Uppal said adding that his classes keep shifting from offline to online based on the situation in the region.
What about supplies?
Uppal tells BOOM that sufficient food and other supplies are available in his town of Kirovograd, albeit more expensive than other times.
In Kyiv too, Nain said, utilities are available but require working around the sirens. "If you are in a mall, you need to vacate the place as soon as a siren goes off," he said.
What about the advisory?
While the advisory, in no uncertain terms, urges Indians to leave the country, medical students have no such plans. This, despite the trauma they faced during evacuation earlier this year.
"We want to be safe, but what do we do back in India without a degree?" asked Bharadwaj. "We already have a Moldova transit visa and are 50 kms away from the border. We will leave if tensions escalate in the area," he added from his university in Chernivtsi, where he claims peace has prevailed for the past seven months.