HYDERABAD: The clock struck 1 am as second-year medical student Abishek Shanmugam shut his books on February 24 in Poltava. With alarms set for 6 am, he slept peacefully, oblivious to the looming devastation. But even before his alarm could ring, the 50 missed calls from his parents and friends jolted him out of his slumber. Russia had unleashed a full-scale military invasion in Ukraine and life in the country turned on its head overnight.
Across the country, in the western city of Uzhgorod, another student, Helan Cynthia, too awoke to the catastrophic news from her family. Though away from the action, she was not excluded from its consequences. Grocery stores saw hordes of people and empty shelves, digital payment was rendered useless as cash took priority, and ATMs were hidden behind hour-long queues. With whatever groceries they could manage to gather, Helan and Abishek returned home to the deafening air sirens and chaos. Their cities were not under attack but the clock was ticking and they needed a plan to escape.
Hard times, hard decisions
Thrown in the belly of the beast, fate was not as kind to Radhika*, a third-year medical student from Kharkiv. A loud shelling that turned a few kilometres around her into rubbles, woke her up at 4.30 am. Danger had knocked at her door, but there was no time to panic. To be rushed to the bunkers was not an uncommon concept in this city at the time, but they did not expect the life they would live in the coming week — one with almost no food or water, and even basic sanitation. “We stayed in our bunker for at least 10 days. At first, we would go down only when sirens were rung but when war was declared, we stayed put. We had a few chapatis and snacks that we shared with each other.
But as days passed, resources depleted and we had no electricity. We even shared one bathroom among 350 people there. The worst sufferers were those on their periods, who had to succumb to using torn off blankets in the absence of sanitary products,” she recalls. Soon, hunger became unbearable. That’s when a group of seniors — including Radhika — took charge, and the fatal risk, of going to the hostel and cooking meals for the rest. Just as they were on their mission, another shelling shook the group of students as a part of the kitchen was also destroyed.
“Thankfully, my friend had moved the induction across the room and we narrowly escaped,” she says, quivering. In the same city lived Bengaluru’s 18-year-old Jay Karthika. After barely spending a few months in the country, all that the Kharkiv National Medical University student has brought back home are traumatic memories. “We stayed in the bunker for 10 days. Water supply was cut off by the Ukrainian government and we had to manage with a few sips a day,” she recounts.
As Radhika and Karthika braved their dreadful reality, several others like Abishek and Helan began their arduous journey to the borders. But they were not the only ones. People of all nationalities and ages were seeking a way out, causing an impenetrable sea on the roads. It was as if bad news was around every turn of the road. Like the one 18-year-old Nabihah Huda met with after fighting crawling traffic for hours from Kyiv to Chernivtsi. “Ahead of reaching the airport in Kyiv, we learned that Russia had blasted the air space. We had to return to Chernivtsi through the sluggish traffic.
A journey that should have taken 10 hours turned to a 30-hour ordeal,” she says. For Abishek, the move-out came with a moral dilemma. As someone who had given his information to the embassy, he felt it appropriate to be patient and wait for a response. But when things got serious, his friends convinced him to board a bus and thankfully so, because the very next day, Russian tanks were spotted on city borders. With 60 people split onto two buses, they may have made progress, but rest was from possible that night. “We drove 18 hours in the cold — which is dangerous enough — through the night. We kept looking out of our windows, ready to run out if we had to. We allowed ourselves a moment of relief when we saw the sunrise,” he says.
Risk became a common factor for students coming in from every corner of the country. With high demand for all transportation, one had to fight to find their seat on board (some facing their share of violence and unfair behaviour). Desharaju Sai Anirudh of Zaporizhzhya State Medical University fortunately did not face much trouble, at least for the first couple of days. “The airport was shut and we were unsure of getting home. We — a group of 1,500-odd students — had to take the train. A 12-hour journey stretched to a miserable 30 hours. But, if we chose the road instead, there was no hope, for safety as there were frequent sirens and alarms everywhere,” he shares.
The final stretch
Their bodies not supporting them anymore, sleep resting heavy on their eyes and danger awaiting them every minute, the students finally made their way to the borders. But their journey was far from over. There were four borders that were available to Indian citizens — Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary — and each of them presented its own unforeseen issues. Belagavi resident Shreyas Patil awaited the crossing outside the Romanian borders for 13 hours.
“We were up against -5oC weather when we crossed the border by foot. Indians were given secondary treatment and the Ukrainian army opened fire when some tried to sneak across,” he claims. Radhika faced similar treatment from some Ukrainian citizens on a train. “They were giving priority to their citizens so we got a seat only when they were done boarding. In this process, many men with us were also beaten. I understand their viewpoint because if this were to have happened in our nation, we would have wanted to save our people too. But the situation could have been handled better,” she says. Where some were facing the violent consequences of scarcity, others seemed to encounter better outcomes. After a whole day of travel, Abishek’s bus placed itself behind a six-hour-long queue but was extradited to the border immediately by Ukrainian authorities as a priority group for evacuation.
While these last-minute plans may have offered no room for error, the situation did not seem much better for those who planned ahead. Twenty-three-year-old Bobby Mayank Sharma of Hyderabad pressed the panic button as early as February 15. As the students of Zaporizhzhya State Medical University saw their American, English and Nigerian classmates getting help from their embassies, they waited for an update. Bobby could see his junior from Chandigarh turn pale out of fear and stepped up to the task of communications.
“We tried to get in touch with the embassy. The university had given no notice either. On February 19, the embassy sent a notice stating that Indian students were to leave regardless of the college announcements. From then, we struggled a lot. I took care of 40 students and started self-evacuation,” he informs. With no help, the students carved their own path and crossed over to Budapest.
At such a young age, these students displayed incredible bravery and command.
But they weren’t the only ones saving lives. Dr B Divya S Raj Reddy, an educator at the same university, involuntarily became the in-charge of 1,500 students who had to be evacuated. “We had to accommodate all the students on the same train. Everything was going well but the train could fit only 1,000. We had to travel for 20 hours, people were having panic attacks and there was even a nine-month pregnant woman with us. Evacuating students was a challenge but we were strong,” she says.
Finally, they all reached the finish line that came into sight after strenuous days, if not weeks. Safety was just a step away. But first, they had to find themselves a flight and until they did, they huddled in shelters — hostels, IT companies, and closed football stadiums. For some, this was the first morsel of food they would taste in over a week. Luck played its role here. While some were homebound on the same day, the others halted at shelters a few days longer. From Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, students flew their way to Delhi, Ghaziabad and Mumbai and finally to Chennai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru. Sighs of relief, heavy eyelids, teary eyes — they were finally back home, back into the arms of their loved ones who were pacing anxiously at the airports.
Deaths, shellings, hunger, thirst, and fatigue haunt you beyond the borders of warring nations. The past few weeks have forced these students to look at life with a new perspective. Trauma continues to reign supreme. “My parents were worried, if I would ever return alive. Anytime I hear a loud noise now, I feel like running to the bunker. The trauma I am going through is very intense,” confesses Karthika, who has witnessed the death of a senior and crept into depression.
And how could a parent not share the pain of a child, watching the gut-wrenching news like that of the death of Karnataka boy Naveen Shekharappa Gyanagoudar, in a shelling when he merely went to purchase food for his friends? Some are marred by survivor’s guilt. Cynthia had left behind her neighbours, a 28-year-old woman with twin toddlers and a landlord, who she has deemed “very lovable”. “They were so happy to see me leave. They were glad that I would be safe in India. They can’t move anywhere. We are safe because of our embassy but where would they go?” she asks.
where to, now?
The futures of approximately 18,000 Indian students in Ukraine hang in the balance. Radhika was to give her KROK exams (licensing tests) this year. Failing which, she may have to repeat a year. In fact, for Cynthia and her, these exams forced them to stay back in the country. But one day changed everything. As judgements and vile assumptions continue to come in from all quarters, there are many a reason that students stayed put in Ukraine at the cusp of a war. They may be safe at home, but what awaits these students, one does not know. *Name changed