Why scores of Indian students couldn’t leave Ukraine in time, despite advisories

Many Indian students are still stuck in Ukraine, in conflict zones in Kharkiv and Sumy, unable to step out, or waiting to be evacuated from the western borders of Ukraine.
Many Indian students are still stuck in Ukraine, in conflict zones in Kharkiv and Sumy
Many Indian students are still stuck in Ukraine, in conflict zones in Kharkiv and Sumy

Delays by the Indian government in flagging how bad the situation in Ukraine was going to get, and an inadequate early response to get students out of the country are emerging as the primary reasons why hundreds of Indian students are stranded and struggling in Ukraine. A careful tracking of advisories issued by India shows that claims made by government-friendly journalists and social media pundits laying blame on the students who are victims in Russia’s war on Ukraine are not just insensitive but factually incorrect.

On Tuesday, March 1, 21-year-old medical student Naveen Gyanagoudar was killed in Russian shelling while he was standing in line to buy food outside a supermarket in Kharkiv, a city in the eastern part of Ukraine. While the incident has sent shockwaves in the Indian student community stranded in Ukraine, soon the narrative started taking an unexpected slant toward why Naveen went outside, or why students chose to remain in Ukraine ‘despite multiple advisories from India’. An Aaj Tak reporter went to the extent of questioning the students stranded in Ukraine as to why they continued to stay while the “embassy was taking so many steps to evacuate them”. Former Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said Indian students could have “miscalculated the gravity of the situation”.

However, students TNM spoke to said that the Indian Embassy was not proactive enough to inform them about how bad the situation was, or how worse it could get in the coming days. Further, pending classes, fear of missing exams, exorbitant air ticket prices, the sheer distances, and the terror of trying to traverse the streets through continuous bombings are the many reasons that forced Indian students to push their return plans by at least two weeks. In the end, many had to scramble to get themselves out of Ukraine.

Lack of clarity from Indian Embassy, and an advisory too late

On February 15, the Indian Embassy issued its first advisory for Indians in Ukraine that citizens, particularly students whose stay is not essential, “may consider leaving temporarily” and later issued helpline numbers. Students said that as soon as this advisory came, the flights were fully booked. On February 16, the Indian Embassy released an FAQ acknowledging that Indians were facing difficulties in booking tickets. The FAQ asked them to stay calm and told them to book available commercial flight tickets. The tickets were available only in March, many students told TNM.

A student at the Sumy Medical Institute, located in Sumy Oblast in eastern Ukraine, told TNM that when authorities finally did flag the dire situation, airspaces had shut down, streets had become dangerous, and flight tickets had skyrocketed.

“Usually we pay Rs 55,000 for a round-trip ticket. In February, when we tried to book tickets, the one-way fare itself was Rs 60,000,” said Alan Paul, a student from Sumy State University, who is still holed up in a bunker with around 400 other Indians.

Sumy is located closer to the Russian border on the eastern side of Ukraine and so it is very difficult for students to step out to catch a train or travel by road. They have been asked by Ukrainian officials to avoid going by road because of possible landmines. “It was only when the third advisory was issued (on February 24) that we understood the seriousness of the situation. Until then, they had only asked those who wished, to leave. As tickets were unavailable in February, I had booked my ticket to India on March 1. Many couldn’t book tickets immediately in February, as either the tickets weren’t available or were too expensive,” Alan added.

On February 18, Air India announced that it will be operating flights to evacuate students on February 22, 24 and 26. These, too, were sold out in no time. On February 20, the Indian Embassy told all citizens to leave Ukraine. The next day, three more flights were announced. However, only one of these flights managed to evacuate around 250 Indians — Ukraine closed its airspace on February 24, and an Air India flight had to return mid-journey.

Universities warn of penalties, withholding degrees

As the situation escalated, the Indian Embassy on February 22 said it was getting calls from students asking about confirmation of online classes. Students said that their universities, which were holding physical classes, warned them that they would be penalised for missing them.

M Sai Krishna, a postgraduate MS general surgeon in Kyiv University who hails from Telangana’s Nirmal district, said that while students from other countries got a strict notice to evacuate, Indian students were left in a dilemma as initially they were given only an advisory.

On February 11, the US issued an advisory to American citizens not to travel to Ukraine and asking those who were in Ukraine to leave. “We want to be crystal-clear on this point: Any American in Ukraine should leave as soon as possible, and in any event, in the next 24 to 48 hours,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told the media. Australia’s advisory for its citizens came on February 13, asking all its citizens to leave immediately. New Zealand issued an advisory on February 12, asking citizens to leave immediately. As did BritainJapanNorway and the Netherlands, among others. Citizens from these countries who chose not to leave have also been posting distress messages while moving to the borders of Ukraine. However, India's first advisory came on February 15 and said Indian citizens “may consider leaving” Ukraine. In fact, on February 24, the Indian Embassy asked Indian students to 'stay where you are' and 'return to their cities.'

“I chose to stay back as I was working in a hospital. No one thought Russia would actually wage a war. All the students were in a dilemma. All that the Embassy issued was a travel advisory. Other countries gave strict notice to their people asking them to evacuate. India has a sizable population of students in Ukraine, they should have sent out a strict warning asking students to evacuate immediately. Third and final year students were reluctant as they had the KROK exam (a licensing exam that medical students have to write to get qualified as a doctor in Ukraine.) When the University and the embassies themselves weren’t sure and seemed confused, how can one expect 18 and 19-year-olds to make a decision about leaving the country?” asked Sai Krishna, who is presently in Romania after he managed to cross the border, and is waiting to be evacuated.

Neelima Devdas, a fifth-year medical student from Sumy State University, told TNM that the students asked for online classes in January, but the university assured them that there was no reason to panic and that the situation would get better. She was holed up in a bunker when TNM contacted her. She and others had just heard the artillery siren and were asked to rush to the bunker from the hostel.

“We are in the fifth year, we were worried about completing the course and getting our degrees,” Neelima shared. “The university had told us that there was no reason to panic and that things would settle down. The Embassy also didn’t insist that we leave. Since January, we have been urging that classes be held online. The embassies tried reaching out to universities, and we understand that the universities weren’t informing the embassies of their plan of action about classes being online or offline.”

Another Indian student studying in Kharkiv said that their university said it would charge Rs 2,000 for every missed offline class and withhold their degree if students missed classes. “They said they will not give us our degree if we leave,” the student, who had managed to get to neighbouring Poland, said.

The geographical nightmare

On February 25, after Ukraine closed its airspace, the Indian Embassy announced two checkpoints — Chop-Zahony (Hungarian border) near Uzhhorod and Porubne-Siret (Romanian border) near Chernivtsi. Later, two more evacuation points were set up — on the border with Poland and Slovakia — for the safe passage of Indians. Indian citizens were asked to take whatever means of transport available to get to the checkpoints.

The distance between the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and the Romanian border is approximately 600 km, and it takes anywhere from 8.5 to 11 hours to cover the distance by road. The distance between Kyiv and the Hungarian border is approximately 800 km and takes anywhere from 10 to 12 hours to cover the distance by road. And to traverse such distances in areas that are being constantly bombed is no joke.

For students living in Kyiv or other western parts of Ukraine, accessing these checkpoints was relatively easy. But for students in eastern Ukraine, miles away from the checkpoints and just kilometres from the Russian border — it marked the beginning of an arduous journey. The weekend curfew imposed in parts of the country also hampered their efforts to travel.

Carrying all their luggage, dressed in layers to face the extreme cold, students began trudging towards any source of transportation that would take them across the country. Many decided to head to Lviv, which has better connectivity and is relatively safer — but had to pay exorbitant amounts to get on a bus. Lviv is about 6 hours from Kyiv and about 13.5 hours from Kharkiv by road. From there, students again had to look for transportation to get to the border checkpoints opened up for them.

Many students TNM reached out to were too exhausted to speak. They had spent most of their money in getting transport, had to wait hours before being allowed to board, and then travel for over 20 hours in a bus or taxi to get to a city near the border. Being a massive evacuation process, all trains are free for all passengers. However, after reaching a certain location, students have to choose to travel by cabs or buses across the border.

Akshay Sudheer, a fourth year medical student at Bogomolet National Medical University in Kyiv, told TNM that students had to wait a full day at the city’s railway station before they could board a train. “After eight trains went by, we finally managed to get into one. Ukrainian children and women were being given first priority and then Ukrainian nationals. We were a big group, we had to finally split into smaller groups because it was impossible for all of us to travel together. Whenever we could, we split into smaller groups and left,” he said.

Speaking to TNM, Dr Divya Sunitha Raj, Associate Professor at Zaporizhzhya, where the state Medical University has hundreds of Indian students enrolled, said, “We preferred to guide most students to Uzhhorod. This is because Hungary and Slovakia are only a 30-minute drive away on either side of Uzzhorod from there. Based on the situation, they can decide which border to move towards.”

Dr Divya has been coordinating with the Indian Embassy and other officials in her University to safely evacuate students. On Tuesday, March 1, nearly 1,500 Indian students were moved in two trains from Zaporizhzhya to Uzhhorod.

India on Tuesday said that an estimated 20,000 Indians were in Ukraine on February 15 and approximately 12,000 have since left the country, adding that all Indian nationals had left Kyiv. However, many Indian students are still in conflict zones in Kharkiv and Sumy, while some others have either reached the western borders of Ukraine or are heading towards the western parts of the country, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla added.

India has now asked Russia to allow the safe passage of students in eastern Ukraine. At a media briefing on Wednesday, Russian Ambassador-designate Denis Alipov said that Russia is in touch with India on the issue of the safety of Indians and that safe passage will be put into place “as soon as possible”.

With inputs from Cris

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