Braving shells, Indian students flee Ukraine’s Kharkiv on foot

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FILE PHOTO: Indian student Himanshu Yadav, 20, hugs his mother Shudesh, after arriving at Indira Gandhi International Airport on a special flight from Budapest carrying stranded Indian citizens from Ukraine, amid the ongoing Russian invasion, landed in New Delhi, India, March 2, 2022. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis/File Photo

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Shells exploded nearby, shaking buildings and sending debris flying around a group of Indian students making a dash out of central Kharkiv on foot after warnings from their government to flee the Ukrainian city hit hard by the Russian invasion.

Aditya Narayan Patra, a 21-year-old medical student from eastern India, said he was near the front of the group fleeing on Wednesday when the explosions rang out.

“The bomb fell only around 100 meters from me,” Patra told Reuters via phone on Thursday, describing a particularly harrowing moment in the journey that around a thousand students took to reach relative safety on the outskirts of Kharkiv.

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One Indian medical student was killed in the area this week, prompting a promise by Moscow to try to organize an urgent evacuation through a “humanitarian corridor,” following pressure from New Delhi, an ally.

It was not immediately clear whether Russia had any involvement in the escape. The students said Ukrainian soldiers ushered them through. The Indian foreign ministry on Wednesday said it issued two advisories asking students to flee Kharkiv after receiving information from Russia.

Sprinting to save their lives, Patra said some students stumbled but Ukrainian soldiers pushed them to keep moving.

“They told us ‘run, run, run’,” he said.

Before the conflict flared, Indians made up around a quarter of the 76,000 foreign students in Ukraine, the largest number from any overseas country.

Patra and another Indian student who fled Kharkiv said that their group – including hundreds of women – was now at one of three safe locations listed by the Indian embassy in Ukraine. Reuters could not immediately establish if more students remained in the city.

“It was full of scary things but we needed to walk for our lives,” said Kumar, also from eastern India and who asked to be identified using only a part of his name.

FILE PHOTO: Firefighters work to extinguish a fire at the Kharkiv National University building, which city officials said was damaged by recent shelling, in Kharkiv, Ukraine March 2, 2022. REUTERS/Oleksandr Lapshyn/File Photo

‘INDIANS NOT ALLOWED’

After six days in a bunker at the Kharkiv National Medical University hostels, Patra said over a thousand students walked to the city’s railway station at dawn on Wednesday, hoping to travel towards Ukraine’s western borders.

But most Indians were not allowed by locals and railway authorities to board the two trains that pulled into Kharkiv till the afternoon, Patra and Kumar said.

As air-raid sirens rang out soon after, the large crowd at the station scurried for cover at Kharkiv’s underground metro stations, they said.

Messages from the Indian embassy on social media then appeared on the students’ phones, asking them students to leave the city within hours using any means possible.

“The Indian embassy told us to walk, so we walked,” said Patra, who had left his hostel with only a backpack with his documents and laptop.

Snaking their way out of Kharkiv’s city center amid shelling, Kumar said Ukrainian troops guided the group through multiple checkpoints, till they reached a designated location in the evening.

“Ukraine is not safe at all,” said Kumar, “We need to be evacuated as soon as possible.”

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