Indian government teams head to Ukraine’s borders to evacuate stranded Indian students

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First batch of Indian students arrive in Romania from Ukraine Feb. 25, 2022. Photo: videograb from Twitter @MEAIndia

With the Ukrainian airspace closed, and the country at war, India was sending government teams to the land borders of Ukraine to help evacuate about 16,000 Indians still stuck in the eastern European nation. Teams of Indian foreign ministry officials have been sent to Ukraine’s land borders with Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Romania to provide assistance to any fleeing Indian nationals, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said. Around 4,000 Indians have already been evacuated since the government set up repatriation efforts a month ago, he added.

Many students are desperate to leave after Russia’s invasion forced Ukraine to shut down its airspace. An Air India special flight to Kyiv with eight turned back and returned to Delhi.

“Over 20 officers are manning the control room 24×7. Russian-speaking officers have been sent to Ukraine. We do all possible to bring the students back,” Shringla said Thursday evening at a special briefing.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin late Thursday and called for an immediate end to the violence and the resolution of disputes through dialogue. “The Prime Minister has conveyed … that the topmost priority of the government is the safety and security of Indian nationals, including Indian students, and their evacuation from Ukraine,” Shringla said.

Indian government advisories call on Indians to find shelter or if possible to attempt to leave the country by land, he said, after Ukraine shut its airspace and evacuation flights were suspended.

As reports of Russian forces advancing in Ukraine and bombing targets across the country kept coming, stranded Indian students appealed to the government to help them return safely to India. Indian students waiting at the Kyiv airport were moved out and many complained that their luggage had been left at the airport. The students had travelled to the Ukraine capital from various cities to catch the flight.

“Yesterday my friends were going to Kyiv when there was a bomb blast. They were stopped midway and turned back,” said Ashita Soni from Rajasthan, a young woman studying in Ukraine, was quoted as saying by NDTV which interviewed several stranded Indian students in that country.

She said her university said “just come to class”; there was no need to panic.

“Our life has no value for the universities. Our life has no value for the Indian government.”

She also complained that even in this crisis, the ticket cost way more than a middle-class family could comfortably pay.

“In this situation too, the ticket price is ₹ 60,000 to 70,000. Maybe richer families can pay, but how can a middle-class family pay? In this situation, it is their responsibility to evacuate us – if not free of cost, then at least at a more convenient price,” she said.

This morning, a large number of Indian students in Ukraine showed up at the Indian Embassy in Kyiv, looking for shelter. All could not be accommodated, so the embassy moved the students to safe premises nearby.

“This process took some time given the ground situation in Kyiv. No Indian national is currently stranded outside the Embassy. As fresh students arrive, they are being moved to the safe premises,” an embassy source was quoted as saying by NDTV,

Another student, Junaid Khan, said he had heard blasts at the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia.

“I really hope that Indians are evacuated. I don’t know if you know this but two major cities of Ukraine have been taken over by the Russian army. We are actually scared…patrolling is going on,” he said.

Junaid said he and his friends never imagined that the situation would spiral so soon.

“Everything was normal. There was news but there was no pressure. Our Dean advised against panic. We trusted our university, our embassy. But suddenly yesterday, a state of emergency was declared in Ukraine. That’s when we realised it’s time to leave. Kyiv is a dangerous place to stay,” said Junaid.

Indian students woke up to air raid sirens and a suddenly well-lit sky and soon all hell broke loose on the streets of Kyiv, the capital of war-hit Ukraine, as some of them narrated their ordeal on Thursday with frantic people rushing to petrol stations, banks and departmental stores in chock-a-block traffic.

Students are not able to exchange their currency as Ukrainian stores have stopped trading dollars. The Indian mission in Kyiv was planning to relocate Indian nationals to the western border and has advised them to keep their passport and necessary documents with them all the time.

Besides Taras Shevchenko National Medical University, two other universities — Bogomolets and UAFM — house a maximum number of Indian students in various streams.

Aikin Ash Muthoo, also a third-year student from the same college hailing from Jamshedpur, says initially he thought that an electric transformer had blown up but the confirmation of Russia carrying out an attack came from India.

“My parents called up and informed me that there was an attack, news enough to pull me out of the bed to understand the situation as we were preparing to leave for home and were awaiting our turn on Air India flights,” Muthoo said.

He said immediately the hostel staff started furnishing bunkers in the hostel so that people could be accommodated there in case of air raids by Russia. The hostel has around 40 Indians and the exact number of students was not available.

“We immediately rushed to the departmental store and carried back ration for two weeks and some water to survive for another week or so,” he said, adding the exchange of dollars had been stopped.

All the students were keeping an eye on the advisories issued by the Indian mission in Ukraine with the latest being that all flights for evacuation had been closed and alternative arrangements were being finalised so that “Indian nationals can be relocated to the western part of the country”.

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