“It was January and the television was flooded with news speculating about the war in Ukraine. We were shocked and tried to contact the Dean of our university to grant us permission to go back to our home countries,” said 21-year-old Riswana Rahim.
Rahim is one among many Indian students who had gone to pursue her graduation in medicine at Odessa National Medical University in the southern part of Ukraine.
According to Rahim, the Dean told them, “You can go back to your countries if you want to, but you will be expelled from college in that case.”
The students were asked to stay calm and assured that they would be safe.
Disappointed with the response, the students sought out the Indian embassy. However, as per Rahim, their calls were met with silence. Even when their calls were picked up, they asked them to stay calm and told that the situation wasn’t serious.
Unlike several other governments from various countries who took swift measures to bring their students back home, as per Rahim, the Indian embassy did not notify Indian students until February 15 – which lead to a delay and subsequent chaos.
“We, as Indian passport holders, couldn’t go to neighbouring countries to seek refuge. Due to strict policies of our college, we couldn’t come back to India either without proper notifications from the embassy,” said Rahim, who felt utterly helpless at the time.
Nevertheless, she added that the notification from the embassy brought some respite – even if it was only short-lived. “As soon as we went to the website to make the bookings, we found that all the flights from Ukraine to India were already booked. The next earliest available flights were from February 25 onwards, but at a cost as high as around Rs 2-3 lakh for the same flights that normally cost Rs 30,000. I was not in the financial condition to pay such an amount,” said Rahim.
“Therefore, the next affordable flight I found was for March 1 from Odessa to Delhi with a stop at Dubai. This was for around Rs 50,000 and I booked it. But, to my dismay, it got cancelled owing to the outbreak of the war on February 24 and I received a refund.”
Then came the dreadful night of February 24.
“After making lunch plans with friends for February 24, I went to bed bidding my family goodnight only to be awakened by the deafening noise of explosions and sirens. My bed was shaking. I was filled with anxiety of an uncertain future, fear of the possibility of never being able to meet my family or friends, hopelessness, pain, terror and a thousand other emotions. It was something I might never be able to put into words. I started panicking as I had no clue what war felt like and what it meant to live in a war-affected area. I couldn’t gather enough courage to bombard this information onto my parents as I knew they would be very worried, I managed to contact some people back in India as I feared I might not come out alive. I started bidding them a final adieu while telling them what I wanted to do in life, what I had in mind for my future,” said Rahim.
As a generation that does not know war, you might try to find meaning in war but all there is is loss and unbearable pain All that senseless death, it unleashes a cycle of violence and hatred that never ends. War creates only more war…” – Pain, Naruto Shippuden
Rahim called up her friends residing in other cities with the hope of moving there if things were any better, however, that was not the case.
Witnessing buildings being blown to bits (as can be seen in the video below), a number of people losing their lives and spending sleepless fright-filled nights made it extremely difficult for her to stay sane. Yet, surviving one day at a time, she managed to gather enough courage to look for alternatives to somehow escape the area that was getting scarier by the day due to the lack of underground bunkers. Thus, despite being told to stay put by the government and the Indian embassy, she managed to walk down the road filled with soldiers and tanks to reach a railway station only to return without being able to catch a train.
“My first attempt to flee on the evening of February 26 was a failure as the trains were extremely crowded and with all the Ukrainians trying to board the train as well, there was little to no chance for me to be able to get one. Thus, I decided to go back before it got too dark,” said Rahim.
Her second attempt at fleeing the war-inflicted area was when via buses that were arranged for them at night to reach Romania through Moldova, from where they would be rescued by flights provided by the Indian government under ‘Operation Ganga’. They left Ukraine on February 27, reached Moldova after a two-and-a-half-hour journey. They then stayed there for eight hours in their attempt to cross the border to finally reach Romania on February 28. After three days in Romania, they boarded a flight to the capital and finally on March 3, she took another two-hour long flight to reach her home in Kerala.
“It would have been immensely helpful if we would have been provided with some means of transport or some guidance/assistance on the part of the embassy to reach these countries as we had to travel for almost 600 km during the nights through hotspots where bombings and explosions were happening. It was a risk, no doubt about that, but a risk I was willing to take as I wanted to make off as soon as I could and thanks to some helpful Indian woman living in Ukraine (the name of the woman has been concealed as per the request of Rahim) who had no vaasta (concern) with us helped us get away safely without charging us a single penny,” said Rahim.
Rahim adds that although the flight under ‘Operation Ganga’ was free of cost and that they were provided food and other supplies, she expressed her disappointment over the mismanagement, inefficiency and lack of moral support. She said, “It could have been managed in a much better fashion. They should have given out timely notifications to enable us to reach home safely in time and proper guidance should have been provided as and when required. In times when we were in need of assistance and moral support the most, we couldn’t turn to the embassy as the only responses we received after the outbreak of the war were, ‘sit inside’ and ‘you have to face it, we can’t do anything else in this’. A little bit of compassion would have been appreciated.”
After returning home, when Rahim expressed herself online, she was blamed by many – including her own kin – for the ineffectiveness of the Indian embassy, and was also accused of spreading propaganda against the government.
“Whenever I spoke about the shortcomings of the embassy, almost every comment was infused with hate. We were being accused of not making the bookings on time (‘You chose to stay there and thus faced the consequences of your choices’). To boot, they even accused us of belonging to a certain political party with a hidden agenda to criticise the government and its policies,” said Rahim, who was disappointed to see how she and other students were held responsible for criticising the government and being told to only shower praise, no matter what.
Although in a video published by BBC News India, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar explained that the reason behind the delay in issuing the advisory was because of the “lack of cooperation on behalf of the Ukrainian universities”, Rahim still remains unconvinced.
All images are provided by Riswana Rahim.