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Desperate journeys: Most evacuated, some Indian students still stranded in Sumy, Ukraine

The Probe speaks to the students who are en route to Poltava from Sumy on Red Cross buses. The students who could not board the bus say they are waiting to hear from rescuers.

By Sourav Rai
New Update

As the civilian death toll grows unabated in Ukraine, thousands of Indian students are on the way to Poltava from Sumy in Ukraine. Around ten buses arranged by the Red Cross are ferrying the Indian students to Poltava - a city in central Ukraine - from where they are expected to board trains to Western Ukraine.

Indian student Mohammed Abdul Bari speaks to The Probe from Sumy, Ukraine

In the past several days, Sumy has witnessed intense shelling and fighting between the Russian and Ukrainian troops. “We had a Whatsapp group, and we were told to reach a spot near the hostel. Most of us could reach the spot, but some Indian students couldn’t reach on time, and because of this, they were left behind, and the bus took off without them. I hope that those students are also evacuated at the earliest,” said Abdul, a student of the Sumy State University in Ukraine.

The students who were on board the Red Cross bus told The Probe that the buses stopped at multiple checkpoints on the way between Sumy and Poltava. “Some local Ukrainian civilians are also travelling with us in the bus. The Ukrainian forces have been stopping the buses at multiple checkpoints to ensure that there are no Russians amongst us to cause trouble. So far, the journey looks safe, but in Sumy, there was continuous shelling and bombing before the ceasefire was announced,” said Rawoof, a student who was on board the bus to Poltava.

Indian students travelling on a Red Cross bus from Sumy to reach Poltava | Special arrangement

Mohammed Abdul Bari, another student who spoke to The Probe, said that many students who were in the process of being evacuated the first time almost stepped onto the bus but had to back off after the ceasefire was compromised. “Earlier in the morning, we were being evacuated because they agreed for a ceasefire, but as soon as a girl boarded the bus, they had to immediately get off the bus as the ceasefire was compromised the first time around because of which we got stuck.”

Bari told The Probe that he had witnessed constant street fights between the Russian and the Ukrainian troops, and each time the alarm bells rang, the students would get into the underground shelter. “There was shelling and bombing, and we got alarm alerts at least three to four times in a day, and as soon as we got it, we would run for cover in the underground shelters. For four days, we had no water.”

Indian students in an underground shelter within their hostel premises in Sumy before the evacuation | Special arrangement

Some distressed students also told us that they have not heard from the Indian government, and so far, it is only the local contractors, the Red Cross and the NGOs that are taking care of their evacuation. “Yes, we are being evacuated. But we are not being evacuated by the Indian government. We are being evacuated by some good samaritans, a local NGO, the Red Cross and our contractors. At the most, what the Indian government is doing is they are arranging transportation for us from a safe zone to another safe zone. That cannot be called evacuation,” said another Indian student who did not wish to be named.

The Indian students also witnessed a massive power plant explosion in Sumy earlier. “There was a major explosion at a power plant in Sumy, and I witnessed the whole explosion. It was really shocking. That apart we faced water and electricity problems and food shortages. ATMs were not working. We did not have money on us. Even if we had money, there were no stores open. We really suffered a lot. Now that we have boarded the bus, we are feeling safe. The Indian government is only transporting us. I wish the government had planned this better,” said Danish, another Indian student who is on the way to Poltava.

Video of an explosion in Sumy caught on tape by an Indian student | Special arrangement

Earlier, the students of Sumy State University also produced a video in which they can be seen saying that they are tired and exhausted, running up and down from their hostel rooms to the bomb shelters every three hours as they got alerts on air raids. “We are mentally exhausted because we cannot steady ourselves. We are constantly fidgeting, looking over our shoulders, looking at the sky, whenever we are outside hoping that nothing is coming down on us and then emotionally, so many of us have been crying in our rooms. We are sad, and we are traumatised; we are angry. Any little sound makes us jump because we think that it’s an explosion somewhere, even if it’s just the door shutting,” said a student in the video.

Video produced by the students of the Sumy State University on their plight | Special arrangement

The United Nations has estimated that since the war began, more than 2 million people have crossed into neighbouring countries from Ukraine. Thousands of civilians in Ukraine, including women and children, have lost their lives following the Russian offensive, and the World Food Programme has stated that there are extreme concerns over food and water shortages within Ukraine as the war rages on. Over 17,000 Indian students have already been evacuated from Ukraine to safer zones, and through the government of India’s ‘Operation Ganga’ mission, the students are being brought back to India. According to the Indian government, Operation Ganga is on the last leg of its mission.

“We will reach Poltava soon. There are around ten buses from the Red Cross that are ferrying us. We are being told that once we reach Poltava, we must take a train, and from there on, the Indian government will transport us back. But the fact being, there are some more of us who are still back in Sumy. For different reasons, they could not board the Red Cross bus. Till the last one of us is brought back, this operation will not be complete,” said another medical student who was on the way to Poltava.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is now into its fourteenth day, with several cities under siege. The Russian forces have been bombarding residential areas, which has resulted in a rise in the civilian death toll in the crisis. The evacuation of the Indian students in Sumy started after both Russia and Ukraine agreed on a temporary ceasefire in the area. Some students who are still stranded in Sumy told The Probe that humanitarian organisations are assuring them that they too will be safely moved to Poltava soon and that help is on the way.