After Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the start of a “special military operation” against Ukraine on Thursday morning, thousands of international students including Indians are stranded in the eastern European country as it closed its airspace for civilian flights because of high risk to safety.
Among them is 18-year-old Nitya Lamba*, a first-year MBBS student of Kharkiv National Medical University, who is from New Delhi. “We had been informed that a situation like this could arise, especially in Kharkiv, which is quite close to the Russia border. All Indian students in the hostel were about to leave in these three-four days, and I had my flight scheduled for February 26, which might get cancelled now,” Lamba told indianexpress.com over the phone in the evening.
Lamba* said that most students were waiting for temporary residence permits (TRP) and hence could not leave for India any sooner. The permit allows foreigners and stateless persons who arrive in Ukraine to stay without additional visas for a year and can be renewed annually.
“I was supposed to get my TRP today and had to reach the immigration office. The government offices were working fine during the past few days. They all had a premonition of the situation that unfolded today and had processed the permits within two months. It usually takes longer. But if they had issued the permit earlier, we all would have left for our home countries by now,” said Lamba*, who is currently in Oleksiivska, Kharkiv.
Lamba* also said the Indian embassy was likely to shift them to safer spaces soon. “Since getting on a flight to India is not possible because the airbase is shut, the authorities have said that we may be shifted towards the western part of Ukraine, but we are not sure if it is going to be safe for long,” she added.
At 8 pm IST on February 24, some Indian students in Kharkiv were shifted to underground bunkers in the basements of apartments, metro stations and university hostels.
Another Indian MBBS student, a 25-year-old from Chandigarh, who had returned to VN Karazin Kharkiv National Medical University in August 2021, said, “We woke up with bombing alarms. Even now (4 pm IST) we can hear sounds of bombing in Kharkiv. Some of my friends have their flights to India today but they were not allowed to get inside the airport due to security issues. People are panicking here. We can hear gunshots and see smoke coming out of faraway buildings.”
She told indianexpress.com that all the Indian students who lived in a radius of 200-300 metres had gathered at her place.
“The universities have assured that online classes will continue. I have spent six years on my MBBS degree. The KROK 2 examination, which is a licensing examination and an obligatory part of state certification for awarding the qualification for a doctor or a pharmacist, is supposed to be held on May 24, but it seems very unlikely. Even today we had an exam but we did not receive any communication from the teachers. We don’t know what will happen,” said the woman who was supposed to fly to India on February 28, but may not be able to do so with the airbase shut.
The situation is not uniform in all parts of Ukraine. Some parts, such as Lviv in the west, have been claimed to be safer than Kharkiv. The conflict zone at the Russian border is over 1,000 km to the east of Lviv and neighbouring areas.
Diya Nathu, an MBBS student at Danylo Halytsky Lviv National Medical University, said the situation there was under control but people were panicking. “People are stocking up on groceries. We went to local grocery stores after the invasion began and could see long queues of students and locals. I had booked my tickets well in advance for March 12 for Rs 37,000, but those who booked their flights in the past few days had to shell out Rs 60,000-70,000 and yet could not fly out,” Diya told indianexpress.com from Lviv.
*Names changed on request