With hundreds of Indian students stranded in freezing temperatures at the Ukraine-Poland border, the government on Sunday said it has identified an alternative train route from Uzhhorod, a city in western Ukraine, to the Hungarian capital of Budapest.
Acknowledging that evacuation of Indians through the Poland border has emerged as a “problem area” — with lakhs of people, including citizens of Ukraine and other foreign nationals, having chosen that route to safety — Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said, “It’s not an organised situation, it’s a conflict zone. Many of our people have been there for a long time and they are in a very difficult situation. We fully empathise with them and we have been working round the clock to see what options we can provide. One of the options in the event we cannot make much progress into Poland, we come down to Uzhhorod and from there every two hours there is a train which leaves for Budapest, Hungary… This is an option we are recommending to our people.”
The journey time to Budapest will be approximately seven to eight hours, including exit procedures, said Shringla, who also called in the envoys of Russia and Ukraine in New Delhi separately during the day and conveyed India’s “deep concerns” regarding the safety and security of its citizens, particularly the students.
“I have shared with them the locations where Indian students and citizens are concentrated for ensuring their protection. Both ambassadors did take note of our concerns and assured us that they are very cognisant of the safety and security of Indian citizens,” Shringla said.
In a fresh advisory late Sunday, the Embassy of India in Warsaw (Poland) said: “We have arranged 10 buses at Shehyni on Ukrainian side of the border that will take Indian citizens to other border checkpoints from transit entry into Poland… These buses will be operational from 28th February 2022 and will drive through the other border checkpoints, e.g. Krakowiec and Budomierz, and will drive them to the residential accommodation arranged by the Embassy at Rszeszow, Poland.”
The Indian Express spoke to several students who said they have been stuck at the Shehyni-Medyka border checkpoint, which separates Ukraine and Poland, for more than 48 hours with “no response from the Indian embassy” to their calls and messages.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a first-year MBBS student from Lviv, around 70 km from the border, said on phone, “My cousin and I, along with over a hundred other students from our university reached the border Friday night after walking for over 30 km. We have been here in the open for more than 48 hours, but there has been no help. There isn’t even space to sit there and whenever a vehicle full of Ukrainians arrive, Indians are pushed back. After spending two nights at the border, we are now in a shelter home — some 8 km from the border — that locals provided us. There is no response from the Indian Embassy yet.”
The Embassy of India in Warsaw (Poland) had earlier issued an advisory asking students who want to be evacuated to reach the Shehyni-Medyka border by foot or bus/taxi.
Many of the students stuck at the border also alleged that they were being discriminated against by the Ukranian border forces.
An MBBS student from Ternopil who reached the border Saturday evening, said: “There are just queues and queues of Indian students here but Polish authorities are not putting a stamp on our passports. They are allowing Ukrainians to cross over but not us. The Indian embassy officials are not responding to our calls. Where do we go?”
Another student said: “Most students slept in the open the whole night, in parks and on roads. Some were given shelter by local Ukrainians.”
Some students who reached the Polish border Saturday have now gone back.
“The bus in which we were travelling could not move beyond a point. So we got off and started walking. But we could not cross over to Poland. Only Ukrainians were being allowed. Indians and African nationals were stuck. Then we returned to our buses and came back to our hostel in Lyiv,” said Debashish Roy, an Indian MBBS student enrolled at the Danylo Halytsky Lviv National Medical University.
The Indian Express spoke to Rao Maddukuri, founder and president, Poland-India Business Council and recipient of the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award, who crossed over to Ukraine from Poland along with officers of the Indian Embassy on Saturday and spent a few hours there with the students.
“We went over to speak to the students and we also spoke to the shop owners and gas station owners nearby to try and convince them to provide shelter to the Indian students and let them use the internet. The officials on the ground on the Ukrainian side are also under a lot of pressure and at this time they are prioritising (the exit of) women and children over men. Among those women who have entered Poland, there are a few Indians too. We are in the middle of a war and the Indian government is working hard on the ground here to evacuate as many as possible,” Maddukuri said, adding that there were close to 2,000 Indian students waiting near the Shehini-Medyka border on Saturday night.
Vadodara resident Gyanisha Patel and her friends said they spent Saturday night in the open as the Shehyni checkpost closed at 10 pm. Around 12 pm local time on Sunday, the students were asked to queue up but it was after another two hours before they could cross the checkpost. “We have now crossed the Shehyni checkpost but we need to reach the Medyska border and complete the immigration process. It is a two-km walk and the queues will take at least a day to clear before we can enter Poland,” Gyanisha said Sunday evening,
Amid allegations that only Ukranians were being allowed to cross over, Ambassador of Poland to India, Adam Burakowski, took to Twitter on Sunday to announce that his country is allowing all Indian students to enter Poland “without any visa.”
The Chancellery of the PM of Poland tweeted, “Almost 200,000 refugees have already found shelter in Poland regardless of their nationality. There is no discrimination!”
In New Delhi on Sunday, foreign secretary Shringla said the government is also working on a plan to evacuate Indian students who are stuck in and around cities such as Kharkiv, Suma and Odessa which are witnessing hostilities.
A team of officials have been dispatched from the Indian mission in Moscow to the areas bordering eastern Ukraine to arrange accommodation and transport and to map out exit routes, he said. In Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, at least 2,000 Indian citizens remain stuck.
During the day, External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar also spoke to Foreign Minister of Moldova Nicu Popescu seeking the country’s support to facilitate the entry of Indian nationals on the Ukraine-Moldova border.
Meanwhile, Shringla said the government has also reached out to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva seeking assistance.