Written by Rohan Ambhure
On the morning of February 24, war broke out. We were woken by the sounds of bombs dropping on the outskirts of our city. Chaos ensued. Everyone rushed to the supermarkets to buy rations and drinking water, most of which were already drained. There were blockades on all major roads and the military was deployed. All modes of transactions had stopped except cash. We had to make do with what cash we had on us as all ATMs and banks were shut. Everyone was in a frenzied state as we had to process all that was happening, think about our next steps, communicate with each other and also try to give our families some sense of security.
We were in the final year of our medical education. I completed six years at Odessa National Medical University in Ukraine. Everyone was debating whether to stay in Ukraine as it was our final year and merely three months were left until graduation. However as the sense of danger was increasing, juniors started leaving. As for the final year students, our universities as well as the Indian embassy left the decision to leave at one’s own discretion. Along with these worries, I also had to think about the safety of my dog, Delta, whom I had adopted in my fourth year of medical studies.
I was frantically moving everywhere to get all the necessary documents needed for international travel for Delta. But there was nothing I could do for three days as everyone was anxious and all the clinics and shops were closed. On the fourth day there was some relief and shops opened for a few hours in the morning. By then most of the students had already fled or were on their way to the borders. We spent our nights bunkered in our flat sitting in silence that was only interrupted by the shockwaves of the shelling or the anti-air guns firing a kilometre away from our house. I spent the next two days gathering all necessary documents and as soon as I received them, my vice-dean called me and advised that I should leave as we were the last remaining students in the city and that the university is arranging transport for their families and they wanted us to leave with them for Moldova.
As I had all the documents, I agreed and we left my house on the morning of Feb 28th. All transportation was done by the students with independent bus contractors or trains at our own expense. At first the bus driver denied me entry as he did not allow animals on the bus, but after explaining the situation, he agreed and we started our six-hour journey to the Ukraine-Moldova border. Once we reached the border, we had to cross it by foot and there was a huge crowd already present and waiting to cross over. Altogether we were standing at the border for a little over 14 hours overnight out in the cold without shelter.
There were many volunteers present on both sides of the border who helped everyone with food, water, clothing and directions. Upon crossing the border we boarded a bus which took us to a camp for refugees. Everyone went in whereas I had to stay out as dogs were not allowed in, so I stayed on a park bench with Delta overnight. We had contacted a helpline number for Indian refugees who arrived the next morning. They were also medical students in their 5th year and were arranging shelter for Indian refugees in unoccupied rooms of their hostels with cooperation from their university. They provided us food, water and shelter at their expense. The next day buses were arranged by the Moldovan officials to Romania. The bus dropped us off at a refugee centre in the Romanian capital where we were received by Romanian volunteers and officials. I was allotted shelter in the storehouse with Delta and everyone else was in the main building. One of the volunteers took us in his personal vehicle to get the state veterinary certificate and the cage that was needed for air travel.
The Romanian officials sympathised with us as we had been travelling for 4 days as refugees and along with the Indian Officials gave us priority to board the flights from Romania to India arranged by the Indian Government. We boarded the C17 Carrier with the Indian Air Force and landed in India the next morning where we were greeted by Indian officials, State representatives and media.
Once our paper-work was checked and cleared we were taken to our representative state Bhavans in New Delhi. Upon reaching Maharastra Bhavan, I was denied entry as I had a dog with me. After 2 hours of deliberation, they provided us with rooms in Old Maharashtra Bhavan for an overnight stay till our flight to Mumbai which was scheduled for the next morning. Once we reached the airport, I was informed that my ticket was free of cost, as the state government was paying for it, but I had to pay for Delta’s travel according to his weight irrespective of the fact that I had no other baggage in cargo. We took the flight and were welcomed by the relieved and joyous faces of all our family members.
I recently cleared the online examination from my university which is equivalent to an MBBS degree. Now that I am here, I will be appearing for the Foreign Medical Graduate Examination in December this year. We had also suggested to the first year students who had returned to reappear for UG-NEET. For mid-level students it would then be prudent to return to other countries as listed by the National Medical Commission and complete their medical education.
War has necessitated this forceful transfer. But being forced to return to India for medical studies is unreasonable. In other circumstances, be it a personal or professional situation, students do seek transfers to other universities in different countries. My friends studying in the third year have already started their fourth year medical studies in countries like Armenia.
My journey out of Ukraine was terrifying, exhausting, painful and testing. It showed us the value of life as opposed to that of material things.
Our Vice-Dean, the volunteers in Moldova and Romania, veterinarian in Ukraine, Health Inspectors in Ukraine and Romania as well as the pet shop owner in Romania and all the other people who were with us on our journey rekindled my hope in humanity as all of them helped us as much as they could at their own expense inspiring all the lives that they touched to do the same for someone whenever the time arises.
Ambhure was studying medicine in Ukraine when the Russian invasion began. As told to Anuradha Mascarenhas