As the Ukrainian army battles Russian forces invading Kharkiv, hundreds of Indian students in the city are preparing to survive the war on their own. From 5 am on Thursday, as residents of the the northeastern city braved shells and bombs, students of the city’s 38 universities have been hiding in freeezing bunkers under their hostels and residential buildings, hoping for safe transit home.

Sneha Gupta, a second-year medical student at a national university in Kharkiv, said on Sunday evening that the situation was tense. As she was speaking to, the 21-year-old from Ghaziabad asked in a startled voice, “Did you hear two noises that came in? It was shelling.”

She was sheltering underground with 700 other students in a nuclear bunker in her hostel. The bunker was far from comfortable, she said: temperatures were below freezing because there are no heaters in the basement. The temperature outside was at least -5 degrees. Gupta had a nose-bleed and felt choked by the dust in the dingy bunker.

She is among hundreds of Indian students, most of them studying to be doctors, in the town of Kharkiv, 50 km from the country’s border with Russia. Many like her say that the Indian embassy in Ukraine is not doing enough. She said she had sent more than 20 emails to the Indian embassy but had yet to receive a reply.

On Monday, dozens of people were reported to have been killed in Kharkiv as Russian rockets rained down on the city.

Her university has not provided its students with meals. At the same time, shoot-at-sights orders have been issued for anyone on the streets, said Gupta. The students are dependent for supplies on their contractors – the Indian education agents who had arranged for them to study in Ukraine, who are bringing them food and water twice a day at great risk.

“If we go out to find food, there is a likelihood we could be shot down by any of the battling sides,” she said. “I don’t want to end up eating out of a dustbin.” In addition to the scarcity of food and water, access to menstrual hygiene is a concern at the bunkers as well.

“Garbage bins are overflowing,” said Gupta. “There’s not much we can do.”

Gupta’s father, an army man, told her to gather food and conserve water. “He told me that you’ll have to handle yourself because your network will be cut,” she said. “If you don’t have water, eat the snow.”

She added: “The government and the Indian media is patting its back on evacuation for 420 students who were not even in the war zone, while students on the eastern border are facing constant attacks.”

In the claustrophobic nuclear bunker, the Indian students constantly talk of their home like it is a dream, she said. Once in a while, her bunker is shaken by the sound of shelling.

Jatin Sehgal, a 22-year-old medical student from Kharkiv National Medical University from Jalandhar, also complained about the lack of help from Indian officials.

“The embassy asked us to leave and reach the borders if we had any jugaad [connections] of our own because they were virtually powerless,” he said. “Students are trying to catch a train out from amid the war zone, all on their own. Don’t know if our friends made it or not.”

Sunday was Sehgal’s fourth day in the bunker. “In some places, students ran out of supplies for about three days,” he said. “Prices have soared and all the stores have been shut. Medicines are also in short supply.”

The biggest grouse of stranded students like Sehgal is that airlines had begun to charge exorbitant fares for flights to India. He had booked a flight for February 28. “It used to be Rs. 27,000, but I bought mine for Rs. 65,000 which is a lot for a middle-class person,” he said. Some of his friends had managed to leave but now he was stuck.

Back in Delhi, he said, his parents had joined others with children in Ukraine outside the Russian embassy to protest the war. But they had been stopped by the Delhi Police, he said.

Soviet-era shelters

Ironically, the bunker in which Sehgal is sheltering from Russian shelling was built by the Soviets before the USSR disintegrated in 1991. The tensions between the two countries had been building Russian annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. Russia has also been wary of Ukraine’s efforts to join NATO.

On February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine after Moscow officially recognised the two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk.

On February 25, Rovil Vijay, student of medicine at Kharkiv National University, was woken awoke by the sound of bombing.

The Jaipur native made a risky visit to a nearby supermarket, where he found a queue of panic-stricken Ukrainians desperate to stock up on anything they could find. “I managed to get a few packets of bread and some water,” Vijay said. “If I can’t refill my water, I will have to shift to tap water soon.”

Vijay had been thinking of leaving Ukraine since February 20. “The embassy showed no urgency to evacuate, so we also believed them and stayed,” he said. “When suddenly they asked us to leave, there were no flights. Those who left on February 22 and February 23 are lucky. After that, airspace was locked.”

Vijay said he had been inspired the example of Ukrainians, who have been fighting hard to save their land. “I have heard stories of women dropping Molotov cocktails which are set ablaze and thrown to stop Russian tanks relentlessly,” he said. “This is the spirit of the people.”

However, he was eager to get off the phone. “I have limited data, so don’t want to end it on something which won’t help me.”

A few kilometres away, Sneha Gupta said that the only thing she cares about is getting back home safely to Ghaziabad and seeing her mother again. “Life took a turn in a few hours,” she said. “Had we known that such a situation could occur, we wouldn’t have come to Ukraine.”