Wednesday marks the seventh day of the Russian invasion in Ukraine. One of the worst-hit cities is Kharkiv, 480 km east of the capital, only 40 km south of the Russian border.
Here, shortly after dawn on Wednesday, Pralay Kumar Nayak and four other medical students from India had their backpacks ready. They huddled close in one corner of Studenska metro station, with water and ready-to-eat food packets that they had packed overnight.
As Nayak had recounted in detail in a conversation with Scroll.in on Tuesday, shelling had forced the students to bunker down in the metro station, venturing out only to buy groceries. But food and water had started running out. Worse, one of their seniors, fourth-year medical student Naveen SG, died in shelling on Tuesday, while he was out on a grocery trip.
Alarmed, Nayak and his group decided to leave the city, even if that meant walking 14 km to the nearest railway station, Pivdenniyi Vokzal, located in the central part of the city. They hoped to board a train to Lviv, a city 1,000 km away, near the Ukraine-Poland border.
“We had waited for the Indian government long enough to rescue us,” said Nayak, a 19-year-old from Odisha, enrolled in the second year of Kharkiv National Medical University.
At 7 am on Wednesday, he set off on foot with his four friends. They were not alone. A steady stream of students met them on streets, all walking towards the railway station in the early hours of the day. While no one knows exactly how many Indians are in Kharkiv, estimates range from 2,000 to 4,000.
“There are no cabs or public transport,” Nayak told Scroll.in. “The only way to reach the railway station is by walking. The air strikes and missiles have become frequent but we have to risk ourselves.”
He added that a building named VN Karazina in Kharkiv university had been bombed on Tuesday. There were reports that Russian artillery forces were advancing upon the city. “The situation is very critical here now,” he said.
To add to his stress, Nayak had lost his wallet, passport and visa in the chaos of bombardment. All he had was a photocopy of his passport. But he was hopeful that once he reached the border, he would be able to explain the situation to the authorities.
But getting to the border is an enormous challenge. Even getting to the Pivdenniyi Vokzal railway station, amid the shelling, posed a grave risk.
Nayak and his friends had anticipated they would take at least three or four hours to walk to the station. When his elder brother Subhendu Swain called him from Bhubaneswar around noon in India, or 9.30 am in Kharkiv, they had already reached. Nayak told him that they had managed to take a lift from a vehicle driving in the same direction for a short distance, but in the process, “he had given away whatever money he had,” Swain said.
While the brothers were talking on the phone, Nayak suddenly shouted aloud that the area near the station was being bombed. “He disconnected the call,” said Swain. For an hour, Swain desperately called and texted his brother, but did not hear back. When Nayak eventually called back, he explained that the mobile network in the area was patchy.
He had grim news to share. “There was one train in the afternoon. We were not allowed to board it. Only Ukranians were allowed onboard,” he said.
From early afternoon in Kharkiv, the bombings intensified. Nayak said that an announcement was made at the station to evacuate immediately. “There is a train, but we are not allowed to board it,” he told Scroll.in, panic now seeping in his voice.
By afternoon, the Indian embassy in Ukraine issued an advisory asking students to evacuate Kharkiv immediately and reach the suburbs of Pesochin, Babaye, or Bezlyudovka. “Under all circumstances they must reach these settlements by 1800 hours today,” the advisory said. These settlements are in the suburbs of Kharkiv and are at least 10 km to 15 kms walk away.
A Ministry of External Affairs official told Scroll.in that if the students cannot take a train, they will have to walk or find some form of transport to reach these safe zones.
By 2 pm, Nayak and his friends had given up hope of taking a train. They frantically looked for cover from frequent bombings. His brother Swain said, “Even if they start walking to these settlements, they will take hours to reach. How can they reach by 6 pm?”
Nayak said about 1,000 to 1,500 Indian students had gathered at the railway station in Kharkiv. They started exchanging panicked messages on their common Whatsapp group. “But nobody knows what to do next,” he said.
Debashish, another student and friend of Nayak, said, “Students are desperate, and angry with the Indian government for leaving them to protect themselves.”
Back home, Nayak’s parents in Jajpur and his elder brother in Bhubaneswar, are on the edge. Nayak’s father, Basant Kumar Nayak, works in a regional media channel. Swain is an IT engineer. He said Nayak had tried seeking admission in Odisha’s medical colleges but found it “impossible” since the state had few such institutions. “He decided to go abroad,” Swain said.
Like thousands of other families of Indian students stuck in Ukraine, the family was bracing for another long night of anxiety when news came that Nayak had reached Pesochin.
Follow updates about Nayak’s journey here.