Even growing up in Uttarakhand, in the shadow of the Himalayas, had not prepared Tanmay Singh Mehta for the snowstorm that hit him in Chernivtsi on Ukraine’s border with Romania on the night of February 27. “It was hell,” the 18-year-old student recalled.

As he and his friends waited at the border for 36 hours between February 26 to February 28 trying to escape the war-torn country, the only sleep he and his friends managed to catch was by closing their eyes standing in a queue.

Mehta is a first-year medical student at Vinnytsia National Medical University in southwest Ukraine. It took him three days and two nights to cross over into Romania.

“I don’t know how we survived those two nights,” he said. “I started hallucinating after we crossed over to Romania. My friends suffered from hypothermia.”

He is currently staying in a sports enclave in Bucharest that has been converted into a temporary shelter for Indian students. But the ordeal hasn’t left him.

“I feel dizzy,” he said. “I can hear voices in my head.”

Delayed advisories

From the beginning of February, as tensions between Russia and Ukraine escalated, Mehta and other students in Vinnytsia started tracking local news and advisories from the Indian government.

“Initially, the Indian government did not raise any panic,” he said. “Our university also assured us there would be no war. Since we cannot afford to miss offline classes, we stayed.”

The first alert from the Indian embassy in Ukraine came on February 15. It stated that “if stay is not essential”, Indian nationals, particularly students, should temporarily leave Ukraine.

Darshan Auti, another first-year student from Vinnytsia National Medical University, said several students decided to stay since “the advisory did not urge us to leave immediately at that point”.

There was also a practical consideration: there was only one direct flight from Ukraine to India, which was running full, the students said.

The next day, the Indian embassy released more information asking students to not panic if flights were full. It stated that the Ministry of External Affairs was in talks with the Ministry of Civil Aviation to increase the number of Ukraine-India flights.

On February 18, the government announced three Air India flights for February 22, 24 and 26. Only the February 22 flight took off. Two days later, Russia invaded Ukraine from the east.

An Air India plane that had taken off from India on February 24 had to return after Ukraine shut down its airspace.

As panic rose, Mehta, Auti, and others in Vinnytsia called up the Indian embassy. “They said they will make arrangements for our evacuation,” Mehta said. Auti said the university asked students to stock water, food and enough cash for ten days.

But two days later, the students were in for a shock. “On February 26, when we called the embassy again they said we were very late in leaving,” Mehta said. “They asked us to make arrangements and reach the border.”

Agents to their help

Left to themselves, Mehta and the other Indian students contacted the agents, or contractors, who had helped them get admission in Ukrainian universities.

Many education agents have been running buses between university towns and Ukraine’s border with Romania and Hungary, through areas that are relatively safe since Russian forces have not targeted them yet.

Bikash Chandra Sahu, who works as an education agent, has been making trips himself to facilitate the passage of students into other countries. “The Indian government is only arranging flights,” he said. “The real challenge is to bring these students safely out of Ukraine.”

Sahu added: “Once a batch of students leave Ukraine, we travel back from the border to other university areas to help more students.”

Dr Navdeep Singh, another agent, has been booking buses in Vinnytsia, Lviv, Kyiv and Kharkiv to transport students to the Hungary, Poland and Romania border. Auti said he and other Indian students from Vinnytsia paid Rs 2,600 to book a seat in the bus arranged by him on February 26.

The bus dropped them 13 kms short of the border in Chernivtsi.

Mehta had packed his medical course books along with some clothes and packets of ready-to-eat food. But he had to dump them to lighten his load as he walked to the border.

Nightmare at the border

Mehta, Auti and about 200 other students from Vinnytsia reached the border by February 26 – only to find that passage into Romania was difficult. The Ukrainian authorities were tightly controlling the border crossing.

“At a time, they were allowing 150 people to leave,” Mehta said.

The border was packed with students from Nigeria, Morocco, Somalia, and several countries of West Asia. At regular intervals, stampedes broke out as people jostled to get first in line, Mehta recalled.

Amid the chaos and crowds, the Indian students from Vinnytsia, who had been travelling together so far, got separated. Auti managed to cross over after waiting for six hours, but Mehta was left behind with several others.

That night, the temperatures dropped to -5 degree Celsius. There were no washrooms and students could not leave the queue to relieve themselves, he added. By the night of February 26, the students’ mobile phones were drained of battery and there was no way to contact anyone. Mehta could not talk to his family for two days.

“Our food was minimal,” he said. “NGOs were supplying food at the border but that was also limited. The first night we slept on grass in the open. It was freezing. The next day, we dozed off standing in the queue.”

Mehta said that for the entire next day on February 27, the Ukrainian authorities did not allow the Indian students to pass. “By the night, at around 8 pm, they said only girls can go,” he said. “All our female friends crossed over and we continued to wait in the queue.” That night a snowstorm hit the region. “There was a layer of snow on our heads,” Mehta recalled.

When the passage to Romania opened next, the authorities allowed female students from another university to cross over. “We had arrived before several others,” Mehta said. “But we were not allowed to go. First the females left, then some Ukranians.”

Getting to safety

Finally, on February 28, around 5 pm Ukrainian time, Mehta and his friends were allowed to cross over. They got their passports stamped and walked for about a kilometer before they found a bus that had been arranged by the Indian embassy.

“Once we crossed over, I realised the pain in my legs,” Mehta said. “It felt as if I was walking on water, my feet were so wobbly.”

Auti, who remained in regular touch with his friends across the border, said their feet had swollen up because they had spent almost 36 hours standing in the queue.

“Everyone was food-deprived, sleep-deprived,” Mehta said. He waited for three hours before his turn to board a bus came.

After a six hour ride, the bus finally brought them to Bucharest, the capital of Romania at 3 am on March 1. “I want to say here that the Indian embassy in Ukraine did not help us in any way,” Mehta said. “The Indian embassy in Romania did help us. They provided food, blankets and warm place to stay.”

The students from Vinnytsia have travelled 800 km from their university. Now the final leg of their journey remains. The embassy officials have told the students that they will be flown back to India soon.

The shelter home in Bucharest, Romania, where Indian medical students from Ukraine have been given accommodation. Credit: Special arrangement