For 19-year-old Pralay Kumar Nayak, the three hours he spent walking through the city of Kharkiv on Wednesday evening to reach the place the Indian government had asked Indian students to get to were easily the most dreadful moments of his life.
“We saw army men, tanks and artillery everywhere on the roads,” Nayak said. “It felt like we were in a war movie scene, only that it was all true and horrifying.”
Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine is just 40 km south of the Russian border. The city has been under relentless bombardment from the Russian forces for the past few days. Caught in the turmoil are thousands of Indian medical students – one of them, Naveen SG, died in shelling on Tuesday, sparking panic among the Indian student community.
Early Wednesday morning, Nayak, a second-year medical student from Odisha, who until then had been holed up in an underground metro station with four friends – Debashish Rout, Shanti Kumar Nayak, Priyabrata Sahoo and Rishit Bharadwaj – began walking 14 km to the Pivdennyi Vokzal railway station in central Kharkiv.
The students hoped to board a train to Lviv, 1,000 km away, in the western part of the country, where they had heard that Indian authorities were helping evacuate students to Poland, Hungary, and Romania.
But when they reached the station, they heard the rumble of Russian bombings closing in. “We could feel the vibration, hear the loud thud,” Nayak said.
The station was awash with thousands of people, all attempting to board the only train leaving westwards. Nayak estimated there were at least 600 Indian students in the crowd. As Ukrainian soldiers opened fire at the station, Nayak’s friend, Debashish Rout, said he realised that “they wanted to scare us so that we stopped attempting to board the train.”
Initially, only Ukranians were permitted on board, he said: “Later, they allowed females and children from other countries, including India, to board the train. All men were asked to wait.”
By afternoon, the students received the message that the Indian Embassy had asked all students to leave the city immediately and reach three suburban settlements by 6 pm. If students were not able to find vehicles, the embassy said they should “proceed on foot” to Pesochin, Babaye and Bezliudivka, claiming they were 11 km, 12 km and 16 km away, respectively.
But as Nayak and his friends were to discover, the road to Pesochin was much longer – and far more terrifying than anything they had seen so far.
The long road
About 600 Indian students gathered at the Pivdennyi Vokzal railway station decided to make the journey to Pesochin together. As they left the station around 3 pm, some drew out Indian flags from their bags and started waving them, presumably in the hope that this would keep them safe.
On their way out of central Kharkiv, for a short distance, Ukrainian soldiers escorted them. “At one point they asked us to hide behind bunkers because Russian army was bombing the entire area,” Nayak said.
On Wednesday, after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Russian government released a statement claiming its military was “doing everything possible to ensure the safe removal of Indian citizens from the war zone and their return to their homeland”.
But Nayak and his friends said that all through their walk to Pesochin, the Russian forces continued their strikes from air and land. “While we were walking on the road, a huge explosion occurred in a residential building next to our group,” said Rout. “The war was happening right next to us.”
The students found themselves on deserted roads leading out of Kharkiv. Around them were buildings blown up by missiles and gutted by fire. Thick smoke billowed into the sky.
“We had no option but to keep walking,” Nayak said. “There were blasts happening nearby. We could make out it was somewhere close.”
He added: “I can’t explain the fear we felt then.”
Nayak and his friends had left behind most of their belongings, taking only essentials in a backpack, so that they could walk faster.
Even the few packets of food they had, they had given away to some children at the railway station. “We thought we would buy more,” Rout said, “but all departmental stores were shut.”
Ignoring the hunger pangs, the students kept walking, taking a circuitous route to Pesochin. When they finally reached the suburb on the outskirts of Kharkiv, around 6.30 pm, they realised they had walked nearly 30 km.
Hungry but safe
In Pesochin, the education agents who had helped Indian students get admission to Kharkiv University guided them to accommodation that they said had been arranged in coordination with the Indian Embassy and Ukrainian authorities.
The students were unable to make out whether the buildings were residential or commercial. Assigned rooms in groups of four, they went to sleep without a meal.
On Thursday, when they woke up, the agents told them they were trying to arrange for cooked food.
By now, Nayak and his friends had spent 31 hours without a morsel of food.
“We are hungry but at least we are safe here,” Nayak said. Rout added, “We can still hear distant sound of bombing, but there is no fighting happening where we are.”
Indian officials are yet to visit Pesochin to meet the students and brief them about evacuation plans. Unofficially, they have been told that a safe corridor might be created to take them to Belgorod in Russia, about 90 kms away.
“I don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” Nayak said. “For now we are out of the war zone.”
Follow updates about Nayak’s journey here.