By the ninth day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Pralay Kumar Nayak was famished. Hunger had made it impossible to sleep or think straight, the 19-year-old Indian student said.
“There is no food since Wednesday,” Nayak told Scroll.in in a conversation on Friday morning. “We had soup and green tea for the whole of Thursday.”
Enrolled in the second year of medical university in Kharkhiv, a city in eastern Ukraine being bombed by Russian forces, Nayak had spent anxious days in an underground metro station with four friends, before walking 14 km to a railway station on Wednesday morning, only to find it was impossible to board a train westwards to safety.
The same evening, along with nearly 1,000 other Indian students, he had walked another 30 km to Pesochin, a settlement outside Kharkhiv, after the Indian Embassy issued an urgent advisory asking them to leave the city “immediately”.
But in Pesochin, there were no Indian officials waiting for the students – only educational consultants, who had helped them secure university admissions in Ukraine, and who were now trying to help them get out.
“We try to be hopeful,” Nayak said. “We play Uno games, we talk about random things apart from the war. But the lack of action by the Indian government is disheartening.”
In the series Escape from Ukraine, Scroll.in is tracking 19-year-old Pralay Kumar Nayak and his friends as they try and escape the war zone in the eastern part of the country to return home to India. Read about their journey here.
On Thursday, the students heard that Russia might give them safe passage through its border, merely 40 km away. The previous day, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi had spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a statement released by the Russian government had said it was trying to “organise an urgent evacuation” of Indian students through a “humanitarian corridor”.
But on Friday, it became clear that neither the Indian government nor the Russians were coming to the aid of students like Nayak.
They would have to travel over 1,000 km to Ukraine’s border with Poland by bus at their own expense. A single ticket cost $500, or Rs 38,000 – more than the price of a flight ticket to India in normal times, and far beyond the cash most students had on hand.
Frustration with the Indian government
The buses had been hired from local transporters by Indian educational consultants who said they had repeatedly tried – and failed – to secure help from the Indian government.
Karan Singh Sandhu, from the education consultancy firm Edu Pedia, who is in Pesochin with the students, posted an appeal on Facebook on Thursday, urging the Indian Embassy to arrange buses for them.
Abdul Zaheer, managing director at Global Focus, another consultancy firm, said, “The Indian embassy does not even answer all our calls. They don’t respond.” While officials at the Ministry of External Affairs listen and note down information, he added, “nothing happens beyond that”.
Zaheer is coordinating evacuation efforts from New Delhi. In Pesochin, his colleague Dr Swadhin Mohapatra tried to source utensils and ingredients from a mess to cook food for the students, he said, but eventually many had to leave on the 1,000-km journey on an empty stomach.
Although the Russian border is closer, the route remains unsafe. Zaheer said there was no confirmation whether the Indian government had indeed managed to get clearance for a safe corridor to Russia. “And they are not even arranging buses to take students to western border,” he added.
Zaheer said it was difficult to negotiate lower bus ticket prices with local transporters in the present situation. “At this point, getting a bus out is lifesaving. Nothing is easy to get,” he said.
For many students, the price of the ticket was unaffordable.
Mishika Garg, a second-year medical student, said she was out of cash. “I called up the Indian embassy in Russia today. They asked me to wait, they said they will do something,” she said. “But they are not doing anything.”
Some students decided to walk back to the Kharkiv railway station to catch a train to western Ukraine. But they had to return. “There was heavy shelling,” Garg said. “Their route was blocked due to fighting.”
Worn out by exhaustion, the students said they were unable to sleep. They could hear the sound of distant bombings. They were losing hope of a safe exit.
Like Garg, Nayak did not have the money to buy a bus ticket. “At this point, we are all short of money, he said. “The ATMs are shut.”
But then, he had a stroke of good luck. The government of Odisha decided to pay for the bus tickets of students belonging to the state. Nayak is from Jajpur in Odisha. His four friends, too, hail from the state.
On Friday afternoon, all five of them boarded a bus heading to Ukraine’s border with Poland. But they felt bad leaving behind several of their friends and classmates. “Few of our seniors who I know decided to stay back because they did not have money for the bus,” said Debashish Rout, Nayak’s friend. “They are at risk here.”
Follow updates about Nayak’s journey here.