The ominous siren went off for the second time on Thursday night as Russian jets zoomed past in the sky. At around 8.45 pm, a loud explosion followed – a factory near the Sumy State university in eastern Ukraine had been bombed.

Hundreds of students rushed for a second time into underground bunkers. When they returned to their rooms an hour later, they found both electricity and water supply had snapped.

In the past nine days, as Russian forces had pounded Sumy Oblast, a picturesque district in north-east Ukraine, just 48 kms from the Russian border, the students had witnessed several such bombings and disruptions. Usually, the supply of essential services would get restored after a brief interval. But this time, the water supply station near the university had been seriously damaged. There was no hope of getting water in the taps.

On Friday morning, when a heavy spell of snowfall began, the students rushed out with their bottles. Melting the snow to get water was now their only hope.

“Departmental stores have run out of water, they only have fizzy drinks,” said Anuj Kumar, a final-year medical student from Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr. “I used some water stored in bucket. But my friends had to fill snow in bottle.”

Based on a list prepared by student groups, there are at least 687 Indian students stranded in Sumy Oblast. Its proximity to Russia made it among the first places to be attacked in Ukraine on February 24.

That day, Ankita Singla, a third-year medical student from Haryana’s Panipat had rushed to a nearby departmental store to purchase packed food. It was the last time she had stepped out of her hostel accommodation.

Since then, she said students like her spend most of their time running back and forth between their rooms and old bunkers built in the basements of their buildings. “The remaining time, I am on my phone scouting for news about Ukraine or emailing Indian embassy officials,” she said.

So far, the embassy has not provided them any assistance. Educational consultants, who had facilitated their admissions in Sumy, were getting them food. On Friday evening, local non-profits came to their rooms to supply them potable water. “But food and water is limited,” Singla said.

Students like her are fast losing hope and are unable to sleep. “Yesterday a student fainted after seeing the factory explode,” she said.

Most students remain silent through the day, Singla said, having nothing to discuss except plans for evacuation.

No exit route

When the war broke out, some students had tried to leave Sumy by train.

“But the tracks were destroyed by shelling on the first day itself,” Singla said. “The roads are blocked by Russian checkpoints.” With the air space shut, Sumy has no other exit point.

Until March 2, nearly 1,000 Indian students in Kharkiv, a city 180 km east of Sumy, were stranded in quite the same way. But after Naveen SG, a fourth-year medical student was killed in Kharkiv, the Indian Embassy swung into action, directing Indian students to three safe locations on the outskirts of the city. Some students managed to board buses to the Poland border on Friday.

Watching these developments, students in Sumy initially grew hopeful of an evacuation. But now their hopes have dimmed again.

Anuj Kumar, the final-year student, said that the Indian government had shown urgency in Kharkiv only after the death of Naveen SG. “Before that their response was slow to come,” he said.

Kumar questioned the widely reported claims in Indian media that the government had negotiated a safe passage for Indian students with Russia. “If so, why would Russia continue to show aggression in Sumy where so many Indians are stranded?”

Some students have mulled over walking to Poltava, where the nearest railway station is located. It is over 170 kms from Sumy. “Nigerian students attempted to take the road, but they were strip searched at checkpoints,” Singla said. She added that some Indian students were asked to return at gunpoint. “In such a situation, walking is a risky option,” she said.

Kumar said four Tanzanian students began walking towards Poltava two days ago. “It is freezing,” he said. “I don’t know how far they managed to reach. We have not managed to speak to them.”

The university has warned students that the war could intensify in the coming days. Kumar said it was difficult to stay optimistic. “Our family asks us what is happening, relatives and friends question if we are safe. We try to comfort them. But honestly, we don’t know when the embassy will send any help,” he said.

“Every time I call my home,” he added, “I think maybe this is the final call.”