Basant Kumar Nayak works as a cameraperson with a television channel in Odisha. On the night of March 8, he was at the Bhubaneswar airport, where 33 students from the state, who had fled the war in Ukraine, were expected to arrive.

A swarm of media crews was positioned outside the arrival gate. But Nayak stood away from them, with his wife and five other relatives, one of whom held a box of sweets.

Around 11 pm, Nayak spotted a young, lanky man, dressed in a black jacket and white sneakers, hair tied back in a bun, walking out of the gate. He looked exhausted.

Nayak rushed towards him, breaking down in tears as he hugged him. His wife followed suit. But before she could pull their son into her arms, the television cameras and microphones intruded.

The journalists wanted Nayak’s son, 19-year-old Pralay Kumar Nayak, to tell them about the war that he had just escaped.

Pralay Nayak with his parents at Biju Patnaik International Airport in Bhubaneswar.

The journey to Ukraine

The Nayaks live in Jajpur, a town 100 km from Bhubaneswar. Pralay Nayak, their only child, grew up wanting to be a doctor.

In 2020, he cleared the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test for admissions to medical colleges in India, but his marks were too low for him to get him a place in government-run institutions. Private medical colleges were prohibitively expensive. For the four-year medical graduate programme, “the fees ranged between Rs 60 lakh to Rs 80 lakh”, Basant Kumar Nayak said.

The father started looking for options abroad. To his surprise, the fees in Ukraine’s medical colleges were one-fourth that of Indian private colleges – a little over Rs 20 lakh.

It helped that the representative of the education firm that was facilitating admissions into the Kharkiv National Medical University in eastern Ukraine was a doctor from Odisha. He lived in Kharkhiv and promised to take care of their son.

With this assurance, Nayak and his wife decided to send Pralay Nayak more than 5,400 km away from home. “I used all my savings for his education,” Basant Kumar Nayak said.

Pralay Nayak with his father, Basant, before he left for Ukraine.

To their relief, despite the unfamiliar language and culture, Pralay Nayak, a shy young man, had come to feel at home in Ukraine. He even tried taking language classes, but struggled with them.

Last year, Pralay Nayak visited home in Jajpur after finishing his first year in medicine.

In January, when news began to surface of the brewing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, his parents grew concerned. But Pralay Nayak reassured them that there was no need to be anxious– his university had not raised an alarm, he said, and all the other Indian students were staying put.

In early February, when Pralay Nayak and his friends called the Indian embassy in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, the officials told them that “there would be no war and everything would be handled through diplomatic channels”.

By mid-February, some of Pralay Nayak’s classmates from Syria and Dubai left Ukraine on the advice of their governments.

“It was February 20 when I got really worried,” Basant Kumar Nayak said. “India issued an advisory for Indians to leave Ukraine. I decided to book him a ticket.” But the flights were running full for the next two weeks. He managed to get a ticket for Pralay for March 6.

That turned out to be too late. On February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine.

The war begins

That morning, Pralay Nayak woke up to the sound of shelling and sirens. Kharkiv is just 40 km south of Ukraine’s border with Russia. It was among the first places to face a bombardment.

The previous night, Pralay had slept over at a friend’s place. They rushed over to an underground metro station to seek refuge from the shelling. That is when Nayak realised that his passport was lying in his hostel room of Kharkiv National Medical University. But it was too risky to go back to pick it up.

For six days after Russia’s invasion, Nayak stayed in Studenska metro station with four of his friends – Debashish Rout, Shanti Kumar Nayak, Priyabrata Sahoo and Rishit Bharadwaj. Like him, they were all second-year students at the Kharkiv National Medical University. All of them were from Odisha.

Since language was a barrier, they would follow the actions of the Ukrainians in the metro station, stepping out to buy food and water as per curfew timings. Within the first three or four days, department stores ran out of packaged drinking water. The students switched to boiling and drinking tap water.

When they went out to buy groceries, they saw a city transformed. Trees had been uprooted by the bombings, government buildings destroyed by airstrikes. On their phones, they saw ghastly videos of neighbourhoods destroyed by Russian bombs.

All around, civilian deaths were mounting.

Two of Nayak’s four Ukrainian friends had decided to fight alongside the Ukrainian army. The other two had left Kharkiv with their families for Lviv in western Ukraine.

Nayak phoned the Indian embassy every day. Sometimes the phone was busy, but when someone did answer, they would tell him that the embassy was working to evacuating the students.

Back home, in Jajpur, his father was also calling the Indian embassy in Ukraine and the helpline numbers provided by the Ministry of External Affairs. Most of the time, the phone lines were busy. “So many people must be calling,” Basant Kumar Nayak said. In the crisis, it had emerged that over 20,000 Indian students were enrolled in universities in Ukraine.

Pralay Nayak and his four friends decided to stay down in the metro station, hoping that the war would end soon. “At one point, I knew escaping was not possible for any of us,” said his friend, Shanti Nayak. “We had heard stories from others who tried to board a train but could not. So we did not even try to leave the city.”

But the death of their senior, Naveen SG, a fourth-year medical student from Karnataka, on March 1, shook them. He had stepped out of a metro station to buy groceries when he was hit by shelling.

“We understood that no help was coming our way,” Pralay Nayak said.

Pralay Nayak (first from left) and his friends stayed at an underground metro station for six days.

A dangerous journey

The next day, the five friends walked 14 km to Pivdennyi railway station in the central part of the city to try to board a train out of Kharkiv. But they were not able to – priority was being given to Ukrainian nationals, and women and children.

While they were at the railway station, nearby areas continued to face shelling. The previous day, a regional administrative building, not far away, had been damaged in an air strike. Every time the station shook under a loud thud, panic ran through the hundreds of people there.

By afternoon, the Indian embassy, which had relocated to Lviv, issued an urgent advisory asking Indian students to leave Kharkiv “immediately”. The embassy asked them to get to three settlements on the outskirts of the city. Mobilising over Telegram and WhatsApp, Indian students decided to form a large group at the station and walk towards one of the settlements, Pesochin.

Barely had they gone a short distance when a fresh wave of bombings started. “The Ukrainian army rushed us to a bunker where we waited for over 40 minutes before setting off again,” Pralay Nayak recalled.

It took more than three hours of walking through the war-torn landscape for about 950 Indian students to reach Pesochin late in the evening. They were given rooms in a sanatorium attached to the Kharkiv National Medical University. A group of Indian education consultants, including the doctor from Odisha who had facilitated Pralay Nayak’s admission to the Kharkiv university, had arranged the accommodation.

The students had not eaten the entire day. There was no food in Pesochin but what cheered Nayak was the absence of gunfire.

“We thought we were safe here,” he said. “But we were wrong.”

The next afternoon, the thunder of bombings began to creep up on them. Curfew was announced in Pesochin. There was no sign of any help from the Indian embassy. The education consultants made risky journeys to nearby villages to try to find food for the students. All they got was soup and green tea.

Pralay Nayak’s friend Debashish Rout said they heard in the news that the Indian government was in talks with the Russian government to create a humanitarian corridor to evacuate students stranded in eastern Ukraine. But as the bombings grew closer, their hopes dimmed. They realised that Pesochin was not safe for long and no help was coming from the Indian embassy anytime soon.

The sanatorium in Pesochin where the students stayed.

There was another concern – food. “I could not sleep because of hunger,” Pralay Nayak said. “I could not think straight.” That left them with only one option – travelling towards the western border by whatever means possible.

The education consultants worked hard to arrange buses. But money was a problem. Most students had run out of cash. ATMs were shut. Nayak and his friends, however, were lucky – the Odisha government decided to fund the bus journey of students from their state.

Nayak boarded a bus on the afternoon of March 4. Two of his friends found seats on a second bus, while the other two got on a third bus. Nayak did not know when he would next see them.

Before the bus left, the students ate a slice of bread.

Students travelled over a thousand kilometres to reach the western borders of Ukraine.

A final hurdle

The buses took 29 hours to reach Ternopil, a city in western Ukraine, over 900 kms from Pesochin. They could not take a shorter route, via Kyiv, because of heavy shelling in the capital city.

After days of living with the sounds of war, the journey through western Ukraine was eerily quiet, Shanti Nayak said. “The entire journey was without bombing,” he said. “We had got so used to it in Kharkiv.”

The students bought apples, biscuits and chips on the way. But a little after Ternopil, their bus broke down. The education consultants, however, came to their rescue again, arranging vans and cabs to take them to the Romanian border.

At the border, it took just half an hour for most Indian students to cross over into Romania, where Indian officials had created shelter homes for the students.

But Pralay Nayak, his friend Shanti Nayak, and one of their juniors, Somya Ranjan, were not allowed to cross. All three had lost their passports in the chaos of fleeing the war. On February 24, the day the war broke out, when Pralay Nayak realised he had left his passport in his hostel room, he had asked a friend to pick it up for him. But that friend never managed to meet him, and left the country by train.

Now, at the Romanian border, Pralay Nayak and the two others needed an emergency certificate to leave Ukraine. An emergency certificate is a one-way travel document issued by the India consular authorities to Indian citizens who have lost their passports.

The three students began calling and emailing the embassy. “We were on non-stop calls from midnight till the next morning,” recalled Shanti Nayak.

His phone battery died, followed by Ranjan’s. They now had only Pralay Nayak’s phone to speak to the Indian officials – and to get them to speak to the Romanian immigration officials at the border.

Back home, Pralay Nayak’s family and friends were worried that he may miss the last flight scheduled to leave from Romania under Operation Ganga. Priyabrata Sahoo, Pralay Nayak’s friend, said they eventually lost contact with him by the afternoon of March 6.

In the evening, after the Indian embassy convinced the Romanian authorities that the students would receive emergency certificates at the airport while leaving the country, the students were allowed to enter Romania. The immigration authorities took their fingerprints scans, a digital copy of their passports and their Aadhaar cards.

The three students were taken to a shelter home in an indoor basketball complex in picturesque Salcea. All they wanted to do was have a meal.

Pralay Nayak (R) with his friend Shanti Kumar Nayak

The next day, they were flown back to Delhi. From there, the Odisha government arranged a flight to Bhubaneswar on March 8.

An uncertain future

The night Pralay Nayak landed in Bhubaneswar, his parents took him to a relative’s home that was stocked up with his favourite Odia sweets, cakes and chocolates.

Pralay Nayak at his relatives home in Bhubaneshwar

On March 9, the family drove back to Jajpur. In the days since, his father said, their house has been flooded by relatives and friends, all curious to hear about the war.

The family held a grand, day-long puja on March 10 to offer prayers of gratitude for Pralay Nayak’s return. “We were sleepless for so many days when he was trying to leave Kharkiv,” said Basant Kumar Nayak. “I would keep calling him, sometimes for seven-eight hours at a stretch when his phone was out of network.”

While they are relieved to be back home, Pralay Nayak and his friends are worried about their futures. They have received an email from their university saying that online classes will begin by March 21. With one of its buildings destroyed in the war, it is unclear how the university plans to hold online classes. Besides, medical students must immerse themselves in clinical experience in hospitals from the third year. Pralay Nayak and his friends are due to enter their third year.

Some medical colleges in Germany have announced that they will take in students from Ukraine. But Pralay Nayak and his friends are keen to wait for Kharkiv National Medical University to start classes.

“I would love to return to Ukraine,” Shanti Nayak said.

Even Pralay Nayak believes Ukrainians are kind-hearted people. “If we knew the local language, it would have been easier to navigate through this chaos,” he said.

Pralay Nayak with his friends from second year of Kharkiv National Medical University.