Harrowing tales as international students flee to border

Students from several Asian countries have complained of slow evacuations from Ukraine by their governments as major urban centres such as the country’s second largest city Kharkiv – which is also a university city with 38 higher education institutions – just 40 km from the Russian border came under heavy bombardment and fears rose on Wednesday 2 March of an imminent attack on the Ukraine capital Kyiv.

India’s embassy in Kyiv on 2 March issued an urgent advisory to Indian nationals in capital letters to “leave Kharkiv immediately, repeat immediately in the light of the deteriorating situation”.

Citizens were advised to proceed to Pesochin, Babaye, in the western suburbs of the city and Bezlyudovka, 13km south of Kharkiv “as soon as possible for their safety. Under all circumstances they should reach these settlements by 1800 hrs (Ukrainian time) today.”

Social media reports early on 2 March showed university buildings of Kharkiv National Agrarian University, Kharkiv National University of Economics and VN Karazin Kharkiv National University under attack, with buildings on fire.

According to the Ukrainian government, 76,548 international students from 155 nations are enrolled at the country’s universities, drawn by low tuition fees and living costs. Around 25% of them are from India, with other large groups from Morocco, Turkmenistan, Nigeria, China and other South Asian countries.

Many students said their governments had failed to respond adequately to the fast-deteriorating situation until it was too late to leave by plane as Ukraine air space was closed to civilian flights and the only way to leave was on land by road or rail, and in many cases on foot, to neighbouring countries from where they could fly out.

India managed only a single evacuation flight on 22 February from Ukraine before being reduced to being able to evacuate only from neighbouring countries.

At a media briefing on Tuesday 1 March, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said 26 flights had been scheduled over the next three days from Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia to bring back Indian citizens. He said more than half of the 20,000 Indian students in Ukraine had left the country by Tuesday, but of the remaining 40% still in Ukraine, roughly half are in the conflict zone in and near Kharkiv.

Some students said they had been abandoned by their embassies, while the plans of different governments to extract their citizens were hampered by fast-moving events and the shifting of embassies and consulates out of the capital Kyiv, many of them to Lviv or Ternopil in western Ukraine, close to the Polish border.

Harrowing tales of journeys to overcrowded border crossings have been commonplace. Most of those who have managed to get out were in the relatively calm western parts of Ukraine close to Poland and Hungary. They joined some 377,000 who have fled into Poland since the invasion of Ukraine began a week ago, with 93,000 people arriving in Poland on Tuesday alone, according to UN figures.

Amrita Pun (19), a Nepali student, never expected she would have to leave her education amid uncertainty and flee the country.

Originally from Devdaha Municipality in Nepal’s Lumbini Province, she went to Ukraine to pursue an engineering degree at the Ukrainian Engineering Pedagogics Academy, Kharkiv. She was enrolled for hardly a year when she had to leave as the Russian military began its invasion of the eastern European nation in the early hours of 24 February.

“We lived in terror for two days after the attack and finally decided on 26 February to leave the place,” she told University World News by phone from Poland’s capital Warsaw.

“It took us three days to reach Krakow, the Poland border, and to Warsaw,” she said.

Pun, together with three friends, hired a car to reach the border. But after taking US$800 and a mobile phone, the car owner left them before reaching their destination. She claimed they walked eight to nine hours without food to Krakow. “I am short of words to explain the experience of walking on foot in hunger, chilling cold and in fear of getting caught in cross-fire or bombing,” she said. “I am happy that I am alive.”

Inadequate to no information

Nepali students, like other foreign students in Ukraine, blame their government and the university administrations for downplaying the situation and giving them no warning.

“We also enquired from our university administration seeking advice on whether we should leave the country. It downplayed [the situation] saying Russia would never attack, which turned out to be wrong,” Jeni Tamang (21), a medical student at International European University Kyiv, told University World News from the Polish border.

“Had we been warned on time, we would have left the country on time without waiting for the invasion to begin.”

Many others say they were left with inadequate to no information and no pre-warning. Many embassies were slow to act.

China only began to evacuate its citizens on Monday after telling them a week ago to stay put and not display any obvious marking of their identity or nationality. According to official Chinese media, China evacuated its first group of citizens – 400 Chinese students from Odessa and 200 from Kyiv – on Monday, travelling by bus to neighbouring Moldova which has granted temporary visa waivers for refugees crossing the border.

A second group of nearly 1,000 Chinese students was evacuated on Tuesday. The groups travelled in 14 coaches, escorted by military police, according to the Chinese consulate in Moldova.

China’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday 2 March that 2,500 of its citizens in the country had been ‘relocated’.

Official media appeared to underestimate the number of Chinese citizens in Ukraine, at around 6,000 – the number who registered with the embassy for evacuation – but sources suggest the figures in Chinese official media were “very out of date” and put the number of Chinese students in Ukraine at closer to 10,000.

China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Monday 28 February that China was “working out all feasible plans to assist Chinese citizens in Ukraine with voluntary and safe evacuation” but noted the current security situation was “extremely unstable”. Plans for charter flights to get Chinese citizens out were put hold over last weekend as fighting intensified.

Xu Xijie, a Chinese student in Kharkiv, said there were long queues of cars trying to leave the city. Other Chinese students said they had been told to stay indoors, stock up on food and not try to leave, even though they had heard from students of other nationalities that their embassies were advising them to leave more than a week ago.

China has now sent a working group headed by a senior diplomat to Kyiv railway station to assist its citizens, according to the Chinese embassy on Tuesday.

Chinese citizens have reported hostility from Ukrainians after China abstained, along with India and the United Arab Emirates, in a UN Security Council vote on 26 February deploring the Russian attack on Ukraine. The resolution was vetoed by Russia.

Indian students – more than 14,000 of them still stranded in Ukraine – also reported their country’s UN vote abstention had led to harassment by Ukrainian officials, including by border guards at checkpoints into Poland. African students whose governments did not abstain in the UN vote also reported harassment and discriminatory treatment at the border.

Stranded in different cities

Pakistani students stuck in Ukraine are sending messages back home appealing to the government in Islamabad to rescue them, with some 500 Pakistani students stranded in different Ukrainian cities, including Kharkiv and Kyiv, mainly studying medicine and computer science.

Pakistan’s Ambassador to Ukraine Noel Israel Khokhar claimed: “Out of 3,000 Pakistani students in Ukraine, most of them have been evacuated, while only 500 are still stuck in different cities and we are doing our best to get them to safe locations.”

He tweeted on 26 February that Pakistan’s embassy in Ukraine was taking measures on “a war footing” to evacuate Pakistani students to safer locations but students sending SOS calls home allege that the embassy did not take any measures except arranging a bus that dropped about 50 students some 30km from Poland’s border with Ukraine.

The students, via video messages on social media, blamed the embassy for not taking timely steps to evacuate them.

“Our embassy is lying; they have not done anything for us. They have left us to the mercy of the situation,” Masooma Memon, a student in Ukraine from Pakistan’s Hyderabad city said in a video message to her family which was aired on television news channels in Pakistan. She is seen in the video weeping and desperately asking for help from Pakistan.

“We are in trouble, but nobody from Pakistan has helped us to evacuate. We have not slept for many hours as we left Poltava for a safer location outside Ukraine. We have run short of cash and are short of food items. Ukrainians walking with us to evacuate have helped us [Pakistani students] by giving us some eatables,” Masooma said.

Border ‘discrimination’ denied

Masooma said Polish border authorities were not letting Pakistani students enter Poland, saying they were using batons to keep them away from crossing into Poland. She alleged that only Ukrainian citizens were being allowed to enter Poland.

Poland granted free passage to Ukrainian students after the 27-nation European Union said on 28 February that it would grant Ukrainians fleeing the war the right to stay and work in the European Union for up to three years. Later on Monday, Poland announced that all Indian citizens fleeing Ukraine could enter Poland visa-free.

Poland said it would be easing visa rules for other non-EU nationalities amid criticism of ‘discrimination’ at the border in favour of Europeans.

Denying racism, the chancellery of the prime minister of Poland earlier tweeted that Poland admits citizens of different countries in accordance with the existing procedures. Pakistan’s ambassador in Poland Malik Muhammad Farooq alleged that Ukrainian border authorities are not letting people of other nationalities cross into Poland as their first priority is to help evacuate Ukrainian citizens.

According to media reports, the Polish government has allowed Pakistani students a 15-day stay – at designated places only and without freedom to move elsewhere – to arrange for their further travel to Pakistan while Pakistan International Airlines has also planned to run flights from Poland to evacuate the students.

Left to their own devices

Many foreign citizens including students have either entered or are waiting at border points to enter into the countries west of Ukraine as Russia is attacking from three other sides. Most were left to their own devices to figure out how to make for the borders.

Another Pakistani student, Zarrar Ahmed from Tando Allahyar city of Sindh province, said in a video, aired by Geo News TV: “Pakistani students fleeing from Kyiv and Kharkiv had to travel on foot for over 30 kilometres and slept on the roads amid -2°C temperatures at night. We had to burn some of our extra clothes to keep ourselves warm on the coldest nights when we were travelling towards Poland.”

His family told Geo News, a Pakistan television station, that they had lost contact with him and were praying for his safety.

Sahara Chaulagain, a third secretary in Nepal’s embassy in Berlin, which oversees Ukraine issues in the absence of a Nepal embassy in Ukraine, said dozens of the country’s citizens were waiting at different border points to leave Ukraine. However, neither the Nepal government nor its embassy in Berlin have the exact figures.

According to Nepal’s Ministry of Education, as many as 820 ‘no objection certificates’ which allow students to study abroad have been issued to the Nepali students to study in Ukraine since January 2020. The highest numbers of no objection certificates were issued in 2021 with 678.

“With increasing tensions between Russia and Ukraine we had stopped issuing the no objection certificates from 25 January [2022],” Hari Niraula, chief at the Abroad Study Permission Section in the Education Ministry, told University World News.

Nepal embassy officials admit they have no access to their citizens in Ukraine in need of assistance.

“We are not in a position to support our people in Ukraine. We are coordinating with Non-Resident Nepali Associations for support only after they get to Poland, Slovakia, Romania or Hungary,” said Chaulagain. “It is up to the individuals how they get out of there.”

“We don’t have any plan for evacuation flights as of now,” Chaulagain added. “Individuals have to make their arrangements on their own.”

At least 10 students from Nepal who have arrived in Poland or Hungary told University World News of their arduous journey out of Ukraine. Birendra Khadka, a Nepali student from Surkhet in Karnali Province enrolled at Kharkiv International University, said he and his friends took shelter at a metro station for two days fearing for their lives, before deciding to leave the country.

“Our embassy in Berlin and Moscow told us to enter Poland, Hungary or Slovakia but never said how and made no effort to help. We had to walk a whole day in the chilling cold as we had no money to pay for transport. The fare is several times higher than the normal,” he told University World News. “I am really disappointed at the indifference of our government.”

Khadka said: “While the Polish government is allowing girls to enter easily, males must queue up for a day or even longer to gain entry as Ukrainian and other European nationals are given priority.”

“I desperately want to return to Nepal but have no money and I don’t want to add to the financial burdens of my parents who already took out a loan to send me here,” said Nabin Rawal, a Nepali student from Odessa, who is now in Poland. “I expect the Nepal government will make some arrangements.”

Embassy movement causes ‘chaos’

Amna Haider, a student from Pakistan studying in Ukraine, was stranded in a suburban village some 20km from Kyiv until she was helped and guided by a fellow citizen to reach Ternopil in western Ukraine close to the Polish border, where the Pakistan embassy had temporarily shifted to from Kyiv, to catch a bus the embassy had arranged to transport Pakistani students to the Polish border.

Aziz Ullah, father of Muhammad Umar, a medical student in Ukraine from Faisalabad in Pakistan, told University World News: “Actually, the shifting of the embassy from Kyiv to Ternopil and the embassy staff themselves arranging for their own safety have led to this chaos.

“The embassy is now shifting the blame to students saying that students did not pay heed to the advice to get to safer locations issued before the invasion, but they did not inform [them] what location was safe.” Muhammad Umar is now at Poland’s border with Ukraine.

“India has brought its students from Ukraine through special flights and our government has awakened late to respond to this situation,” Munawar Hussain, assistant professor at the Area Study Center of Islamabad-based Quaid-i-Azam University, told University World News.

University World News Asia Editor Yojana Sharma wrote this report compiled from dispatches from UWN correspondents in the region.