Students evacuated from Sumy via humanitarian corridor

The evacuation of about 700 Indian students trapped in Ukraine’s besieged city of Sumy, pummelled by Russian shells, was completed on Tuesday 8 March with all the students reaching Poltava in Central Ukraine, 150km from Sumy, according to Indian officials.

They were brought to Poltava by bus, where they boarded trains to Western Ukraine from where they were airlifted out.

Indian officials said that, with this, the rescue mission of Indian students stuck in Ukraine is “almost complete”.

Indian Cabinet Minister Hardeep Singh Puri told media the Indian mission also rescued foreign students of other nationalities from Sumy. Around 2,046 international students were stranded in Sumy despite pleas by Turkey, India and China for a humanitarian corridor, according to a tweet by Ukrainian lawmaker Lesia Vasylenko on Tuesday telling students to “hold tight, #Ukraine army will be there soon”.

On Wednesday Vasylenko tweeted that 1,100 foreign students who made it out of Sumy were on their way to Lviv near the Polish border. “Evacuation mission a success. 35+20 buses took people out from that horrendous siege,” she noted, adding that it was the first humanitarian corridor where Russia did not break the ceasefire.

Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk on Monday said foreign students from 27 countries had been unable to leave besieged towns including Sumy, Chernihiv, Mariupol and Kherson – four cities where a humanitarian ceasefire was holding for the first time on Wednesday.

India had almost 20,000 students in Ukraine – the largest group of international students in the country – when the war with Russia broke out on 24 February.

In all, so far 17,400 people have been airlifted to India, including students, in a stepped-up Indian government operation after strident criticism from students stuck in Ukraine and their concerned families in India as the situation deteriorated during this week.

Several failed humanitarian corridors

The extraction came as a relief after several failed humanitarian corridors from besieged cities in Western Ukraine hampered students’ routes out to safer areas.

Terrified students were holed up in basements and bunkers for days in freezing temperatures with no electricity and running out of food. They said they had to melt snow to drink. The false alarms of humanitarian corridors increased their distress and added pressure on the government to bring them out.

“With every passing day, we were finding ourselves close to death. We were running short of food, water and money,” Ankit Jaswal, a medical student in Sumy, said on Monday before the students were extracted by Indian embassy staff on Tuesday. “Our parents in India are anxious but we were not in a position to tell them the truth,” he said.

Another student from the Indian state of Haryana who did not want to be named had said: “Embassy staff were not at all cooperative. We faced one of the most difficult times of our life but no one was available to help us.”

The students shared dozens of videos online of their ordeal in Sumy. In one video, student Saransh Jain, along with hundreds of students, desperately requested evacuation as their situation was becoming more difficult by the day.

For example, students were told on Monday that they would be rescued from Sumy and had even boarded buses when they were told by the Indian embassy that the temporary ceasefire negotiated between Russia and Ukraine to allow civilians out of the four cities of Sumy, Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Mariupol had failed and Russian bombardment had resumed.

Meanwhile, in an advisory on Tuesday the Indian government asked its citizens still stranded in Ukraine to make use of the humanitarian corridors by any available means of transport considering the security situation since an announcement of the next such corridor was “uncertain”.

Harjot Singh, an Indian student who sustained a bullet injury while in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, reached Delhi on Tuesday. He had crossed the border of Ukraine after travelling 700 km by road.

Prime minister’s talks

The extraction of students from Sumy came a day after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on ways to resume the evacuation process of the Indian students from Sumy.

On Monday, India’s Ambassador to the United Nations T S Tirumurti said: “India has been consistent in calling for an immediate end to all hostilities.”

“We have also reiterated our urgent demand for safe and uninterrupted passage for all innocent civilians including Indian nationals remaining in Ukraine. We’re deeply concerned that despite our repeated urgings to both sides, the safe corridor for our students stranded in Sumy did not materialise.”

However, in a tweet on Tuesday, Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said: “Happy to inform that we have been able to move out all Indian students from Sumy. They are currently en route to Poltava, from where they will board trains to Western Ukraine. Flights under Operation Ganga are being prepared to bring them home.”

The mission to bring Indians from Ukraine’s neighbouring countries was named Operation Ganga, and included participation by the Indian Air Force, operating ten IAF C-17 Globemaster flights, to evacuate some 2,056 people.

According to Minister Puri, the airlift from Hungary and Poland has been “completed”.

Earlier, two special flights on Tuesday took Indian students from Ukraine to Delhi via Suceava in Romania.

Efforts are also ongoing to bring back the body of Naveen Gyanagoudar, an Indian medical student killed in crossfire in Ukraine. Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Somappa Bommai said that he was in touch with the Indian Embassy; the matter had also been taken up with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. The deceased student was from the southern state of Karnataka.

Delayed response

Amid the relief, there has been criticism of the Indian authorities’ response. “I think the evacuation started late – later than it should have been done. And that is the reason why a number of our students were caught in these conflicts in dangerous places and one of them even lost his life,” said Yashwant Sinha, a former external affairs minister.

“All this was avoidable because the government must have had information about the intentions of Putin. They would have easily anticipated that this would result in a full-scale war and create problems for our students. The government waited for the conflict to gather momentum and then started evacuating our students. As a result, they suffered avoidable difficulties,” he told University World News.

“There are Indians in every part of the world. You can find them in the most unlikely places and wherever there is a conflict people of Indian origin also get caught up and that creates problems for the government of India. But in the past we have seen that governments have been successful in evacuating their people so we should use our experiences of the past,” said Sinha.

Critics say delays by the Indian government in assessing how bad the situation in Ukraine could get, and an inadequate early response to extract students from the country, were the primary reasons why thousands of Indian students were stranded and had to struggle for days in conflict-hit zones, risking their lives.

Besides, overpriced air tickets, the long distances to the border within Ukraine and the fear of travel along roads hit by incessant bombings and shelling were other reasons that forced Indian students to delay their return plans, and in the end, many had to scramble to get out of Ukraine.

On 15 February, the Indian Embassy issued its first advisory for Indians in Ukraine that nationals, especially students whose stay was not necessary, “may consider leaving temporarily” and later issued helpline numbers. But the flights were fully booked by the time the advisory came and the prices of air tickets had increased exorbitantly. The situation worsened quickly and Ukraine closed its airspace on 24 February.

Some students said this experience would hopefully be a lesson for the Indian government. They said the Indian Embassy was not helpful while students travelled long distances or hid in bunkers. Reports from Ukraine said many students claimed that their phone calls and WhatsApp messages to the embassy remained unanswered. Even the top ministers and officials in India did not act swiftly enough.

Experience of Ukraine could deter Indian students

The Ukraine crisis could deter Indian students from going abroad for higher studies, according to some students. Indians studying in Belarus, neighbouring Ukraine but allied with Russia, are preparing to leave for India although universities and local authorities there have told them there is “no possibility” of an armed conflict or violence in Belarus.

However, families in India are worried about their well-being and want them to return. Around 2,000 Indian students are studying in Belarus.

Students said they are apprehensive about a spillover of the war in Ukraine and a few have headed home. Some have booked tickets for the coming week.

The mother of student Anamika Dubey, who is studying in Belarus, said that the war in Ukraine would definitely have a ripple effect and except for countries like the US, UK, Canada etc, Indian students would not feel safe, particularly in countries in the neighbourhood of Ukraine, including Russia.

“For the parents, the experience of their children getting caught in the middle of a life-and-death crisis in a foreign country will prove to be a big deterrent in future and they will think twice before planning about their wards’ further studies in a foreign nation,” she said.

Piyush Goyal, India’s minister for commerce and industry, said during a press conference on Wednesday that initially Indian students in Ukraine did not take the government’s advisory seriously, nor did their universities allow them to leave. Around 4,000 citizens including students had returned before the war broke out, and “more could have come”.

On Operation Ganga, Goyal said: “Many countries floundered in evacuating citizens from Ukraine. India still evacuated its citizens through [Ukraine’s] neighbouring nations and people brought their pets back too. We evacuated citizens from Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh as well.”