As Indian students return from Ukraine, they recall friendships forged in war

The air raid sirens still ring in their ears and bruised soles from frosty midnight walk to the borders of Ukraine to escape the war reminds them of a life they left behind. Most of the nearly 800 Indian students, who made their way back home on four Indian Air Force aircraft on Thursday, had to leave their books and other belongings and travel with just a single bag with a spare change of clothes.

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When the students landed at the Hindon Airbase in Ghaziabad, they desperately looked for a WiFi connection to send a message to their parents that they were safe. The second set of messages was immediately sent to their Ukrainian friends praying that they receive a reply.

For Vishaka, 21, it was a text message she has not yet received. Her brother, Kumar Raghav, 20, was in Kharkiv, where intense fighting between Russian and Ukrainian troops is underway. Vishaka, an MBBS student, had left from Ivano-Frankivsk National Medical University when the war broke out and had to use a small boat to get closer to the Romanian border.

“But my brother is in Kharkiv, which is in the eastern part of Ukraine. The Indian government should have airlifted students out of Kharkiv. Instead, they were given last-minute notices to flee the city and reach the border areas. Why is this promotion being done? We took all the pains to reach the Romanian border. You are giving us free flights, but what about the students who are caught in the war?” asked Vishaka.

Safwan Malik, who came back from Vinnytsia in Central-West Ukraine, also said his cousin, Naseem is still stranded in Kharkiv. “There is no word from him so far. His last message to me was that the Russians are shelling the city,” he said.

Malik was supposed to celebrate his friend’s birthday when the sound of an explosion near his college announced the war’s arrival. “Then we spent most of our time in bunkers made at our college.”

Aasiq Ali, a student at Uzhgorod University in West Ukraine’s Uzhgorod, said he misses his Ukrainian friends. After last-minute farewells, the 20-year-old fled Ukraine through the Hungary border. “Most of my friends used to drive a taxi in Ukraine to earn their pocket money. We used to hang out together and have a lot of fun. Now they have picked up arms. I saw a recent photo of my friend, distributing arms in his village. So much has changed in such a short span of time,” Ali said.

Sharukh Khan, from the same University, said his Ukrainian friends are traumatised. “They were all trying to flee the country. We all become close during these days, running to the bunker and waiting for hours hearing the sound of explosions. They could not flee their country and have now picked up weapons. They are doing it for their country, I understand,” Khan said.

Suresh and others at Uzhgorod University never got to make friends as this was their first year. Instead, they became friends with the local residents as they took shelter in a bunker. “We used to joke about running to the bunker all the time. Now my ears ring with air raid sirens even though I am in India. I hope they are safe,” he said.

As Yukta fled Ukraine through Poland, she brought home a part of it with her—an Alaskan Husky named Neela after its bright blue eyes.

“I got him from Lviv. I did not think I would come to India with Neela, since Alaskan Huskies don’t do well in India. But I had no choice but to leave with her. I met General (retired) V K Singh in Poland and he made sure that Neela got on the plane. I hope I return to Ukraine one day,” the fourth-year MBBS student at Lviv said.

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