‘How do I explain (to my family) that even going out for groceries is game of life and death’

Aziz Mansoor Ali Amdawala has exchanged pleasantries with Indian students in and around Rybalka in Kharkiv during his short stay in Ukraine’s second biggest city. A shop run by a Bangladeshi selling Indian condiments was a regular adda, Aziz said from a bunker beside his apartment in the city.

Aziz shuddered when he heard about Naveen Shekarappa Gyanagouda, the student who was killed in shelling on Tuesday.

A quality manager at a company manufacturing PVC films, Aziz can relate to the fear of standing exposed in a queue outside a grocery shop in Kharkiv. “Every time you get a chance to step out, you are worried. Once I was getting out of a car to go to the grocery store to buy some bread and vegetables and an explosion went off. I got back into the vehicle. I was lucky that I could drive back to the safety of the bunker,” Aziz told The Indian Express on Tuesday.

The 37-year-old from Vasai, near Mumbai, moved to the bunker on Tuesday afternoon with five Ukrainian families from the apartment complex in which he lives.

“It is like there is death everywhere, I don’t know what will happen if I step out of the bunker. I feel safe here,” he said. “In the bunker, there is a heated room — so if it is too cold, we can take turns to step into the room. There is water, too. I have carried some food, as have the others.”

He is moved to tears, looking at forwards he received on his phone — an opera house and a concert hall in the city’s Freedom Square hit by missiles, and reports of casualties. “Now there is a feeling that none of us are safe. They have targeted the Freedom Square. It’s just a 15-minute drive from where I am. Civilians are not safe but we have no way out of here.”

The BBC reported Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky decrying the attack in the residential area. “This is terror against Ukraine. There were no military targets in the square, nor are they in those residential districts of Kharkiv which come under rocket artillery fire,” Zelensky said on Tuesday.

When Aziz landed in Kharkiv on January 23, he was looking forward to returning to a “cute” city with a picturesque square. “I had worked here for about eight months earlier. Who would have thought that in a month this beautiful city would turn into a ghost town? I feel like crying — not because of my plight but seeing the state of this country. And Kharkiv,” Aziz said.

Aziz said he wants to return to Mumbai but unlike students who have studied together he does not have a close-knit network to fall back on to discuss possible travel plans. Every day, he makes multiple calls to his family in Vasai. His wife Sameena, daughter Batul, brother and mother want to know why he is not on one of the evacuation flights back to India.

He said: “They tell me they have seen the news about so many Indians returning from Ukraine. Why can’t you find a way too, they ask. But how do I explain that even going out to get groceries is now a game of life and death. I thought of going to the Kharkiv railway station but even that is risky — I don’t have company to travel, plus latest reports say it is not safe around the station.”

Muggers who are lurking to waylay those trying to get out of the city pose additional danger, Aziz said. “There are a lot of people who are trying to loot you, so it is scary. It is better to move with local residents. But the Ukrainians I know want to stay back and defend the city, so I am staying put with them for now.”

When he told one of his neighbours about thinking of catching a train to Poland, they said it was a bad idea. “They told me that I wouldn’t be able to reach the station because I am travelling alone.”

Aziz said when he gets back home, he wants to tell his friends only about the heartening stories from Kharkiv. He is touched by the kindness of Ukrainians in his building. They have gone out of the way to help him and ease his tensions. “People are supporting me so much, I feel like I am cared for. When there are big blasts, those who live in my apartment come along and take me to the bunker. They keep asking me if I have food. If they are going out to a supermarket they offer to pick up bread and milk for me. They don’t want me to venture out alone now. Because of the situation and the curfew after 3 pm there are queues outside shops. You have to wait for an hour sometimes. So you are taking a risk.”

He is also amazed how local shopkeepers have not marked up prices of essential goods and tried to make additional profits during the crisis.

“Rice, vegetables, fruit, bread, eggs are being sold at regular rates. No price has not increased as of now and that is a great thing. Shopkeepers are doing great service here.”

Aziz, like those in Kharkiv, doesn’t know what tomorrow will bring. Like them, his life turned upside down last Thursday.

“I was sleeping and around 4 am there were sounds of explosions. I first thought somebody was banging on my door. I only realised that missiles were flying near the city when the neighbours came and told me to run to the bunker. I ran to get some water and bread from the kitchen and got into the bunker. A rocket flew over our building and I felt the vibrations. The windows shook. That is how it started”

The network in Aziz’s bunker is poor. He promises to send a photograph from the bunker and he does. He even calls back to check if the photo is received. “Hope to talk again tomorrow. Hopefully, missiles stop in Kharkiv, everyone here is safe and I can get home.”

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