Thousands of Indian students attend Ukrainian medical schools every year. When Russia attacked, they banded together to make harrowing escapes

March 10, 2022, 11:40 AM UTC

For weeks, Samridhi Thakur, a 21-year-old Indian student at Ukraine’s National Medical University in Kharkiv, had resisted pressure from her parents to return to India. In early February, tension between Russia and Ukraine was mounting, but Thakur didn’t want to miss class for fear of jeopardizing her grades.

Finally, early on Feb. 24, when she saw thousands of other foreigners depart the country because of the growing risk of a Russian attack, Thakur decided it was time to leave. With eight other Indian medical students, Thakur boarded a bus for the airport, where she planned to catch a flight to Kyiv. From there, she’d board a flight to New Delhi. But when the bus was only a mile or so from the airport, the students learned that Russian forces were bombing the terminal. Thakur felt a chill down her spine. She soon heard bomb explosions and saw hundreds of people fleeing the area.

“We were scared and did not know where to go,” Thakur says. Students back at the university dorms said they could hear blasts too. 

The students asked the bus driver to head towards Kyiv, where they sheltered with friends at the Bogomolets National Medical University.

Over the next four days, Thakur and her classmates hid in bunkers at a university dorm as the Ukrainian capital came under heavy fire. When their food and water supplies ran out, they made a dash for the Hungarian border. They covered around 500 miles by whatever means they could—squishing onto a packed train, hitching a ride on a van, and trudging on foot with small bags of food and clothes. 

After crossing into Hungary with her friends, Thakur boarded an Indian military plane to Hindon on the outskirts of Delhi and reunited with her parents in the northern Indian hill province of Himachal Pradesh last Friday. “I have been through hell, but I am lucky. I hope all my friends get back home safely,” says Thakur.

Woman hugs student at airport
Indian students who fled Ukraine received an emotional welcome from parents and relatives at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi on March 7, 2022.
Amal KS—Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Every year, tens of thousands of Indian students enroll in medical colleges in Ukraine, where tuition fees are a quarter of the $130,000 that India’s private colleges charge for a five-year program. India’s government-run medical colleges are cheaper—up to $9,750 for five years—but are fiercely competitive, admitting less than 10% of 1.5 million applicants annually. 

The appeal of Ukraine’s universities dates back to the Soviet era, when the government invested in higher education in an effort to attract foreign students and boost the local economy. Many of the Ukrainian universities offer programs in English, along with options for local students to study in Ukrainian or Russian.

Around 20,000 Indian students were studying medicine and related professions in Ukraine at the time of Russia’s invasion, according to government data, accounting for the largest share of Ukraine’s 70,000 international students.

Jyoti Yadav, a 21-year-old at Ukraine’s Lviv National Medical University in western Ukraine, says that she enrolled because her graduate program cost just $39,000 and offered the option of pursuing post-graduate programs.

“I was there for two years, and before the war started, things were very good,” she says. A day after Russia attacked Ukraine, about half of the school’s Indian students panicked and started marching towards the Ukrainian border with Poland in freezing conditions, ignoring university officials’ warnings to stay put.

“Many of them fell sick and were brought back the next day in a bus. Some were unconscious, others had high fever and were vomiting,” says Yadav, who crossed into Poland on Feb. 28 on a bus arranged by students after Indian embassy officials said it was safe to travel. She left Poland on a military plane on March 2 and is now is back home in Gurugram on the outskirts of Delhi.

When Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seemed likely last month, students say an Indian government advisory on Feb. 15 did not stress the urgency of leaving the country. “Indian nationals, particularly students whose stay is non-essential, may consider leaving temporarily,” it said.  

Courtesy of Jyoti Yadav

Two days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched “Operation Ganga,” named after the river that Indians consider holy. As part of the campaign to evacuate stranded Indian citizens from Ukraine, Indian embassies in neighboring countries, such Poland, Romania and Slovakia, have made arrangements to receive Indian nationals from Ukraine and fly them out on military and civilian flights. Around 18,000 Indians have returned to India on 75 flights, according to a statement by India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation on Tuesday. It is not clear how many students remain in Ukraine as fighting between Ukraine and Russia escalates.

New Delhi has adopted a neutral position on the war. In a UN vote to condemn Russia’s invasion last week, India abstained from a vote to oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, urging a diplomatic resolution. Modi has held separate talks with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russia President Vladimir Putin aimed at diffusing the conflict. During the calls, Modi has asked for safe passage for Indians students stuck in the attacks. 

Ukraine and Russia have held talks to open humanitarian corridors for civilians in areas where the fighting was the worst, agreeing this week to open an evacuation route in the northeastern Ukrainian city of Sumy, where around 694 Indian students were trapped.

On Monday, students in Sumy boarded buses provided by Indian officials during a short ceasefire but were forced back into bomb shelters when shelling resumed. The next day they tried again, this time, escaping on buses to the central Ukrainian city of Poltava.

Many Indian students who fled the conflict say they got little help from the Indian government until they’d crossed into neighboring countries like Poland and Hungary. They relied largely on their own resources—and each other—to get out of the country.

Srishti Gupta, a 24-year-old student at Donetsk National Medical University in Kropyvnytskyi in central Ukraine, says Indian students realized they were on their own when provisions like food and water grew scarcer after Russia’s invasion.

Gupta, alone on the top floor of a four-story apartment near campus, feared that a bomb would rip through the roof whenever she heard air raid sirens. 

“Even banks were refusing to change our money,” says Gupta. “As the situation was worsening every day, Indian students made a common Whatsapp group and asked who all wanted to leave the city. Then we managed to book two buses to take 150 students to the Hungarian border.”

The bus took 26 hours to make the 430-mile journey, weaving past cities that were under heavy attack, such as Vinnytsia, 160 miles southwest of Kyiv.

“We wanted the bus to go as fast as possible to the border, but it was agonizing because we had to stop at numerous checkpoints. We hardly slept a wink, and all I could think about was to quickly get a flight back to India,” says Gupta.

“We could see plumes of smoke everywhere, but we never faced an attack directly,” she says. Gupta crossed safely into Hungary and boarded an evacuation flight to India on March 3.

Courtesy of Srishti Gupta

But not every student made it. Naveen S. Gyanagoudar, a 22-year-old student, was killed in shelling in Kharkiv when he stepped out of a bunker to buy food. Gyanagoudar, who was from the southern Indian state of Karnataka, is one of the conflict’s 474 known civilian casualties.

Another Indian student, Harjot Singh, 31, was shot while trying to escape from Kyiv in a cab. He sustained four bullet wounds, including one in the chest, but was evacuated with the help of a driver from the Indian embassy in Ukraine who transported Singh from Kyiv to the Bodomierz border point with Poland 450 miles away. From there, Indian authorities put Singh on a rescue flight to Delhi. He’s now recovering in a government hospital.

Some of the Indian students who managed to flee Ukraine said they only did so because they risked their safety.

Tushar Girigoswami, a 23-year-old student in the sixth and final year of his medical program at Ukraine’s V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University, sheltered for three nights in a bunker after the invasion began. During a pause in the bombing, he paid $270 for a 20-minute cab ride to the Kharkiv railway station where he boarded a train for Lviv, after learning on Whatsapp and Telegram groups that it was the safest passage to Hungary.

“I was petrified when I sat in the cab because bombs were exploding everywhere. I saw a smashed Russian tank and Ukrainian ones patrolling the streets. In the distance, I could see planes sweeping down on bombing runs,” says Girigoswami. 

Once in Lviv, Girigoswami squeezed into a van with eight other people and drove to the Ukrainian border town of Chop and on to Zahony in Hungary, guided by social media suggestions and his parents, who tracked his whereabouts by phone.

After a night in Budapest, he boarded a military plane to India.

Those who have returned to India don’t know whether they’ll ever complete their university programs. Ukrainian universities have assured students that they will be able to migrate to universities in nearby countries such as Turkey and Poland. 

Students like Girigoswami say universities may award their degrees because they were in their final year, while others say they are hopeful that the Ukrainian universities will hold online classes.

The chief ministers of the Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Odisha have urged Modi to ensure that the evacuated students can complete their education at Indian medical colleges. Modi has asked private firms to invest in medical colleges to create a large enough education infrastructure.

“If things go back to normal, then I will return to Ukraine,” says Gupta. “I still find it hard to believe that things have deteriorated so quickly.”  

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