Tears, anger at airport as Indian students return from Ukraine

New Delhi, India – As soon as Chahat Yadav walked out of the airport and saw her family, she tossed away her luggage and ran towards them, crying inconsolably.

Yadav’s father Narendra Kumar and other relatives had reached Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport on Wednesday to receive the second-year medical student studying in Ukraine’s Ternopil city. The relieved family could not hold back their emotions as they saw Yadav and huddled around her, hugging, kissing and in tears.

Yadav was among nearly 200 Indian students who had just landed in New Delhi from Poland on Wednesday after trying for days to escape the Russian invasion of Ukraine that began last Thursday, forcing nearly 20,000 Indian students to flee the former Soviet nation.

Chahat’s father said the thought of losing his daughter ‘gave him sleepless nights’ [Al Jazeera]

“The Ukraine military was only letting the Ukrainians and Europeans across the border,” Chahat told Al Jazeera as she held a bouquet of red flowers handed to those returning from Ukraine by Indian authorities at the airport.

“But I don’t know why Indians were being stopped and pushed back,” the young student said, alleging many Indians were beaten by the Ukrainian forces as they tried to cross the border.

‘Sleepless nights’

When a Russian attack on Ukraine became imminent, Yadav’s father Kumar tried to book a ticket for her. But it was not easy with high demand and few flights.

Kumar, who lives with his extended family in Gurugram on the outskirts of the Indian capital, bought an online ticket for Yadav for February 20 but the airline did not confirm the ticket.

He later booked a transit flight to India via Qatar for February 23 at a steep cost of 50,000 rupees ($660). Yadav, who was double-vaccinated against coronavirus and was carrying her RT-PCR report along with her, was not allowed to board the flight to Qatar, Kumar said.

The problem: Yadav had taken an Indian-made Covaxin shot, which, Kumar said, was only “partially approved [by Qatar]”. “They refused to consider her RT-PCR report… A serology antibody test [was required] to board the flight,” he said.

When Russia invaded Ukraine the next day on February 24, Kumar said the thought of losing her daughter “gave him sleepless nights”.

“I would be lying if I said the thought of losing my daughter in Ukraine did not cross my mind. It happened several times and took away my sleep,” Kumar told Al Jazeera.

“When I saw my daughter today, I couldn’t believe that she was finally back.”

Indian students arriving from Ukraine
Indian students arriving from Ukraine seen at Indira Gandhi International [Bilal Kuchay/Al Jazeera]

Getting home was not easy for Yadav and other Indian students.

On the evening of February 25, a day after Russian troops entered Ukraine, Chahat and her friends left Ternopil for Poland on a private bus they had hired for the trip.

They reached the Poland border around midnight, only to find a 35km line of vehicles desperate to leave the country. They had no choice but to cover the remaining distance on foot. Many students threw away some of their luggage to be able to make the journey.

They walked all night in bone-chilling cold and reached the border the next morning. But crossing into Poland was not easy, with thousands camped there. Yadav spent two nights at the border in sub-zero temperatures before she was allowed to cross.

‘Near-death experience’

Another medical student, Rajarshi Shyam, 21, reached Delhi on Wednesday. He had travelled from Ukraine’s Vinnytsia to Romania. “We faced problems at the border. It was very crowded. It was a near-death experience,” he told Al Jazeera.

Like Chahat, Rajarshi also had to walk for several kilometres on foot to reach the Romania border. He was also forced to dump some of his luggage, including his clothes, on the road.

Still, says Rajarshi, he was lucky to have crossed the border in his first attempt, unlike many of his friends who were either turned back or forced to spend days at the border.

Rajarshi Shyam pictured at Delhi airport
Rajarshi, 21, pictured at Delhi airport after his arrival from Romania [Bilal Kuchay/Al Jazeera]

Many Indian and African students have alleged facing racial discrimination and violence from Ukrainian officials at the borders.

Meanwhile, thousands of Indians remain stranded in Ukraine as Russia escalates its attack on cities such as Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest, where many Indian students study medicine.

Modi, Putin hold talks

On Wednesday evening, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a video call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the urgent evacuation of Indian students trapped in Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine.

In a statement later, Kremlin said Putin had ordered Russian soldiers “to ensure the safe exit of Indian nationals from the armed conflict zone and their return to their homeland”, adding that Russian authorities are trying to evacuate Indians from Kharkiv via a humanitarian corridor.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Indian embassy in Kyiv issued an urgent appeal to Indians stranded in Kharkiv, asking them to leave immediately.

“For their own safety and security they must leave Kharkiv immediately, repeat immediately in the light of the deteriorating situation,” said the advisory.

“Those students who cannot find vehicles or buses and are in railway station can proceed on foot to Pisochyn (11km), Babai (12km) and Bezlyudivka (16km),” it said.

INTERACTIVE UKRAINE International STUDENTS

India’s foreign ministry on Wednesday said 17,000 Indians had left Ukraine and that efforts were on to reach the more difficult to access eastern cities in order to evacuate those remaining.

‘Everything was done by volunteers’

The Indian government on Monday dispatched four federal ministers to Ukraine’s neighbouring countries to assist in the rescue efforts, two days after launching “Operation Ganga” to bring back the Indian citizens stranded in Ukraine.

Under the mission, 3,352 Indians have returned to India from Ukraine so far, with 1,796 evacuated through Romania, 430 through Poland, and 1,126 through Hungary, officials said on Wednesday.

However, many Indian students stranded in Ukraine have criticised the Modi government’s evacuation efforts. The criticism intensified after an Indian student was killed in the Russian shelling of Kharkiv on Tuesday.

While Kumar thanked the government for its efforts to bring back Indian nationals from Ukraine, he said it could have been done better – a thought echoed by many students Al Jazeera spoke to at Delhi airport.

“I will ever be grateful to the Romanian people because they were so helpful. Everything was done by the volunteers,” Rajarshi said. “Many people think that it was managed by the Indian embassy but it was not. It was totally done by volunteers organisations, NGOs of Romania.”

The Indian embassy, however, did two things, Rajarshi said, which he said he was grateful for: providing bus service from the Ukraine-Romania border to a Romanian shelter and providing a flight to India.

“Apart from that, there was no connection with the embassy. I had four embassy numbers. I called [on those] numbers and messaged them. Three of them had seen my messages but I didn’t get any reply.”

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