‘We are scared’: Foreign students trapped in Ukraine’s Sumy

At least 1,700 foreign students are trapped in the northeastern Ukrainian city of Sumy, as shelling from the Russian army continues for a tenth day after humanitarian corridors failed to materialise.

Shivangi Shibu, a 25-year-old medical student from India, was woken up in her university hostel at dawn on Saturday by loud explosions.

“If I have to describe my day, I would say it stared with the sound of missiles or bombs at 5am, then we heard street fighting, gunshots. We were all running towards the bunker panicking. And then again around 10am [we heard] another bomb,” the student recounted.

“We are scared and mentally exhausted,” she said, adding that there are about 700 Indian students stranded in the city.

So far students have been relying on the hostel’s supplies of food, as well as the university’s stocks, but water has been cut in the city for three days, forcing them to melt snow to drink and to cook with.

Sumy lies about 48km (30 miles) from the border with Russia – it was one of the first cities to be attacked by Russian forces after President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on February 24. So far, fighting has mostly taken place on the outskirts of the city, but there are fears that Russian troops may soon advance into the centre.

“We are really demoralised, everybody wants to go home,” Precious Ogunbayo, a 21-year-old medical student from Nigeria, told Al Jazeera. “We keep asking for help, but it’s not coming at all,” she added.

About 400 Nigerian students are currently in Sumy, the second largest group of foreign students after Indians. Other students include citizens of Ghana, Rwanda, Turkmenistan, Jordan and Palestine.

Like many others, Ogunbayo tried to flee the city but taxi or bus drivers charged up to $400 per person when they were still circulating. “You would have to be lucky to find a driver that knows the way and is willing to risk his life,” Ogunbayo said, adding that some who tried to escape with their own cars were shot at and returned to Sumy.

At a second round of talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations on Thursday, the two parties reached an understanding for a ceasefire to create humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians from several cities across the country, including Sumy.

But the first corridor that was supposed to allow for the departure of about 200,000 civilians from the southern port city of Mariupol and 15,000 from Volnovakha in eastern Ukraine collapsed on Saturday as Kyiv accused Russia of resuming heavy bombing. Moscow claimed that it had respected the ceasefire and alleged that Ukrainian forces fired on Russian positions.

Students hide in a bunker in the city of Sumy after sirens warned of shelling [Courtesy of Precious Ogunbayo]

Tatyana Mayboroda, who used to work at Sumy’s State University and is now an international students’ coordinator helping the evacuating effort, said that without a ceasefire any movement is impossible.

“There is fighting and shelling in almost all direction,” she said. On Thursday, the university’s military department was hit by Russian artillery while the city went into an almost 24-hour blackout after Russian aircraft hit the region’s thermal power plant.

Two key bridges, one in the south that connects to Kharkiv and another one which leads to Kyiv have been destroyed, Mayboroda explained, adding that the train station junction in Konotop, which connects all trains going to and from Sumy, has been damaged and occupied by the Russian army.

“We need this evacuation to be sorted as soon as possible … The situation is becoming more and more desperate,” she said, adding that embassies from Nigeria, Ghana, India, Jordan and Tanzania, among others, are working closely on the diplomatic front to open an humanitarian corridor.

More than 10,000 Indian students have been evacuated from Ukraine over the past week, including from the besieged city of Kharkiv, the Indian embassy in Kyiv said in a statement on Saturday – but none from Sumy.

The embassy assured, though, that it “will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to ensure safe evacuation of Indian students” in the northeastern city. “I urge you for some more patience and forbearance so that we can ensure your safety and security,” it added.

Al Jazeera tried to reach Nigeria’s foreign ministry spokesperson for a comment on the situation faced by students in Sumy, but has so far not received an answer.

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