'I've seen things I never imagined': UAE-based student tells of escape from Ukraine

Nikihila Liz Aby speaks of the horrors of war and the worst days of her life

Nikihila pictured with fellow students at her university in Ukraine. She fears some have not managed to escape. Photo: Nikihila Liz Aby
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A Sharjah student has spoken of how she walked tens of kilometres in zero degrees without food and water to escape the war in Ukraine.

Nikihila Liz Aby, 20, from India recalled her harrowing escape from Ukraine after "the worst six days of her life".

The second-year medical student at the Danylo Halytsky Medical University in western Ukraine, which is less than two hours from Poland, said she had never seen so much suffering in her life.

When the bombings started on February 24, Ms Aby said she and hundreds of other students assumed crossing the border would be simple, but it turned out to be the most traumatic experience of her life.

There were no cars. Everyone was out on the roads trying to escape. The ATMs were not working... supermarkets had no supplies. I realised that no one would be rescuing us
Nikihila Liz Aby

The next day, with whatever belongings she could carry, Ms Aby and her friends boarded a bus to Poland.

“I have seen things that I have never imagined seeing in my life. We waited for hours for the bus. They were full of pregnant women, children and refugees," she said.

But they were dropped halfway and were told to walk to the border.

With no other option, Ms Aby and her friends walked 10km in a desperate bid to cross over to Poland. But, as luck would have it, they reached the wrong checkpoint and officers turned them away.

They again walked 10km in frosty conditions without food to go back to the place they tried to escape from.

“There were no cars, we just had to walk all the way back. Everyone was out on the roads trying to escape. The ATMs were not working, banks were closed and supermarkets had no supplies,” she said.

“I realised that no one would be rescuing us and we had to find a way across the border.”

A few days later, on February 28, charity groups and friends organised another bus that would take Ms Aby and her friends to the border.

It was due to arrive at 10am.

The bus was delayed and Ms Aby counted each minute. It finally reached at 6pm. In the span of eight hours, Ms Aby had lost all hope to ever get out of Ukraine and see her loved ones.

"But when the bus reached, I saw pregnant women, crying babies, and so many children and parents trying to board,” she said. There were too many people and very few seats.

Ms Aby did not get on the bus. She said she could not as there were far more desperate people who needed to get out first.

Home to Sharjah via Poland and India

Then another bus arrived but that was only for first-year students. Tired and weary, Ms Aby went back to a deserted hostel in her university. She had not eaten or slept for two days but lived in the hope of staying alive.

“In such situations, it is hard to sleep or to think of food. I wouldn’t drink a lot of water because I knew that I would either be walking or waiting for hours and there were no toilets around. Food was the last thing on my mind,” she said.

But there was hope. She heard of a new border opening in Budomierz, Poland, and got on a minibus to take her across on March 1.

Ms Aby said she received a frantic call from her father at 4pm, just before getting on the bus. “He was so tense and told me to find a way to cross the border. I had to board that bus,” she said.

“The driver was god-sent and in no time we were in Poland. It was such a blessing and I am so grateful to the driver who took us across."

Once in Poland, Ms Aby was taken to a hotel shelter arranged by the Indian mission in Poland. The next day, she boarded a plane to India and then flew to Sharjah on March 3.

"I have seen so much pain and despair caused by the war, but I also saw so much humanity and hope in Ukraine," she said.

"People helped us when their houses had burned to the ground. I have never seen so much goodness and wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes."

Ms Aby's studies are on hold. “I don’t think I will be going back to Europe or anywhere else anytime soon," she said.

For now, she is just happy to be home.

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Updated: March 09, 2022, 11:29 AM