Indian students trapped in Ukraine say hopes of evacuation 'slimming'

Airspace over Ukraine is closed and the Indian government is looking for new ways to repatriate its citizens

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While the threat of war has loomed over Ukraine for weeks, Akanksha Katiyar did not believe Russia would actually invade. But a barrage of bombs near Kharkiv city early on Thursday changed that, as she scrambled to safety.

The 20-year-old medical student from northern Kanpur in India rushed to pack some food and her passport before taking shelter in a nearby underground metro station as temperatures hovered around minus 3ºC.

Kharkiv was the first Ukrainian city to be bombed by Russian warplanes as Moscow began an invasion of its western neighbour.

“It was 5am and I heard at least 15 to 20 explosions … the sound was so loud that the windows were shaking,” Ms Katiyar told The National.

“My heart almost skipped a beat … I never felt this scared in my life before."

Ms Katiyar is one of almost 16,000 Indians, including hundreds of students, who are stranded in Ukraine after Russian forces attacked via land, air and sea early on Thursday.

India started special flights earlier this week to repatriate its citizens from the country, but the onslaught by the Russian military means the airspace is now shut and no evacuation flights can fly into Ukraine.

With the situation worsening by the minute, New Delhi is considering an overland evacuation to move all its citizens, with the assistance of neighbouring countries Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia.

On Thursday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin and expressed concerns about the safety of Indian citizens in Ukraine, especially students, and conveyed that “India attaches the highest priority to their safe exit and return to India”.

The Indian government has identified safe routes that it plans to use to move citizens and will operate two flights on Saturday at midnight to airlift Indian citizens from Ukraine via Bucharest in Romania.

"The safe routes have been identified. By road, if you go from Kiev, you would reach Poland in nine hours and Romania in nearly 12 hours. The road has been mapped out," India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said.

But for Ms Katiyar and her cousin, Arpit Katiyar, 22, also a medical student, anxiety is becoming desperation – they say they are yet to hear a word from the Indian embassy.

The map shows the locations of known Russian military strikes in Ukraine on February 24 after Russia announced a military invasion of its western neighbour. AP

The cousins are nearly 1,400 kilometres from Poland or other European countries that New Delhi plans to use as a launch-pad for evacuations.

“There is no means of transport to reach the border areas. We are stranded here and our hopes for a safe evacuation are slimming,” Arpit Katiyar told The National.

The second-year medical student accused New Delhi of failing to alert its citizens in time, saying the Indian government showed “irresponsible behaviour”.

“The embassy never clearly informed us about the real situation. They had first asked those to leave the country whose stay is not essential.

“They started the special flights when things started getting tense. We couldn’t book flights as they were full and tickets were expensive,” Mr Katiyar said.

Updated: February 25, 2022, 1:59 PM