Indian students stuck in Ukraine university basement 'losing hope'

Kharkiv students scared about safety as missile and rocket attacks draw near

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Hundreds of foreign students holed up in basements to escape intense shelling in Kharkiv fear they will not get out alive.

One Indian student was killed by shelling in the city, Ukraine’s second-largest.

Thousands of others from India, Morocco, Egypt and Turkmenistan are trying to reach safety as Ukraine’s military battles to defend the city from a Russian invasion.

More than 300 students sheltering in the basement of their college fear they will be caught in the crossfire, for the fighting has quickly encircled their lodgings.

I am in panic mode and stressed. We are losing hope of surviving here
Fahad, Indian student in Kharkiv

On Wednesday, India’s embassy in Ukraine asked all citizens to leave Kharkiv because the situation there was worsening.

It had earlier asked people not to venture out as fighting intensified.

“Every second, the situation is getting worse. We are losing hope,” said Soumalya Mukherjee, 20, from Kolkata, a second-year medical student at VN Karazin Kharkiv National University.

“It is very hard to be here for so many days. We are barely sleeping. There are 350 to 400 students in a very small space and we have been here from Thursday.”

Kharkiv is about 20 kilometres south of the border with Russia.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described Moscow’s rocket attacks on Kharkiv as a war crime.

His country’s military said Russian paratroopers have landed in the city and residential areas and public buildings were being attacked with missiles.

It shared a video of the Kharkiv regional administration building exploding after a missile attack.

More than 300 students appealed to be rescued from the university basement. Photo: Fahad/Soumalya

News of bombs dropping on Kharkiv Zoo, close to the college campus, have worsened the students’ anxiety.

After a week of fighting, water supplies have begun to run low.

The students said they last stepped out of their housing blocks to buy rice and water early on Thursday, after which they were warned by college authorities not to leave the building and to stay in the basement for safety.

“We had some water but we finished it up. Now there is a scarcity of water,” Soumalya said.

“We can hear the shelling and bombs. We don’t take the risk of going upstairs for more than a few minutes to use the bathrooms. It is too dangerous.”

A few light bulbs shine across the darkened basement which is being used as a bomb shelter. Students have spread mattresses and blankets across the floor in narrow passages that were used to store stacks of wooden frames and glass sheets.

Fahad, 19, a first-year student, described the strain and tension they were under.

“We have been eating biscuits and drinking juice because water is not available,” he said.

“I am in panic mode and stressed. We are losing hopes of surviving here. We can hear the shelling and it is getting too close.”

Some food was sent by an education consultancy group that is in contact with Indian authorities in Ukraine.

Indians are among the largest group of foreign students in the country and about 4,000 live in Kharkiv alone.

More than 18,000 Indian students were at Ukrainian universities in 2020, according to Ukrainian government figures, accounting for about 24 per cent of foreign students in the country.

“I know it’s hard to rescue us students from Kharkiv because we are on the eastern border with Russia, but please, please try to reach us,” Soumalya said.

In Kolkata city, his parents stay up at night waiting for news.

“I can’t understand how they will be rescued from Kharkiv,” his mother, Soma, said.

“There is so much anxiety. He keeps telling us not to worry and that he is safe. But we hear from his friends that they don’t have water to drink or food to eat. We are [tense]. We just want them to come home safe.”

Students and their parents have been messaging the Indian government and embassies calling for help.

The Indian government said it had brought several thousand students to safety and was trying to reach the rest through Romania, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia.

Ceasefire talks between Russia and Ukraine held on Monday failed to reach a breakthrough and negotiators have not said when a new round will take place.

Updated: March 02, 2022, 2:59 PM