“My father called me as soon as I crossed the border,” said Muhammad Afridi Shoaib. “I told him I had made it to Romania. He started to cry, and so did I.”
At 7 am on February 26, Afridi, 21, made a decision. A student at the National Pirogov Memorial Medical University in Ukraine’s Vinnytsia, at the time that if he did not receive a “proper response” from the Indian embassy about his evacuation, he would take matters into his own hands.
Eight hours later, he was on a bus heading to Chernivtsi, a city in western Ukraine that borders Romania. A couple of his senior classmates had gone to a bus depot and “stopped every bus”, he said, begging them to take Afridi and the others to Romania.
“They told them we would pay any amount they asked for,” said Afridi, speaking to Newslaundry on the phone while on his way to Bucharest airport. “Some Ukrainian bus drivers thankfully agreed and we got six buses and two mini buses. Each bus was able to accommodate 53 students and we paid Rs 3 lakh per bus. The students pooled in the money.”
The students then called one of the helpline numbers set up by India’s ministry of external affairs and informed the person on the other end that they were travelling on their own. The buses travelled in a convoy, ferrying about 350 students.
After about seven hours of chaos and subzero temperatures, Afridi reached the border at midnight.
But he, and his fellow travellers, realised their journey was far from over. He finally crossed over into Romania at 7 am on February 27, leaving war-hit Ukraine behind.
‘It was a stampede’
Afridi is from Patna. He went to Ukraine in 2018.
He described the scene at the Porubne-Stret border crossing between Ukraine and Romania as horrific.
“There were over 800 students who had been waiting for almost two days,” he said. “There were three gates – two for people on foot and one for those in cars. All the gates had huge crowds of people in front of them. Some students clung onto the trucks crossing the border to have a chance at escaping this warzone. These were the kinds of risks that the students were willing to take.”
The soldiers at the border were trying to manage a situation that was characterised by escalating desperation, fear and panic. The soldiers shouted, Afridi said, and even fired their weapons in the air and used teargas to maintain some semblance of order.
“The Indian students who had been waiting for a long time in the cold would get frustrated,” he said, “and they got into physical altercations with the barricade soldiers. I know the situation is only going to get worse.”
The border management was inefficient and the Indian students disorganised, but Afridi said he can’t blame anyone. “I know the Ukrainian soldiers are not instigating anyone,” he said. “The students’ behaviour is also understandable – they were so close to getting home after everything they have been through.”
Although Afridi arrived at the border at midnight, it took seven hours for him to cross into Romania. This was primarily because of the stampede of desperate travellers trying to funnel through two small gates, some even attempting to jump across the barricades.
“It was honestly a miracle that I made it through the night,” he said. “There were gunshots, teargas, and I cannot put into words how cold it was. I wore everything I owned – which was six layers of clothing – and I was still cold. My stuff was everywhere; my luggage, my food bag, my water bottle, and my bags with my books. I could not leave my books behind.”
He added that a lot of people lost their valuables amid the chaos; three women even lost their travel documents. While he managed to help one find hers before he crossed over, he does not know what became of the other two.
“I don’t know what they are going to do...We could not help everyone, even though we wanted to,” he said.
‘They welcomed us with open arms’
Seeing the chaos playing out before him, Afridi knew their best chance at getting across the border was by organising themselves. So, the Indian students formed a line before the gates, next to a queue of Nigerian students who had arrived before them.
“We spoke to the Ukrainian soldiers and said, ‘This is a proper line. Please allow us to go,’” he recalled. “Then, they began letting one Indian student pass after every four Nigerian students. Even though this took a long time, and it frustrated a lot of the Indian students, I was extremely grateful.”
Seven hours later, when he finally set foot in Romania, he knew he was one of the lucky ones. “People had been waiting there for 24 to 36 hours,” he said. “After one crosses over, there is another six-hour wait to get to the immigration window, of which there are only two. From what I know, only about half the students I arrived with have crossed into Romania. The others are still waiting.”
Once he cleared the immigration process in Siret, Romania, Afridi met officials from the Indian embassy who gave him a sim card, food, and a place to rest.
“The food the Romanians gave us was the best food I have ever eaten,” he said. “They welcomed us with open arms. It was the best arrangement one could ask for, at least in this crisis. I am now on a bus to Bucharest airport. This feels surreal.”
The Indian officials told him that if he didn’t get a flight that night, they would put him up in a resort. Laughing, Afridi said, “I am unable to digest these good words from the Indian embassy. I can just hope for the best.”
A long way home
Describing what he felt once he left Ukraine, Afridi said, “Right now I am composed. But when I crossed the border, I felt like I had won a war. We were at the heart of this war, and we managed to get ourselves here. My whole family heaved a sigh of relief.”
Although Afridi is halfway home, the plight of his friends left behind at the border, and the country, hangs heavy over him.
He said, “One of my friends who lived close to the border is still there waiting for his chance at survival. Most of the students are stuck. The soldiers are not letting them pass and there is no system. It is a battleground. Your survival depends on the goodwill of the Ukrainian soldier, or if you want to risk your life and jump over the border.”
There are 16,000 Indian students still stranded in Ukraine. On Sunday, the ministry of external affairs to assist the evacuation of Indian nationals through border crossing points in Poland, Romania, Hungary and the Slovak Republic.
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