They had packed their bags, boarded the buses and the engines had started and after surviving 12 days of war between Russia and Ukraine, the first lot of students out of the nearly 700 in Sumy were homeward-bound. But then the buses came to a halt.
Russia on Monday morning declared ceasefire for cities of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol and Sumy to allow civilian evacuations.
Students at the Sumy State University are believed to be the last group of Indians trying to flee Ukraine, but have been trapped in the city that has been under attack from the beginning as it is located on the border with Russia.
They were to start moving towards the nearest train station at Poltava City in buses arranged for them. The previous day, the Indian Embassy stationed its team at Poltava to oversee the evacuation.
“I was in one of the buses, which was lining up behind the other buses and getting ready to leave and then suddenly we stopped moving,” recounts Zara Azan. “We were told that the ceasefire was violated somewhere on our route to Poltava,” she says.
“We waited in our buses after that for nearly an hour, before a decision was taken to send us back to our hostels,” says Zara.
Four buses had arrived at the university and it was decided that women students would get priority and each bus would have only a few men students to chaperone them. The buses were to move with the first batch of students, drop them at the train station and return for the next lot. Students had boarded two of these buses, when the evacuation plan came to nought.
“We waited for the buses for three hours. It was a cold day and we stood in the snow. The buses were delayed because there was checking on the way and because the weather was bad,” says Zara.
“Hope is all we are left with. What other option do we have,” said a dejected Hitesh Kumar Gujjar. Asked whether there was any plan for Tuesday, he said, “We have no instructions so far. We are just waiting.”
Until late Sunday, there was a lot of vacillation on whether the students would be able to leave the following day. The day was a quiet one, seeing a pause in fighting for the first time since the start of the war.
“We were told we must get prepare to stay here for another week and use the opportunity afforded by the silence of the guns to stock up on food. We went to the stores and bought whatever we could, everything was being rationed out. Then at 1.30 a.m. we were told to pack our bags and be ready to leave the following morning. But shortly after we were told that there was no agreement on ceasefire and our evacuation for Monday stood cancelled,” said Zara.
Then on Monday, at around 9 a.m. the instructions came to start queuing up for buses that were on the way.
“We packed everything we could and decided to give all the food we had bought to the staff here who had helped us. Now we have been given something to eat by Kusum Pharmacy, but it is not much,” said Zara. Kusum Pharmacy is a business owned by an Indian who is helping with local arrangements for students at Sumy.