Hundreds of Indian students have made it home from Ukraine after being stranded at their schools for days with little food or water. Students from universities in Sumy and Odessa told NBC News that inaction from the Indian Embassy led them to take matters into their own hands.
“We decided ourselves that we should leave,” Ovais Choudhary, a medical student at Odessa National University, said in an interview translated from Hindi. “The more you wait, the more critical and tense the situation becomes.”
Choudhary traveled with a group of 50 students who left their school housing on foot Feb. 24 as tanks rolled through Odessa. They all moved into a set of three apartments where they spent two sleepless nights trying to figure out what to do.
The Indian Embassy in Kyiv published several notices from Feb. 18 to March 2 advising Indian nationals to get out of unstable cities in Ukraine and move west. But students say that while these advisories told them where to go, they gave no indication of how to get there.
The Indian Embassy in Kyiv did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Through a Facebook group called “Indians in Ukraine,” Choudhary and his group said they found bus rentals that could take them to Moldova. For the 25-mile journey from Odessa to the border checkpoint, they collectively paid the equivalent of $7,000, an expensive fare for what would normally be a short journey, they said.
But reaching the border station was just the beginning of a tumultuous journey, according to Choudhary. When they arrived at the checkpoints the following morning, they said Ukrainian army officials saw their Indian passports and left them. The students say they stood for 18 hours in freezing temperatures, waiting to be given their next instructions. NBC News didn't independently verify these claims, and the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Finally, they were allowed to pass, and Choudhary said Red Cross and United Nations personnel aided his group on the other side of the border. They traveled to the Moldovan capital, Chișinău, spent the night in a shelter, and set out for Romania the next morning on a bus that cost them another $2,000.
Choudhary was relieved when he finally arrived to the airport in Bucharest, Romania, where he said Indian Embassy officials met them. After a two-day wait in the airport, they finally boarded a plane to New Delhi on March 4.
“From Feb 24 to March 4, I didn’t take off my shoes,” Choudhary said.
Farther east, in Sumy, a city only 30 miles from the Russian border, hundreds of Indian students were in the center of the violence.
“We may not die with this war zone, but we will die with scarcity of water and food,” Sumy University student Shivangi Jaiswal said in a video posted on social media last week. Tagging media organizations and the Indian Embassy in Kyiv, Jaiswal and her peers revealed their plight to an international audience and pleaded for a clear path out.
The students in Sumy said they heard gunfire and airstrikes from their residences, where basic needs were becoming scarce. They spent days melting snow for drinking water and rationing the little food they had. Leaving without instructions felt just as dangerous as staying, Jaiswal told NBC News.
Students stuck in Ukraine and advocates abroad said there was never a proper response from the Indian government.
“Clear instructions were not available from the Indian Embassy,” Choudhary said. “If any student calls, he will get a different answer.”
Online communities began to form, with groups like “Indians in Ukraine” gaining thousands of members. Facebook posts from those stuck in war-torn parts of the country were answered with comments, offering phone numbers of private citizens organizing their own rental buses.
Students said they saw progress once their messages on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok went viral. After Ukrainian officials announced civilian evacuation corridors on Tuesday, India began to plan an exit for Sumy students. Hundreds boarded buses and started to make their journey west.
Jaiswal described the journey as “very stressful,” adding, “Driver is doing his job and we are doing ours by being calm.” After making the switch to a train in Poltava, in central Ukraine, they arrived in Poland days later. There, they boarded flights from Rzeszow airport to New Delhi, and on Friday, their plane touched down in India.
“Coming home finally,” Jaiswal tweeted, along with a photo of her smiling peers waiting to board their plane.