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How I Returned From Ukraine

By NEETA KOLHATKAR
Last updated on: March 05, 2022 11:04 IST
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'I have no idea what's in store for us.'
'I am in touch with my friends who are still stuck there.'

IMAGE: Afsha Khan. Photograph: Neeta Kolhatkar

As 2022 dawned and the tension between Ukraine and Russia continued to escalate, American President Joe Biden asked the American embassy to evacuate all American students and staff from universities across Ukraine.

There are approximately 20,000 Indian students annually studying in Ukraine.

But, until February 17, the Indian embassy refused to even acknowledge the worried queries from Indian students -- and their parents -- studying in various campuses across the now war-torn country.

The first advisory that was finally issued by the embassy said, in typical babu language, that students could temporarily leave the country only if they thought it was 'essential' to do so.

Afsha Khan, a 20-year-old Mumbaikar who was studying at the Zaporizhzhia State Medical University and left Ukraine after that advisory, returned home safely.

She tells Rediff.com Senior Contributor Neeta Kolhatkar how she, and two of her friends, undertook a three-day journey to India.

She is, she says, luckier than many of her fellow students.

Afsha says there are still a few hundred Indian students stranded in the Zaporizhzhia campus -- and many more on other campuses -- struggling to survive in bunkers.

Their food and water are dwindling and, with shops and malls shut, there are no fresh supplies available.

 

You must be relieved that you reached your home in India a few days before Russia attacked Ukraine.

Oh, yes.

I decided to leave after the embassy's advisory that people could leave if they thought it necessary.

My journey home was both tedious and hectic. There was a lot of stress and pressure due to the confusion over the availability of flights.

The flight we were supposed to initially take was scheduled for February 15. When it was cancelled, we booked ourselves on a flight that was to leave on February 16, which was cancelled as well. We then bought tickets for a flight that was scheduled to leave on the night of February 19 which, fortunately, was not cancelled.

Due to the COVID-19 restrictions, we were told to reach the airport 10 hours prior to departure (on a normal day, it takes eight to 10 hours to reach Kyiv International Airport from Zaporizhzhia University).

We had to do our RT-PCR test at the airport itself; tests done outside were not admissible. At the airport, the test was more expensive and cost 600 Ukrainain Hryvnia (about Rs 1,513). Then, we had to wait five to six hours for the report.

The wait was stressful because some people were testing positive. Their money was wasted as they could not board their flight and had to quarantine themselves.

Our reports were negative. But before we could heave a sigh of relief, we were told there was going to be intense scrutiny and checking of baggage. This took nearly two-and-a-half hours.

To give you some perspective, before the war, we would complete our immigration and security check within 40-45 minutes.

This time, for our 3 pm flight, the process started at 11 am.  

It must have been harrowing. How did you manage by yourself?

Two of my friends, and I, decided to return to India together.

We could not even get transport to the airport. Then, one of our seniors helped us and booked us on a bus.

We left the university on February 18 at 8 pm and caught our bus at 9 pm. We reached Kyiv at 3.30 am. The RT-PCR test was scheduled for 6 am so we waited for three hours at the airport.

At 10 am, we got our reports. The immigration and security clearance began at 11 am.

We were not getting a direct flight to Mumbai so my Abba asked me take a flight to any Indian city; once I reached India, I could safely find my way home.

The two friends accompanying me were staying in Bengaluru and Gujarat respectively, so we booked ourselves on the flight to Hyderabad.

From Kyiv, we were trying to coordinate with the staff at Hyderabad airport because I had a connecting flight to Mumbai within two hours of landing there.

They told us we would have to do another RT-PCR test. We tried to explain that we had already done the test at Kyiv and were only transiting from Hyderabad. We even agreed to do the test, but requested that the result be expedited.

They said it was not possible; no argument or suggestion from our end could change their mind.

The man we were speaking to at Hyderabad airport said they were getting many passengers from Ukraine, that it was difficult to handle the multiple requests they were getting and disconnected the call.

We decided we would figure things out once we reached India.

The on-the-spot air tickets to Mumbai from Hyderabad were very expensive -- they cost between Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000.

So we went to the domestic section of the airport, told them who we were and explained that we needed to return to our respective home cities from Hyderabad. I was told a ticket to Mumbai would cost Rs 10,000. I tried to negotiate since it normally costs Rs 5,000-Rs 6,000. They said that rate was applicable only if you booked adequately in advance.

We didn't know what to do next so we booked ourselves into a hotel to rest for a few hours as our families figured out a way to get us home.

I even contemplated taking a bus, but the buses going to Mumbai were leaving only at night. Also, they take 16 hours to reach Mumbai and I was already exhausted from all the travelling and the stress.

Meanwhile, my friend's parents had driven up from Bengaluru since they didn't want him to travel alone. They asked me to go with them; they didn't want me to stay alone in a strange city.

So I went with them to Bengaluru from where I took a bus to Mumbai. Finally, I was home. Phew!

I left my university on the night of February 18 and finally reached my home in Mumbai on the evening of February 21.

How does it feel now that you are back home?

As soon as I reached, I hugged everybody.

Then I ate and fell asleep around 7.30 pm.

When my Abba came home at 11 pm, I woke up to meet him and went back to sleep.

The next day, I woke at 11 am, ate and slept again.

When I finally woke up in the evening, my mom said she would not let me sleep any more.

But I ate and went right back to sleep.

All that pressure and stress had tired me out.

I have no idea what's in store for us. I am in touch with my friends who are still stuck there.

I attend online meetings held between the college officials and the parents of Indian students in my batch as we figure out what do next.

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com

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