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'I didn't want to quit Ukraine like a coward'

By VAIHAYASI PANDE DANIEL
Last updated on: May 11, 2022 23:50 IST
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'I want to be with the Ukrainian people and serve those I know here.'

IMAGE: Ukrainian soldiers on top of a Russian artillery vehicle captured during fighting in Kharkiv. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters
 

Dr Jayanta Kumar Das is remarkably upbeat when he narrates casually how Russia's cruel war on besieged, courageous Ukraine has changed his life, nay, turned it upside down.

It's difficult to understand how he can be so brave.

The war has taken away his home, his regular job, his city and put distance between him and his already estranged family.

It has shown him awful scenes of destruction he will never forget in this lifetime.

The doctor hails from Bardhaman, West Bengal, and after earning an MSc there, he moved to Russia 23 years ago to study medicine in St Petersburg and for a specialisation in cardiology. He met his wife in Russia and has a teenage son and daughter.

IMAGE: During happier times, Dr Jayanta Kumar Das with his son and daughter. Photograph: Kind courtesy Dr Jayanta Kumar Das

Dr Das is a cardiologist and a specialist of Ayurvedic medicine, who was practicing at a prominent clinic in Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine, till February 2022 when the horrible war came rudely stomping into his backyard. His family lives in St Peterburg after he and his wife divorced.

When the Russian strike began in Kharkiv, Dr Das was fortunate that his clinic had a very "well-equipped," reasonably comfortable underground area/flat where the owner of his clinic suggested that he and his colleague and a few more, could seek shelter.

For the next unforgettable few days, Dr Das viewed, aghast, the attack on Kharkiv play out -- like a vicious war movie that he could not believe he was actually, by some implausible fate, an extra in -- from a window out of this basement.

"It was very, very scary," he recalls to Rediff.com's Vaihayasi Pande Daniel.

Dr Das was at the window, holding his breath, horrorstruck, when he even saw a Russian tank, that was firing away, rumble past.

"Everything I saw, I witnessed."

The grim thunderous sounds of war were, of course, deafening and both sights and sounds were unbearable to live with.

"There was noise all the time of sirens, bombing, heavy shelling, other kinds of bombing, even gun fighting, street fighting. Sab kuch mein ne dekha, tank-bank (I saw everything).

He emphasises bleakly: "Sab kuch. It was the worst situation of my life."

Some of what he watched angered him so deeply that in a moment of rage Dr Das thought he too would pick up a weapon and join the war against Russia.

"Ek baar dimaag aisa ho gaya tha ki mein khud hi bandook utha lu aur chale jao war mein. But sab ne keh diya ki already karm to hai hi as a doctor. Why not just help people as a doctor. (At one point I felt in my mind that I should take up a gun and go to war but everyone said you already have a duty as a doctor)."

IMAGE: A Ukrainian soldier walks among debris following Russian shelling in Kharkiv. Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

Dr Das was also reluctant to leave Kharkiv, a beautiful medieval city and the first capital of Ukraine, that had been his home of three years. "Mein wahan se nahin aana cha raha tha (I did not want to come away from there)." In spite of advice from all his well-wishers, he stayed on hoping against hope that the assault might abate.

Food, medicines, water and supplies was not an issue because fortunately the clinic, in anticipation, had stocked up hugely before the war began and they also had access to a still more safe Soviet-era fully underground bunker nearby.

IMAGE: Firefighters operate at a damaged apartment block in Kharkiv. Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

Dr Das is at pains to elucidate that although eastern Ukraine once had many Russian speakers and was packed with folks whose hearts were secretly or openly with Russia, that all gradually changed over time and the illegal invasion of Ukraine altered that even further, irreversibly.

"Russia thought they would take Kharkiv in just one day because most of the people over there are pro-Russian. They could not anticipate the fact that those who were pro-Russia have changed over (in their thinking) and it is not that much pro-Russian.

"And after the war is over, I am quite sure that in the city of Kharkiv the persons who had been pro-Russian will turn Ukrainian and nationalistic. It's a sentiment of the common people. If you see love you will give that love back. But if you see hatred, you will return hatred, right?"

An area that once had mixed allegiance -- Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk -- is likely to have become so irrevocably altered politically that Dr Das believes that the people who once spoke only Russian will eventually become Ukrainian-speaking in the aftermath of the war. "This war will have a massive influence (in changing sentiment). It's quite obvious."

When, eight or nine days into the war, the levels of shelling kept climbing and the Russians, because "they started losing in this kind of direct war (battle on Kharkiv)," began targetting civilians and blasting homes of residents "logon ko marne lage, ghar girane lage," Dr Das finally decided to turn his back on Kharkiv, with an aching heart.

"Uss time sabhi ne keh diya ki chori dete hain (at that time everyone said to leave). On 2nd or 3rd March, I quit the city of Kharkiv."

He and a group of 20 or so, who worked with him, made a long, fraught road journey of nearly 950 km, through umpteen check-posts, west, to Podilskyi, in the Kamyianets region of Ukraine, near the border with Moldova and Romania.

IMAGE: Dr Jayanta Kumar Das with his son. Photograph: courtesy Dr Jayanta Kumar Das

Podilskyi is a beautiful 11th century town of about 100,000, with Romanian, Polish, Lithuanian and Moldovan influences, on the Smotrych river, and Dr Das, who has license to practice anywhere in Ukraine (and Russia too), has reopened his practice in a polyclinic in this town, along with the junior colleagues who travelled with him from Kharkiv. He has started getting patients as well.

Return to Kharkiv in totally unimaginable at this point. Already by the time he left he says about 30 per cent of the city had been reduced to rubble and many beautiful and "posh" areas were in ruins. In spite of that, and the mass exodus of people from the city Dr Das states matter-of-factly, "I don't think they (Russians) can easily take the city of Kharkiv."

Life in Podilskyi is calm and free of hardship and Dr Das is staying put and not contemplating moving anywhere else yet. He is closely following the developments in Kyiv, where he says things are getting better - "Kyiv is under control" -- and even some embassies have returned to resume business as usual, the Indian maybe too soon. Eventually he might shift to Kyiv.

IMAGE: Jayanta Kumar with his daughter. Photograph: courtesy Dr Jayanta Kumar Das

He is in touch with his family in St Petersburg -- "We are just connecting online through chat etc."

Meeting them in the foreseeable future is out of the question, because there is no passage between Russia and Ukraine.nobily

Like so many Indians, who have loyally, lovingly adopted Ukraine as their second homeland, Dr Das, an Indian citizen, is fully behind Ukraine, proudly admiring the nobility and strength of its people and its dignity in this war, where they have been fighting, honourably, only to "protect and defend" valiantly, gallantly their motherland. Ukraine has been a country for him where he has never been shown anything but love, unlike Russia where discrimination was not unheard of, at times.

India's stand on the war is rather problematic and upsetting for him -- "The position of our India is not very understandable!" and that India is taking its friendship with Russia beyond reasonable limits with Russia having become a rogue State -- "when, for example, you have a friend, who has been proven to be a cheat and a murderer, if you continue to support that person then your position is at stake."

IMAGE: Employees react after a Russian bombing hit the Hryhoriy Skovoroda Literary Memorial Museum in Skovorodynivka village near Kharkiv, May 7, 2022. Photograph: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

Dr Das had several options before him to flee Ukraine either for India or for other countries in Europe, but he felt duty-bound to not do so. "I want to offer my medical services to the people in Ukraine."

He thought about it long and hard and put himself in their shoes, wondering what he should rightfully do. "I just thought if such a situation happened with India and as a citizen of Indian, what would I do?

"I want to be with the Ukrainian people and serve those I know here. I just did not want to quit Ukraine in a war situation like a coward," Dr Das adds firmly.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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