'There were moments when you didn't know if you will get out of there alive.'
Manish Todi's memories of his final days in Ukraine before he escaped to Moldova will be with him all his life.
There were several moments of deep fear. Panic.
But plenty of bittersweet moments too.
Good times as well.
Manish, who works for an Indian pharmaceutical company, lived 25 km southeast of Kyiv at Kozyn, on the Dnieper and Kozynka rivers, in a spacious villa. He has lived in Ukraine for over 16 years
Before the trouble began, Manish, who hails from Jaipur, put his wife and two children on a February 13 flight to India.
He remained behind in Kyiv, never imagining that all hell would break loose, 11 days later. He was thrown, horrorstruck, out his bed during the predawn hours of February 24 by "the sound of bombing."
Since he was alone, his home large and a little far from the main areas of shelling/conflict, he big-heartedly opened it to others fleeing the city centre after the first round of attack.
"I called my friend to come. I asked students who I know. I invited people to my house so they can be safe. Going into bunkers (shelters, metro stations, underground parking) is not such a good idea; conditions are pathetic. Many doesn't have heating or toilets. I asked them all 'Why don't you come down? I have a basement which is heated and lots of food."
Gradually his home filled up -- 18 people all living together, 12 of them students.
"Fortunately, my house accommodates quite a lot. It was more like a family, everyone helping, doing work. And here's some spice for you -- one of the Indian students had a Pakistani girlfriend."
Kyiv was not that far that the intense bombing didn't affect everyone's mood. "When you are in a group you tend to joke and with students the environment is a little different. Everyone was tense; people were not showing it."
Manish and his friend Anand, who joined him at Kozyn, in normal times would have downed a few drinks together. "We just had a couple of drinks. No one was in a mood to drink more."
A movie/OTT buff, Manish says, "I did not switch on the TV for a minute. Some of the students were watching an India-Sri Lanka T20 (game). I could not sit."
By nightfall everyone descended to the basement to sleep on the heated floor in a 20-by-20-sq-foot section.
"There were times when you get up at 4.45 in the morning with an explosion and ran to the basement. We didn't have mattresses or couches. So, 18 of us were lying in that room for three-four nights."
In the day, communal Indian meals were cooked, everybody pitching in to make large pots of dal or enough rotis for all. Nothing lavish. Simple food that could last them longer. "We tried to make one vegetable or dal and chaval. Of course, it was all Indian."
Manish had stocked up before the invasion. But in the event that they might be holed up in Kozyn for a month plus, they made plans, like "we could cut down one meal" or eat alternate days. "Really stressful days."
By day, major discussions ensued on how long they could camp out at Kozyn safely. Manish, who led the discussions on evacuation strategy, was conflicted on when/how they should make a run for it. Curfews were on. Bombing and firing happening. They felt secure bunkered down in Kozyn.
Friends who had left earlier urged them to leave and asked why they were still there.
On February 27 late evening, a call came from India from a friend. "He said another Indian friend's son left from Kyiv to Moldova. 'Please talk to his father and he will tell you all the routes'."
Manish got the lowdown, route and discovered that a Moldova exit was a safe possibility. "That gave us confidence. Immediately, like within 10-15 minutes, I decided we had to leave."
A midnight basement pow-wow was held. They needed to rustle up meals for the road, since everything would be shut.
One group crept up from the basement. By torchlight, meals were cooked, bagged. At night, they would not switch on the lights for fear that residential areas could face an airstrike.
"We said we would make these Frankie-like rolls, so we don't have to stop." Plenty of bhujia, dry snacks were also packed. If they got stuck enroute they could have with "bread or something."
While the Frankie Project was on, Manish was calling a few more people, asking them to join their escape party
They carefully took the "bare minimum" in case they got waylaid mid-route. Manish couldn't even take his laptop, which got left behind in the office.
The next morning, by 9ish, 27 of them hit the road in five cars heading for the Moldova border, via Vinnytsia, over 400 km away.
Manish opted to drive his hybrid RAV4 -- he left the gas-guzzling Toyota Prado behind out of fear of carjacking -- but from the start knew he was facing a petrol issue. As their convoy of cars headed west, they soon discovered there was no petrol available.
"If there was a pump it had like a 1½ -2 km queue. We did not want to stop. We wanted to reach the Moldova border."
While traversing the 400 odd km to the border the five cars passed 18-19 check posts and most were manned by locals belonging to the adjoining town/village. All through the drive, Manish's worried eyes could not stop wandering to the RAV4's fuel gauge.
As they crossed the last few posts, he had petrol for barely another 55-60 km and still many kilometres of a circuitous route to cover to reach the border crossing that had been suggested by Manish's contact.
There are over 65 places at which to cross the Ukraine-Moldova border, but they had been guided to a particular post, where going across was easier.
Remembers Manish, "My petrol tank was getting empty. Miracles happen. At one of the last checkpoints, we asked, 'Where can we get petrol?'
"They asked, "Where do you want to go? I said 'Chisinau, Moldova'.
"He said, 'Why are you taking a right turn?! You should go straight. The border's quite near."
The check post man explained that by heading to the other border crossing they were taking a huge fuel-wasting detour They should head to a nearer crossing 40 km away, where there was a pump too at a small town.
All five cars "diverted and we went straight." The village petrol station didn't have petrol. They were reassured that the border was 1.5 km away. Once they crossed there would be plenty of petrol available at Moldova pumps.
Manish was now quite nervous. Frazzled.
"I hardly had around 10-15 kilometers of fuel left. We were standing in the border queue. Luckily that day, the queue was only half a kilometre.
"I don't know if it was the prayers of my mom or whatever, but there was a car with two ladies and kids in front of us. She was refuelling her car with a large (Jerry) can of petrol."
"We went to her: 'Can you please lend us some petrol. We'll pay maybe two times or whatever you want'.
"She said: 'Are you kidding me? Don't you see I've got kids!'"
Manish explained to her that border was 500 metres away and she had a lot of petrol.
"She said, 'No, no, no, no'. Since they were ladies and that was a big can, Anand said 'Let me help you pour it. They said 'No, no, no. Stay away'. She thought we might take it and run away (laughs heartily)!"
"We were standing there requesting, 'Please give us at least 2-3 litres, so we can cross without any problem. She said: 'Okay, just be quiet. Let me refill my (vehicle) first'.
"Finally, there was some 2-3 litres left in her can. She gave it to us. She didn't ask for anything more, but I paid her twice more for her gesture. I poured the petrol in. It was quite tense. Then we crossed the border!"
It took the party of 25 (a pregnant Ukrainian-Indian couple had stayed behind in Vinnystia) about three hours to go across at Mohyliv-Podilskyi-Otaci and another three hours to reach Chisinau.
When they rolled into moonlit Chisinau on the Bac river, famous for its triumphal arch and orthodox churches, it was 2 or 2.30 am. Mercifully, they had booked a hotel in advance.
Since the Moldova airspace is closed after the country declared an emergency, post the Russian attack on Ukraine, after a night at CCI-Moldova lodge in Chisinau, Manish and Co proceeded to Bucharest.
"We left our cars in Chisinau. Our friends have offices there and our cars would be safe. We hired a bus. By the next afternoon we moved to Romania. There we were 21 of us travelling from Moldova to Bucharest."
From Bucharest many of them hoped to take a commercial airliner out to India "so that there's no burden on the embassy and the government." But that wasn't to be.
"We spoke to someone in the Indian embassy in Romania. They said, 'No, you are a refugee in this country right now. You will have to take evacuation flights only. You should not move out of your hotel. We are allowing you a hotel in Romania'."
They were meant to make use of the more basic one-bedsheet-large-hall shelter quarters the Indian government had provided. Manish and gang opted to stay at one of the Continental chain hotels. "It was actually a kind of hostel -- there were queues for the breakfast!"
Manish says Indian government arrangements, right through, were competent, all told. They ultimately didn't have to pay a rupee to get home to India/Jaipur. But he remarks, "Honestly speaking, they are not transparent. I don't know why."
After they booked themselves in the Bucharest hotel, they had to wait for a date to fly out. The Indian embassy was not giving specifics.
The way Manish looks at it, the embassy could have been less parsimonious with details and told people that they had a list of say 1,500 to fly and "you are waiting list number 1,100" and how many planes of what capacity, they had coming to fly out the evacuees and a tentative date.
He realises it's a small embassy, manned by five or six, that was overstretched, overtaxed with having to deal, overnight, with 5,000-6,000 students fleeing Ukraine, but still feels, "(They could have provided) some details which were more informative. People don't panic when they know (the details). But it's totally kept in the dark. No one knows how many flights are flying today, tomorrow, whatever. Nobody knows how many people are waiting. Nobody knows their waiting list number."
For Manish's group this lack of information posed a peculiar problem. They didn't have a check-out date and hotels were pretty full up -- more like overflowing -- in Bucharest as scores and scores of Ukrainian refugees tumbled into the city.
"How many days should I book? Do I pay for five or six days and stay only three days?" They didn't get any answers and prepared to lodge for several days.
They had been two nights in Bucharest, and just extended their stay, when the call from the embassy came at 07.50 am of the third morning.
Manish recalls, laughing, "I was asked if we can travel on our own to the airport and reach there within an hour (that morning)!
"I said, 'Wait a minute, it's not even 8 and there are students. I have to wake everyone up. It will take at least half an hour to leave. I said, you stay in Bucharest, tell me how long does it take to travel to the airport. He said 'Forty-five minutes'.
"I said: 'How do you expect me to reach in one hour?'
"He said, 'Okay, reach by 09.30 or maximum 10. That's it. And we have a flight at 11. We'll take you on that'."
It was a mad memorable scramble for 20 people to get to Bucharest's Henri Coandă International Airport. Since most of the group was students, Manish woke everyone up, then "double cross checked" that everyone was awake, all set, no passports left behind.
"You know students. In such a situation, people tend to drink, talk, sleep late and all that and for them to get up...!"
The group was split between an Indian Air Force flight and an Air India plane. Manish got a seat on Air India.
"We felt yes, joyful, because we could finally get onto a plane for India."
"Once we crossed out of Kyiv and we entered Vinnytsia, I started getting back my smile. (I thought to myself) now it looks like we will live at least! The nearer you are to your destination the better you feel."
The journey home was "smooth," great meals by the Tata-owned Air India and even drinks in business class. The plane was chock-full with students because, as Manish explains, nearly 20,000 of the Indians, who were/are living in Ukraine were students and business families numbered just 150-200.
Thirteen members of their group were boarded onto the IAF plane with just bhujia-namkeen-chips to sustain them till Delhi. "But those who went on this plane were like, 'The army people were really jolly and humorous, were talking very well. We really had a good time with them'."
All were welcomed on Indian soil like returning heroes by Meenakshi Lekhi, minister of state for external affairs, given packed meals and even the "customs were surprisingly nice."
Manish left Ukraine with just a small bag and on his first few days back in Jaipur, where he had resumed work with his company, when Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/Rediff.com spoke to him, he was setting out to buy a shirt. "I don't even have a shirt right now. Or even shoes. I came wearing sports shoes.
"There were moments between February 24 and 28 when you actually felt you didn't know if you will get out of there alive." He left a successful life behind in Ukraine, but the future begins today.
The smile that began its slow return halfway through his Escape to Moldova, is firmly back on Manish's face.
Afterword: The Pakistani girlfriend flew home too, but her government did not organise a seat.
Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com