Sumy: International students in a Ukrainian city tell of their despair | Ukraine

Amid constant shelling and air raids, more than 1,200 international students remain trapped in the besieged city of Sumy in eastern Ukraine. Diplomatic efforts to evacuate them and create a safe corridor appear to have stalled.

Many students have run out of water, occasionally resorting to boiling ice, and running out of food. In their desperation, many are considering taking the perilous journey out of town to Poltava, 110 miles to the south.

Ukrainian soldiers warned students who tried to leave to stay in hostels. The trip passes dangerously close to the fighting on the outskirts of Sumy. Yet some students felt they had no choice.

Last Thursday Oluwaseun Adefemi, a Nigerian medical student in his 20s, and three of his friends paid a driver $1,600 (£1,220), several times the usual fee, and fled.

“My heart was pounding, I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I had to go. The main road to the city had been bombed, the station had been bombed. But we eventually heard there was another route through the forests,” he said.

“That day, the driver just called me to tell me he was in front of the hostel. I hadn’t showered, I hadn’t brushed my teeth, my bags weren’t packed. I pretty much left everything behind, just packed up my documents and we started running for the car.

At checkpoints manned by Ukrainian soldiers, the driver told troops he was taking students to a safe zone near the outskirts of town.

“Then when we started to get to the outskirts, everything seemed so much more real. There were destroyed armored tanks, destroyed buses. Bloodstains all over the ground. Cars that were crushed, like tanks tanks that crushed them.

“There was a funeral, by soldiers. I couldn’t tell which soldiers it was, but they were burying someone.

Footage filmed by Oluwaseun Adefemi as he and his friends walked through the forest, avoiding main roads, to escape from Sumy. Photography: Oluwaseun Adefemi

Then they drove at full speed through the snowy forest, parallel to the main roads leading to Poltova on which it was not safe to drive.

“Sometimes you could see the main roads through the forest. We saw armored tanks, soldiers delivering weapons. Sometimes you could see that they were Ukrainians, because they had a band of the color of their flag around their arm.

“Sometimes you would see young people, 18, 19, 20, holding guns, ready to fight. We did not follow the roads where we thought the Russians were. I was 80 or 90 percent sure that if they saw us, we would be shot on sight.

Adefemi’s driver was a 36-year-old Ukrainian. “He was tense. It was obvious he was scared. He was driving at breakneck speeds. The ground was covered in snow, he was trying to keep control of the car while accelerating.

For long stretches of the trip, they lost the network and were “blindly driving” through the forest.

After two hours on the road, they finally reached a nearby town where things calmed down. “We rolled down the windows. He was playing music, something Ukrainian. He relaxed, the speed decreased, he looked calm. We were approaching Poltava.

The next day, Adefemi traveled to the Hungarian border and on Sunday he arrived in Budapest, where he is staying with a relative. The trip looked like a “mission impossible”, he said, with several points where it looked like they might rush into military conflict.

‘We are blocked’

Renish Joseph, from Kerala, India, is a student coordinator at Sumy State University and has lived in Ukraine for 10 years. He is currently housed in the university hostel with his Ukrainian wife and their two-month-old baby. He said there had been no running water in the hostel for days and tensions were high.

“Things are bad here, tomorrow will be our 15th day,” Joseph said. “These are students who are only 17 or 18 years old, this is the first time in their lives that they have faced such a situation. This war comes after two years of treatment with Covid, so physically and mentally, the students are very depressed and very tired.

“Every day they hope that today they will be evacuated, and when that does not happen, they will be more and more depressed and lose hope. Some students have started to experience serious psychological problems. At night, they will start to cry or to pace.

Without running water for drinking, showers or toilets, Joseph said the students depended on volunteers who came to the hostel every day with thousands of liters of water. “Students collect it in water bottles and use it for everything, drinking and bathing. It’s hopeless.

He said they went out to eat early in the morning but had to queue for hours outside supermarkets in freezing temperatures and food supplies inside stores were running low.

So far, Joseph said the fighting has remained on the outskirts of Sumy and not in the city, but he fears the perception among locals that foreign students may be wealthy could put them at risk.

“Everyone has a gun and we are worried because we are brown-skinned foreigners so we are very visible and so anything can happen to us,” he said.

“We’re safe at the moment, but we’ve heard the looting has already started, so I don’t think we’ll be safe here for very long.”

While the Indian government announced an evacuation plan to get students out via the Polish border town of Poltava, which is around 150 miles away, and told them to be “ready at short notice”, until present, it was too dangerous to implement. Speaking at the UN Security Council meeting on Monday, TS Tirumurti, India’s permanent representative to the UN, said India was “deeply concerned that despite our repeated urgings” to Russia and Ukraine, the “safe corridor for our stranded students in Sumy is not materializing.

“There are only four to five roads we can leave the city by and all of them are blocked by fighting,” Joseph said. “The Russian border is only 40 km away [25 miles] far, but we can’t travel to Russia because Ukrainians don’t allow it. So we are stuck.

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