Tales of horror and disappointment: Pakistani students caught in the middle of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – Pakistan
Students who got stuck in the conflict zone recount their harrowing journey outside Ukraine.
After living in the basement of a hostel for seven days from the day the fighting started on February 24, Misha Arshad, a final-year student at Kharkiv National Aerospace University, managed to flee the town amid artillery fire and rocket attacks.
Arshad was among the most 76,000 international students from 155 nations studying in various universities across Ukraine due to its low tuition fees and cost of living. Of these, nearly 25% were from India, while the rest were from Morocco, Turkmenistan, Nigeria, China and Pakistan, according to University World News.
“When the war broke out, the university administration moved people living in apartments to the basements of hostels. I stayed with some 120 students from Nigeria, China, India and even local Ukrainians,” Arshad recalls. “It was not safe for us to leave our shelter or even try to flee as the airstrikes continued all day and night.”
Photos taken at the entrance to his hostel building showed the devastation all around and even an unexploded missile half buried in the street.
Finally, after keeping a low profile for a week, she found the courage to take a bus organized by the Indian Embassy for 25 Indian students on March 3, which took them to the town of Ternopil – where Pakistan had also moved. his embassy – March 4. “I was the only Pakistani on a bus full of Indian students,” said Arshad, who is studying to be a pilot.
The otherwise 12-hour trip from Kharkiv in the northeast to Ternopil in the west took over 25 hours and was uneventful with regular stops to refuel. They all survived on water and dried fruit, she says. At Ternopil they spent the night in a hostel organized by the Indian Embassy.
The next morning, May 5, Arshad left for the Romanian border, from where the students were to be taken directly to the airport and returned to their respective home countries (We lost contact with Misha Arshad from the afternoon of May 5).
For this leg of the journey, Arshad had borrowed $200 to buy the bus ticket from a “Pakistani travel agent” because “the ATMs had no money and the credit cards weren’t working.”
Disappointed with the behavior of the Pakistani Embassy, she said “they did nothing” to help us evacuate. “We are the future of Pakistan and this is how they treated us in this difficult time,” she lamented.
Afifa Maham, a third-year student at the Ternopil National Medical University, who managed to reach Warsaw after several days of uncertainty, also felt disappointed by the Pakistani embassy in Ukraine.
“Our ambassador did nothing to help us! Maham said. On the other hand, she explained how the Pakistani Ambassador to Poland, Malik Muhammad Farooq, personally picked her and the other five women she was traveling with from the train station when they arrived in Poland. He then dropped them off at a refugee camp with instructions to take a bus to Warsaw. “The embassy even arranged our hotel in Warsaw,” she said.
Similar sentiments were expressed by Lahore-based businessman Basit Hamid, whose 21-year-old son Rayyan Hamid was studying dentistry at Kyiv Medical University.
“I blame our ambassador to Ukraine who did not have the foresight to evacuate Pakistani students sooner as the clouds of war loomed. Was he sleeping? Didn’t he understand when other embassies – from the US, UK and Canada – were telling their people to leave? asked the father. “He kept telling them to stay put and focus on studying,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani Embassy in Ukraine said on Saturday it had safely evacuated 1,476 Pakistani nationals and students stranded in the conflict zone, with nine more on their way. He added that efforts were underway to evacuate the remaining 37 students.
In addition, the Pakistani embassy in Lviv was also helping Indian students, the foreign ministry said. Commenting on a video clip doing the rounds showing Indian students being fed by the Pakistani Embassy, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said: ‘They are in distress because of the war’ and the Pakistani Embassy has been helping them “on a humanitarian basis”.
But not everyone was convinced by the rhetoric. “Our government’s successful evacuation is fake news!” Arshad said when asked about the embassy’s claims, dismissing them altogether.
The Foreign Ministry spokesperson and the ambassador to Poland did not respond to requests for comment. Meanwhile, calls to the embassy in Ukraine went unanswered.
Unlike Arshad’s smooth bus ride, Maham, who left Ternopil on a bus with 50 Pakistani students and reached the village of Medyka in Poland on February 28, described his journey as “heartbreaking”.
For a journey that normally takes two and a half hours, it took Maham’s group nearly 13 hours to reach Shehyni, a village on the border with Ukraine.
“Within 30 kilometers, there was a huge traffic jam. Our driver asked us to get off the bus and walk the rest of the way with our heavy suitcases,” she recalls.
Maham threw away her luggage halfway as she was unable to drag it due to “sheer exhaustion and freezing cold”. It was easier to walk with a backpack containing “my computer, my phone charger and important documents”, she said.
The 50-person group soon broke up and Maham found himself with a smaller group of 11, including six women and five men.
Hundreds of miles away, Rayyan and his three friends, who left Kiev the day after Russian forces invaded, had much the same experience as Maham and his group.
“We tried to take a train, but we couldn’t. Having no other choice, we hired a private taxi for the modest sum of $900, with the promise that the driver would take us to the Shehyni border,” Hamid said, but the driver dropped them off. 30 kilometers from their destination due to the traffic jam. “The fare was paid by one of the boys as neither of us had that much cash and the credit cards and ATMs weren’t working,” he explained.
However, he observed, “Ukrainians were able to get straight to the border without much hassle.”
They walked for a good 11 hours in the cold, without food and very little water, until they reached the border. “We were really exhausted! Rayyan said.
Talk to Dawn.com, his father said it helped form a common WhatsApp group of the four groups of parents and their boys. “We were in constant contact with them, cheering each other up. It seemed that we were walking alongside them. It helped us feel less discouraged,” he said. Nobody slept a blink of an eye during “these six days”, said Basit Hamid, whose son has since returned home.
But if getting to the border was difficult, getting out of Ukraine was a nightmare.
“The queues were endless and there was a lot of fighting. Border security forces controlled the crowd with batons,” said Rayyan, who said he saw two young Indian boys die in front of him and helped put their bodies on the side of the road. “Many more would suddenly collapse from sheer exhaustion and dehydration,” he added.
Things shouldn’t have come to this if Ukrainian border staff had shown a little empathy, he said. “We would be in the same place in our line for four hours, while the queue for Ukrainians moved quickly,” he said, adding: “Much of the frustration and anger among men and the scuffles that followed were due to the fact that everyone was hungry, thirsty, cold and exhausted and then on top of that they were treated differently, which was the last straw!
“Those who jumped the walls to get to the other side were pushed away like toys by security personnel,” said Maham who found the “fighting, shouting and shouting” very frightening. “It seemed like everyone had gone wild, almost like an animal,” she added.
But the Pakistani men who stayed with them all the way to the Ukrainian border protected them by encircling them, whenever there were scuffles or fights.
“I can’t explain this feeling at the moment, I’m completely numb and I think the trauma will stay with me for the rest of my life,” said Maham, who was due to fly from Warsaw to Barcelona, where his parents currently live. . .
Header illustration: AJP/ Shutterstock