Fingers were pointed at students for their ‘indecisiveness’ to leave the war zone. But a look at the ambiguous advisories and inordinate delay on part of officials in charge, paints a different picture.
Indians account for the largest cohort of foreign students in Ukraine. According to official data, before the war started, there were 76,000 foreign students in Ukraine, out of which 20,000 were Indians. Most students from India were there to study medicine in the country’s state-run universities, which provide affordable quality education.
As uncertainty grows over their evacuation in face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, fingers have been pointed towards the students and their family members for not taking the decision of leaving the war-torn zone sooner. However, a closer look at the timeline of advisories coming from the Indian government seem to paint a completely different picture.
The first advisory was issued on 15 February, the Indian embassy in Ukraine said nationals who did not have essential work in Ukraine “may consider leaving temporarily” due to “uncertainties” in the situation. This came four to five days after similar advisories from the UK and US, which told their citizens to leave immediately.
On 11 February, US President Joe Biden had categorically called on all American citizens remaining in Ukraine to leave the country immediately, saying he would not send troops to rescue Americans if Moscow invaded Ukraine. United Kingdom, Netherlands, Japan, South Korea and a host of other countries did the same.
Indian students were stuck in the middle of an academic term, knew their universities would not shift to online classes. Is it for them to decipher what is ‘non-essential’? The 2015 Indian advisory had been far more unambiguous, asking ‘all Indians’ to leave Yemen, essential or non-essential. A clear categorical instruction would have perhaps worked better in place of such inconclusive and obscure statements.
Next day, on 16 February, the embassy issued a frequently asked question (FAQ) list for students. Ironically, the very first point was about flights being completely booked out. The FAQ mentioned that the Ministry of External Affairs was in discussion with the Ministry of Civil Aviation for introducing more flights. Five days after most other countries have instructed all their citizens to leave, the Indian government decides to discuss the issue of transportation.
Up till then, there was only one direct flight, between New Delhi and Kyiv (Ukraine International Airlines) to India, that too not a daily one. Therefore, students were advised to use connecting flights via Sharjah, Dubai, Almaty, Doha and Frankfurt to make their journey back home.
Finally On 18 February, three special Air India (AI) flights were announced for February 22nd, 24th and 26th.
Indians stranded in Ukraine naturally began to panic when they saw their fellow students from other countries pack up and leave. The newly announced flights were immediately booked out and frightened students took to social media requesting for more flights to take them home. Others spoke about their inability to afford the extremely high-priced tickets.
On 20 February, the Indian Embassy issued a second advisory asking all nationals whose stay is not essential and ‘all’ Indian students to leave Ukraine by available commercial or chartered flights. The difference between the two advisories was this time, ‘all students’ were being asked to leave.
Next day, on 21 February, three more AI flights were announced for February 25th & 27th.
Students were frantic to leave but were also uncertain about non-availability of online classes if they left. Many got in touch with the Indian embassy asking them to clarify and confirm about online classes. The embassy then came out with another advisory on 22 February addressed to students asking them to leave rather than wait for official confirmation from universities. Finally it was becoming clear to them that the situation had escalated to dangerous levels.
That same day, the first AI flight announced earlier by the Indian government brought 242 Indian nationals back to India. People waited for the five more previously announced AI flights in the coming days. There was also talk of introducing more flights soon.
But it was too late. On 24 February, when the 2nd AI flight was on its way to evacuate stranded Indians, Ukraine closed its airspace as Russia launched a full-scale invasion on the country. The flight had to turn back and none of the previously announced flights could make it to the war zone.