Tales of horror and disappointment: Pakistani students caught in the middle of Russia's invasion of Ukraine

Students who found themselves stuck in the conflict zone recount their harrowing journeys out of Ukraine.
Published March 6, 2022

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 the National Aerospace University in Kharkiv, managed to flee the city amid artillery fire and rocket attacks.

Arshad was among the over 76,000 international students from 155 nations studying in various universities across Ukraine because of its low tuition and cost of living. Of these, nearly 25 per cent were from India, while the rest were from Morocco, Turkmenistan, Nigeria, China and Pakistan, according to the University World News.

“When the war broke out, the university administration shifted those living in apartments to hostel basements. I stayed with some 120 students from Nigeria, China, India and even some local Ukrainians,” Arshad recalled. “It wasn’t safe for us to leave our shelter or even try and flee as air strikes continued all day and night.”

Pictures taken at the entrance of her hostel building showed devastation all around and even an unexploded missile half-buried in the street.

A view of the facade of Misha Arshad's hostel building where she was holed up in the basement for a week. — Photo courtesy: Misha Arshad
A view of the facade of Misha Arshad's hostel building where she was holed up in the basement for a week. — Photo courtesy: Misha Arshad

Finally, after lying low for a week, she found the courage to hitch a bus ride arranged by the Indian embassy for 25 Indian students on March 3, which took them to Ternopil city — where Pakistan had also moved its embassy — on March 4. “I was the only Pakistani in a bus full of Indian students,” said Arshad, who is studying to be a pilot.

The otherwise 12-hour journey from Kharkiv in the north-east to Ternopil in the west took over 25 hours, and was uneventful with regular stops for refuelling. They all survived on water and dry-fruit, she said. At Ternopil, they spent the night in a hostel arranged by the Indian embassy.

The next morning, on March 5, Arshad set off for the Romanian border, from where the students were to be taken straight to the airport and return to their respective home countries (We lost contact with Misha Arshad from the afternoon of March 5).

For this leg of the journey, Arshad had borrow $200 to purchase the bus ticket from a “Pakistani travel agent” as the “ATMs didn’t have money and the credit cards were not working”.

Official apathy

Disappointed by the behaviour 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 Ternopil National Medical University, who managed to reach Warsaw after several days of uncertainty, also felt let down by the Pakistani embassy in Ukraine.

An unexploded missile lies half-buried in the street outside Misha Arshad's hostel building. — Photo courtesy: Misha Arshad
An unexploded missile lies half-buried in the street outside Misha Arshad's hostel building. — Photo courtesy: Misha Arshad

“Our ambassador did nothing to help us!” said Maham. On the other hand, she explained how the Pakistan ambassador to Poland, Malik Muhammad Farooq, had personally come to pick her and the five other women she was traveling with from the train station when they reached Poland. He had subsequently dropped them off to a refugee camp with instructions to catch a bus to Warsaw. “The embassy even arranged for our hotel in Warsaw,” she said.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Basit Hamid, a Lahore-based businessman, whose 21-year old son, Rayyan Hamid, was studying dentistry in Kyiv Medical University.

“I blame our ambassador in Ukraine who did not have the foresight to evacuate Pakistani students earlier when war clouds were looming. Was he sleeping? Did he not understand when other embassies — US and UK and Canada — were telling their people to leave?” questioned the father. “He kept telling them to stay put and focus on studies,” he added.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani embassy in Ukraine said on Saturday that it had safely evacuated 1,476 Pakistani nationals and students stranded in the conflict zone, with nine more on the way. It added that efforts were afoot to evacuate the remaining 37 students.

In addition, the Pakistan 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 due to war” and the Pakistan embassy helped them “on a humanitarian basis”.

But not everyone was convinced by the rhetoric. “The successful evacuation by our government is fake news!” said Arshad, when asked about the embassy’s claims, dismissing them completely.

The Foreign Office spokesperson and the ambassador to Poland did not respond to requests for comment. Meanwhile, calls to the embassy in Ukraine went unanswered.

Horror at the border

Unlike Arshad’s smooth bus ride, Maham, who left Ternopil in a bus with 50 Pakistani students and reached Medyka village in Poland on Feb 28, described her journey as “harrowing”.

For a journey that normally takes two-and-a-half hours, it took Maham’s group nearly 13 hours to reach Shehyni, a village at the border of Ukraine.

“Short of 30 kilometres, there was a huge traffic jam. Our driver asked us to step out of the bus and walk the rest of the journey with our heavy suitcases,” she recalled.

Maham dumped her luggage midway as she was unable to drag it due to “sheer exhaustion and freezing cold”. It was easier to walk with a knapsack which had “my computer, phone charger and important documents,” she said.

The group of 50 soon got separated and Maham was left with a smaller group of 11, comprising six women and five men.

Rayyan Hamid on the way to Ukrainian border along with his friends. — Photo courtesy: Basit Hamid
Rayyan Hamid on the way to Ukrainian border along with his friends. — Photo courtesy: Basit Hamid

Hundreds of miles away, Rayyan and his three friends, who left Kyiv the day after the Russian forces invaded, had pretty much the same experience as Maham and her group.

“We tried to get a train but could not. Left with no other choice, we hired a private taxi for a whopping $900, with the promise that the driver would take us right to the border of Shehyni,” said Hamid, but the driver dropped them 30 kilometres short of their destination due to the traffic jam. “The fare was paid by one of the boys as none of us had that much cash and the credit cards and ATMs were not working,” he explained.

However, he observed, “the Ukrainians were able to drive straight to the border without much hassle”.

They walked a good 11 hours in the cold, without food and very little water, till they reached the border. “We were really exhausted!” said Rayyan.

Speaking to Dawn.com, his father said it helped to have formed a common WhatsApp group of the four sets of parents and their boys. “We were constantly in touch with them, boosting each other’s morale. It seemed we were walking alongside them. It helped us feel less despondent,” he said. No one slept a wink in “those six days” said Basit Hamid, whose son has since returned home.

Rayyan Hamid's journey to the Ukrainian border. — Photo courtesy: Basit Hamid
Rayyan Hamid's journey to the Ukrainian border. — Photo courtesy: Basit Hamid

Leaving Ukraine

But if getting to the border was tough, exiting Ukraine was a nightmare.

“The queues were endless and there was a lot of fighting. The border security forces were controlling the crowd using 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 others would just suddenly collapse out of sheer exhaustion and dehydration,” he added.

Things did not have to come to this if the Ukrainian border staff had shown a bit of empathy, he said. “We would be on the same spot in our line for four hours, while the queue for Ukrainians moved speedily,” he said adding: “Much of the frustration and anger among the men and the scuffles that ensued was because everyone was hungry, thirsty, cold and exhausted and then on top of that, were treated differently, which was the last straw!”

“Those who jumped the walls to go on the other side were tossed back like toys by the security staff,” said Maham who found the “brawls, the screaming and shouting” very scary. “It seemed everyone had gone wild, almost animal-like,” she added.

But the Pakistani men who stayed with them till the Ukrainian border protected them by encircling around, whenever there was jostling or fights broke out.

“I can’t explain the feeling right now, I’m completely numbed and I think the trauma will stay with me for the rest of my life,” said Maham, who was to fly from Warsaw to Barcelona, where her parents currently live.

Header illustration: AJP/ Shutterstock