On Thursday, the Kremlin’s attack on Ukraine, through land, air and sea borders, left millions of Ukrainians and international residents of the country in immediate and dire need of adequate shelter and safety. As the war reaches the outskirts of the country’s capital Kyiv, hundreds of Pakistani students have also been forced to leave their hostels and shared apartments. Ukraine’s medical universities, engineering and business institutions are home to thousands of international students. The country has also seen significant Pakistanis who have turned up to study there.
Over the past four days, Friday Times spoke to different groups, making up about 52 students, who were either in these Ukrainian cities, or were on various parts in their journey to seeking safe passages out of Ukraine. These students are from Multan, Lahore, Swabi, Sargodha, Karachi, Kashmir, Gujrat, Karachi, Swat and Narowal. Pakistani students, like the rest of Ukraine, woke up to the news of Russia’s invasion at around 5am, the shelling in their cities, or war sirens.
“I began trying the embassy’s number when I found out about the war at 5am, but no one picked up till 8:45am, and even then they didn’t have a response for us till 12.”
“If we had waited for the embassy to reply to us, we would have been stuck in Kyiv by now, so we decided to leave in our cars, straight away for the Poland border.”
“The embassy is barely taking our calls, one out of four phone numbers they put up on their social media works, and even when they do, they have no answers or kind words for us.”
“The ambassador himself moved to Ternopil days before the war began.”
“I told them I am studying in Sumy, and the embassy staff asked me where Sumy was in Ukraine.”
“If I have to rate the response of the Pakistani embassy, I will give them -1.”
These are five comments, but multiple Pakistani students from universities in Kyiv, Sumy, Kharkiv corroborate the above sentiments. Another common sentiment is that of being left on their own. The lack of faith students have towards the mission in Kyiv is significant. Students claim that the number of early evacuations they issued to the media were figures shared by the students. On social media, in one video, female students say the diplomats made a video of students celebrating reaching the bus which was supposed to take them to the border, but then left the students to walk, and rode in their cars by themselves.
Students repeatedly raised that the Pakistani embassy in Ukraine lacked clarity in communication and timely planning; hadn’t assessed risks of staying back at their universities or had not shared strategy for exit in time with them. Instead the embassy had told the students to get to Kyiv and fly out, without considering the possibility of airspace closure in case of escalation. Students who reached Kyiv, or tried to leave after booking tickets had their money wasted when travel was suspended on the early evening of the day the war began. The embassy had also told students to get to Ternopil on day 1, but then the next day advised them to get to Lviv.
Hassan Abdullah and Jazib Munir of Lahore and Taha of Multan, are students of Kharkiv National Medical University. They told TFT that when the Pakistani embassy did not respond to their queries, they began making videos and circulated them on social media to get their plight due attention in hopes of action from the Pakistani mission in Ukraine.
These three students were living in Hostel 2, and by the night of February 26, they are the only remaining Pakistanis with middle eastern students in that building. “We still hear our windows rattling due to the impact of shelling,” the students say.
Students managed to stock up on minimum ration on Feb 24, but most of the bigger marts had closed by then. There is a doctor of Pakistani origin, who is an official representative of the Pakistani students in Kharkiv, and has been checking up on students. He is also the focal person for all parents back home are in touch with, and is the sole help students have in the city, says Hassan.
Almost 55 Pakistani students are remaining in Kharkiv, and are in Hostels 4, 5 and 6. The rest managed to leave through trains and cars. He added that a couple of their friends were physically thrown out of a train to Lviv by the train staff, as they prioritised Ukraine nationals. By February 26, curfew was imposed in Kharkiv and also in Kyiv. So the students who were in these cities would have difficulty getting out.
A group of students left Kharkiv as a convoy of five cars, and drove through forest land and villages to get to Lviv. Another car of students from Kyiv, went to Ternopil first and then to Lviv.
Thousands have piled up in trains with capacity for a few hundred seats only. A group of Pakistani students from Kyiv, whom I had interviewed for Naya Daur on the night of February 4, sat cramped up in space next to the doors of a train they finally caught, but were in the path of entrance outside the cabin. They could barely sit in that space, let alone lie down. All students say they have left with minimum belongings and left everything behind in their hostels or apartments.
Each journey to the Poland border was extended by at least 20 hours. Trains stopped for hours, whenever aircraft flew over.
Students who had managed to get to the Polish-Ukrainian border through trains, took buses, which then stopped at least 36kms before the border. They walked to get to the borders like Korczowa-Krakovets in falling temperatures. Ali Raza told TFT, after their train journey, they got on a bus, which dropped them off at around 3:43pm, from where they began walking non-stop towards the border. He sent an update with a video that they had 6.8kms more to go at 10:30pm Ukraine time.
Sanaullah from Swabi, studying at a medical college in Sumy, tweeted on February 25, that he and 14 other students from parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were barred from leaving the city by Russian troops. Sumy, like Kharkiv, is on the UA-RUS border and is one the frontlines of this war. His story was picked up by multiple outlets. “The embassy told us to focus on our studies on Monday and not plan an exit,” claims Sanaullah. The Pakistani mission further told the Sumy group that due to the presence of Russian troops, they won’t be able to help the students. Once they get to a city on Poland or another safe border, then evacuation is possible.
But the students need urgent support. They do not have local currency, as the money sent to the students by their families can not be converted due to bank closures and suspension on transactions, and barely any ration is available to them. “Stores have run out of bread,” says Sanaullah. Each night, in Sumy, he moves to an underground shelter with locals.
At the time of writing these lines, a Twitter user is asking for help for his cousins and friends stranded at the border, and barely even have water to drink. He says Polish officials are prioritising nationals of Ukraine. This is corroborated by online posts about other international residents, for instance of African origin.
Other Pakistani students are messaging that the temperature is rapidly falling where they are at the border, and those left in the cities of Sumy, Kharkiv and Kyiv, are left at the mercy of the brutality of war.