Aniket Banerjee, the first Indian to train to be a veterinary surgeon at Kyiv’s National University of Life and Environmental Sciences, is scared but tries to sound confident as he speaks on the phone from his varsity’s Soviet-era bunker built during the ‘Cold War’ against possible NATO attacks. The 22-year-old man from Santragachi in West Bengal’s Howrah district, famous for a lake where migratory birds from Russia spend their winter, has been hiding in a bunker along with fellow students since Thursday, to save himself from the aerial bombardment the Russian air force has been carrying out in his vicinity. After weeks of simmering crisis, Russians declared war on Ukraine on Thursday and troops started advancing towards the capital of the East European country.
Caught in the war zone, Indians have been either trying to scramble back to safety by crossing borders or have taken the decision to bunker down and wait out the war. Banerjee and several thousands of Indians have decided on the option of staying put for a variety of reasons. “Last night, there were gun-fights between Russian and Ukrainian troops, and we heard sounds of aerial bombardments… but we are safe. Please convey that message. We don’t want our parents to panic,” Banerjee, who has been networking with the Indian embassy in his city as well as other students, told PTI over phone. Initially, there was fear and hunger as the sound of artillery grew nearer and food ran low, “but we managed to stock up. We are good for another four days or so,” he said. His university is to the south of the city centre and did not seem as yet to be a target for the war. The fighting, he said, is directed towards the centre of Kyiv city, “where President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his top officials are holed up. We are told the Russians want to minimise damage to civilian areas and aim for the centre… but missiles and shrapnel are flying, especially at night.” “There are no instructions from the embassy as yet to leave this safe place… frankly the western border with Poland is far from here, nearly 600-700 km. Metros have stopped (train and bus services are uncertain if not totally shut down). “So, we students who have been talking to each other feel it is best to bunker down till our government manages to arrange Indian Air Force relief flights to Kyiv,” said the trainee vet.
Kyiv has some 2,000-2,500 Indian students out of the 15,000-odd Indians in Ukraine. “Students from Bengal, mostly medical students in this city number perhaps 600-800 … I am a rare commodity, a veterinary student !,” joked Banerjee. The trainee vet from Santragachi said he and another fellow student from Gujarat had come out of the bunker to recharge their phones and take essentials from the hostel, and that is when they were able to get clear signals from “back home”. “We follow the news, stay in touch with each other, our embassy and try and reassure our parents. But, we feel it's better to be here in these Soviet-era bunkers built of concrete at a depth of two-and-half stories, rather than walk through fields in a war zone towards a very distant border,” he said. “We know our air force’s transporters will come… we just have to wait it out,” Banerjee said with a wry smile.