Three flights carrying 674 people, mostly students, evacuated from the conflict-ridden city of Sumy in northeastern Ukraine landed here on Friday, with the returnees recounting the horror they went through and how they survived the war for two weeks. Two aircraft with 461 people -- one of Air India and the other of IndiGo -- arrived at the Indira Gandhi International Airport at 5.45 am and 12.20 pm while the Indian Air Force's (IAF) C-17 carrying 213 passengers landed at the Hindon air base at 12.15 pm.
Although there was no official word from the government about the completion of the evacuation process from Ukraine, these three flights from Poland's Rzeszow were considered among the last ones. Emotions ran high as the students came out of the Delhi airport and hugged their parents, who had been waiting there for five-six hours to see their children. With tears in their eyes, many parents and family members distributed sweets and garlanded their children while others welcomed them with bouquets and hugs after their arrival at gate number 4 and 5 of the IGI airport.
Slogans of "Bharat Mata Ki Jai" and "Modi hai to Mumkin Hai" were also raised by some family members. "Even now that I'm back in India, the situation that I have gone through will continue to haunt me for days. Life in Sumy was terrible during the war. I never thought that I'll make it to India alive," Dhruv Pandita said as he hugged his mother soon after alighting from a relief flight. Narrating his tale, Pandita claimed that he was held hostage along with some other students in Sumy.
"We were confined in a bunker and had no water and food. We had to melt ice to get drinking water. We were not allowed to move from there," Pandita told PTI. A similar tale of woe was narrated by students who reached Hindon Air Base through an Indian Air Force flight at 12.30 pm. Viradha Lakshmi, a native from Trichur in Kerala reached the air base along with her three-year-old white cat. "I never wanted to leave my cat in Ukraine to die in bomb shelling. Our journey to Poland was halted due to security reasons and hence we reached Poland from Sumy in two days. We were not anticipating that we will survive," Lakshmi told PTI.
Meanwhile, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, in a post on Twitter, specifically mentioned that the evacuation of Indian students from Sumy was "particularly challenging". He also thanked the neighbouring countries of Ukraine -- Romania, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Moldova -- for their "exceptional support" in bringing back the Indian nationals under the evacuation mission 'Operation Ganga'.
"Operation Ganga, undertaken at the direction of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has delivered due to both leadership and commitment. We are thankful to all those who facilitated its objectives," Jaishankar said. India evacuated its nationals from Sumy on Tuesday after Russia and Ukraine provided a humanitarian corridor for their exit following New Delhi's intense diplomatic engagement with the two sides. India has brought back around 18,000 Indians under 'Operation Ganga' which was launched on February 26, two days after Russia began its military offensive on Ukraine.
Mahima Rathi, another medical student in Sumy and a native of Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, said they had to run to the bunkers every time the sirens blew. "Whenever the siren blew, we had to take shelter in bunkers. We were all very terrified as we never knew whether we would be able to survive and return safely. We are now at ease after returning to India," Rathi said. Hanna, a native of Kerala, was the last student to alight from the C-17 aircraft at Hindon. She thanked the authorities for rescuing students from Ukraine.
"We have been through a lot during the past few days and I thank everybody who took the initiative to bring us back home. We have seen a lot including explosions in this short period of life," Hanna said. Jaishankar also appreciated the role played by his ministerial colleagues Jyotiraditya Scindia, Kiren Rijiju, Hardeep Singh Puri and General (Retd) VK Singh in the evacuation mission. Puri, Rijiju, Scindia and Singh were in Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Poland respectively to coordinate evacuation efforts.
"Appreciate the contribution of my four ministerial colleagues, Shri Jyotiraditya M Scindia, Shri Kiren Rijiju, Shri Hardeep Singh Puri, and General (Retd) VK Singh whose presence on the ground made a big difference," Jaishankar said. "Applaud our Embassy in Ukraine and Team MEA for their dedicated efforts in a difficult conflict situation," he added.
With PTI Inputs