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Ukraine War: Kashmiri Students Studying In Ukraine ‘Smelled’ Home In War

The students from Kashmir Valley had witnessed a peaceful and progressive Ukraine — the place they had gone to fulfil their dream of becoming a doctor. However, that dream was only until 23 February 2022, when Ukraine became like the home they had come from.

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In 2016, protests rocked Kashmir following death of a young militant commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani. Young Wani from south Kashmir’s Tral had become a poster boy of militancy in Kashmir. His videos with gun in the woods attracted many towards the path of militancy. Many believe a tech savvy Wani fought narrative war on social media rather than real combat battle on ground. That year Kashmir saw protests with many young boys filling the Valley’s myriad graveyards that have only mounted in recent decades.

Away from protests at home, Yawar Hamid Bhat fell in love with Ukraine. It was like Kashmir. Particularly the country’s climate was similar to Kashmir. He found it soothing and apt to fulfil his dream of becoming a doctor. There was peace in Ukraine. There was nothing like a protest. There were no bullets or pellets. Everybody was free to move anywhere without any hurdles or checking, without questions being asked and without any fear. 

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It was not like Yawar was the first one from his family to go to Ukraine for studying medicine. Rather it has been a tradition for Bhat clan of Villigam village in Kashmir’s Handwara to study medicine in Ukraine. 

“My cousins had been studying in Ukraine already,” said 25-year-old Yawar from Ukraine.

Yawar got himself enrolled at a medical college in Ukraine’s Sumy state, an area which is some 30 kilometers away from border with Russia. Infact, Sumy’s parts fell both in Ukraine and Russia.

From his Sumy State University, Yawar would routinely drive all the way towards the border with Russia along with his friends. 

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“We would get cars at cheap prices from Russia. The agent from Russia would get the car to border and from there we would drive it back ourselves to Ukraine,” said Yawar.

Yawar never felt like that Ukraine and Russia were different and could turn worst of the enemies against each other. That was until night of February 22. Russia attacked Ukraine the next day.

That day, Yawar remembers he along with his friends had gone on excursion, had fun on the streets and partyed till midnight, before tiring himself enough to douse off for a good night’s sleep.

“We were all friends sleeping at a flat. There were huge bangs. We had no idea what it was all about,” said Yawar.

The news of a “war” to Yawar was broken by a call in the wee hours of February 23 from his family living all the way in Kashmir.

“A war has broken out. Take care of yourself. We pray to Allah that you get soon back to Kashmir,” Yawar’s family had told him.

Outside Yawar saw local Ukrainians rushing towards supermarkets. “Everyone was trying to get everything,” recalls Yawar. He saw crowds at ATMs and refilling stations. Chaos and confusion was witnessed by Yawar on Sumy’s streets in Ukraine.

“Huge supermarkets went empty within few minutes,” said Yawar.   

Yawar was witnessing a different Ukraine altogether. The developed country of Ukraine seemed different for the first time in the past five years for Yawar. Though, this was not unusual for him. Back home in Kashmir, he was used to this all: chaos and confusion.

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In next few days, Yawar saw Russian tanks and artillery laden trucks crossing the border and coming inside Ukraine. Among 700 Indians at Sumy, Yawar reminisces Kashmiris were the ones whose faces reflected no fear.

“The only question was about Russian Army. Will they do anything to us? But, they did no harm to us,” said Yawar. 

Then, Yawar saw Ukrainians resisting Russia’s invasion. The locals in Ukraine picked guns to save their land. “Guns were made available to everyone. Guns were everywhere. Guns were open for everybody to fight Russia,” said Yawar.

However, again this was not something Yawar was worried about. He had heard stories of militants ruling streets in Kashmir during 1990s. Besides, Yawar hailed from Valley’s part which is a frontier district and where confrontation between security forces and militants happens almost routinely.   

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When war escalated in the comings days, electricity went off, water supply was stopped and life became a hell for Yawar in developed Ukraine, particularly due to the harsh winter in the war. 

“For 25 days, we used snow for water. It was a struggle and we managed it,” said Yawar.

After 20 days, Yawar said help reached to them through Red Cross when they were brought to Poltava, which is usually two hours drive from Sumy. However, this time it took Yawar and his group one and a half day to reach Poltava. All along the way they were stopped at places by Ukrainian Army or Russian Army. “We weren’t harmed,” said Yawar. However, Yawar saw Ukrainian soldiers snatching mobile phones of some students who were shooting videos while passing through them.

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It was from Poltava that Yawar along with his group entered Poland to reach India.

Rufaida Syed studying medicine at KHIM University in Kharkiv was holding deliberations with her university officials and agent. It was after rumours of war had begun to resonate in Ukraine’s cold air by the end of 2021. On 8th February 2022, there was a “strong rumor” that something “big” is going to happen. However, it turned out to be hoax.

“We wanted to go home. However, there was question of career as well,” said Rufaida.

However, 8th February changed perception of people in  Kharkiv, recalls Rufaida. 

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“Everybody said that in this 21st century, war cannot happen. So, we decided to stay,” said Rufaida.

Also, the streets, the people and the daily routine in Kharkiv reflected “positivity”. “Everything was going on normally”, said Rufaida. On February 22, Rufaida was studying hard for her examination scheduled next day. She went through every possible book and her notes to prepare best for her examination. At 3 am, her eyes felt heavy and she decided to have a nap. She was having a dream until the time an “earthquake” shook her. She got up and checked time. It was 3:55 am.

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She now heard “loud sounds”, besides she felt something heavy was being thrown on her flat from top which was making it to shake each time.

Within few minutes, her mobile phone popped up with a Whatsapp message. It was a video of a building somewhere in Kharkiv blown to smithereens by a Russian missile. A flurry of missiles had been launched by Russia on Ukraine during the dead of night. A war had broken out.  

Next Rufaida along with her two roommates were directed to shift inside the basement of their building. Then to underground metro stations, considered safe in case of missile attacks. Outside Rufaida didn’t know what was happening. It was only during those moments when Rufaida along with her friends used to move out of metro station to buy food or get something from their flat that scenes of destruction in Ukraine were captured by her eyes. She couldn’t believe that trail of destruction would occur in a developed country like Ukraine.

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Hailing from Kashmir’s Sopore—considered a separatist bastion, Rufaida had grown up with sounds of bullets and bombs. It wasn’t something new to her. She felt different among her friends who were all teary eyed and anxious about the war. She witnessed Russian tanks with ‘Z’ imprint on them moving inside Kharkiv. She also remembers the work of her “braveheart” agent Karan Sandhu from Punjab, who would ensure food delivery to them inside those subways when missiles were zooming outside. It was after five days of braving missiles Rufaida along with her friends went to nearby railway station to catch a train for Poland.

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“Taxis were already booked. Some taxi drivers tried to take undue advantage of the crisis and were overcharging. We somehow got a taxi and reached the station,” said Rufaida.

At railway station, she witnessed chaos. Hordes of people had assembled to catch the train and fled from the war. Rufaida along with her friends boarded the train without checking its destination.

“We prayed that this train will move to safer place,” said Rufaida.

Inside train she witnessed “ill treatment” of local Ukrainians. “They were pushing foreign students. They were complaining about seats and all,” said Rufaida.

The train stopped at Laviv, where she stayed for two days and boarded a taxi towards Poland border.

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At the border again, Rufaida said Ukrainians were given first priority. “We had to wait in cold all night until our turn to cross the check point in morning. Some students had hypothermia,” said Rufaida. 

Burhan Bashir was a different being for his Iranian and Egyptian friends during those days of war in Ukraine. A second year student of medicine in Ukraine’s Kyiv, Burhan wasn’t able to make them understand why the situation was not different for him. The chaos and confusion, he witnessed at Kyiv was similar back home in Kashmir.

“The only difference was missiles and the magnitude of war. Anyway, I was relaxed,” said Burhan.

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Prior to war, he saw bunkers being built, missile blockers being built and facilities being made for the people. However, Burhan didn’t feel it different. It was something not new for him. Hailing from south Kashmir’s Bijebehara, Burhan belonged to the part of Kashmir which post Burhan Wani’s killing witnessed civilian killings and frequent encounters between militants and security forces. 

At Turnobill National Medical University, Umer Salam Dar was undeterred by the siren, a warning signal for civilians in Ukraine to go underground whenever there is a missile attack from Russia. The missile can strike anywhere in the country, Ukraine government has announced. However, it doesn't bother Umer. He continues to to play his favorite sport of volleyball below the skies.  

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“I had a good session of volleyball. The game went a bit long yesterday. I got a slight cold,” said Umer, living in Turnobill in Ukraine’s West, considered relatively safe.

A 23-year-old hailing from Srinagar’s HMT area, he wasn’t ready to leave his passion of medicine midway when war broke last year. “It was safe there,” said Umer.

However, it was after family’s insistence that he decided to move back home.

Umer’s believes the kind of determination and grit he showed in Ukraine comes due his birthplace. 

“Although, there it is a full-fledged war going on. There missiles are being fired. However, the chaos and confusion is same as home. I would say it is still better like what we are used to back home,” said Umer.

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To add to his point Umer said internet have never been down during the war in Ukraine.

Following his family’s insistence, Ukraine crossed the border and got inside Romania to land in India last year.

According to the unofficial estimates of Jammu and Kashmir Students Association, 165 students, mostly studying medicine, are in Ukraine.

While most of the Kashmiri students have returned to Ukraine as their universities have shifted campuses to West Ukraine, considered safe, there are many students who have got their medical courses shifted to other countries like Kazakhstan and Georgia.

The devastation in Ukraine is going to complete a one full year, and there are both stories of destruction and resilience. It has already left an imprint on Kashmiri students studying there who have said "it felt like Kashmir". 

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