New Delhi, India – Aprit Katiyar, an Indian student in Kharkiv, was glued on his television screen on Wednesday night, watching the news about a possible invasion of Ukraine by Russia, until he fell asleep at about 4:15am.
But the 22-year-old’s slumber did not last long.
“I had fallen asleep for just around 45 minutes when at 5am, the sound of bombs woke me up,” Katiyar, from the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, told Al Jazeera. “I was horrified.”
Katiyar’s fear had become a reality.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a televised statement in the early hours of Thursday, announced the launch of a “military operation” in Donbas and called on Ukraine’s military to lay down its arms.
Putin claimed the action comes in response to threats coming from Ukraine, saying Russia does not have a goal to occupy the neighbouring country.
Soon after the Russian bombing started, Ukraine closed its airspace for commercial flights.
During the past week, owing to the reports of a possible war between the two neighbours, many Indians have left Ukraine and flown back home. Three of Katiyar’s fellow students and flatmates were among them – but he could not afford to also fly straight away and was only able to book a ticket for March 2.
“I didn’t know everything would change so suddenly,” he said.
On Thursday evening, when the second-year MBBS student spoke to Al Jazeera over the phone, he said he was sheltering in a metro station. More than 500 others were also there, including some Indian students.
“We have taken refuge in a metro station to protect ourselves from bombarding,” he said.
Due to the closure of the airspace, an Air India flight sent for evacuation, which had taken off, had to turn back.
There are nearly 20,000 Indians stranded in Ukraine, most of whom students.
India on Thursday issued three advisories for its citizens in Ukraine. In the latest one published in the evening, the Indian embassy in Kyiv said it was aware of air sirens and bomb warnings in various places.
“In case you are faced with such a situation, Google Maps has a list of nearby bomb shelters, many of which are located in underground metros,” it said in a statement.
Earlier in the day, the embassy had asked its people to turn away if they were heading to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and return to the cities they live in. It also said that it was making “alternative arrangements” for the evacuation of Indian citizens.
Akansha, 21, another Indian student is stranded in Ukraine. Her flight, too, was scheduled for March 2.
“We have been asked to stay underground in a metro station in view of the bombing by Russia,” Akansha, who gave her first name only, told Al Jazeera.
“I don’t know how long we will be stuck here like this. There is no help from anyone. We are eating the biscuits and juice that we have brought with us to the metro station,” she said.
“Our families are so worried that they call us after every few minutes.”
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to speak to Putin on Thursday, according to sources quoted by Indian media. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s envoy to India, Igor Polikha, sought India’s intervention, calling earlier on Thursday India a “very influential global player” and saying his country was are asking for a “strong voice of India”.
As many parents receive frantic calls from their children studying in Ukraine, many Indian politicians urged the government to ensure the speedy evacuation of Indians stranded in the country.
A team from the Indian embassy in Hungary has been sent to the border post of Zohanyi to provide assistance to facilitate the exit of Indians from Ukraine.
“Team from [the] Embassy of India in Hungary has been dispatched to the border post Zohanyi to coordinate and provide assistance to facilitate [the] exit of Indians from Ukraine. Mission is working with the Government of Hungary to provide all possible assistance,” the embassy said on Twitter, adding that the Indian government was “closely monitoring the situation and evacuation plans are being worked out.”
Back in Kharkiv, Kathiyar is fearful about what might come next.
“We don’t know what to do,” Kathiyar said. “We appeal to the Indian government to rescue us as soon as possible.”