Siret, Romania – Ridha was just two months away from graduating with a medical degree from a Kyiv university when Russian bombs started falling last week on the Ukrainian capital.
Fearing for her safety, the 23-year-old joined thousands of fellow Indian students in devising an evacuation plan.
Some of Ukraine’s 20,000 Indian students have headed to Poland, but Ridha and her friends chose Romania as their destination. They took a direct train from Kyiv to Chernivtsi in western Ukraine, and from there they only had 40 more minutes till they reached the Romanian border on Tuesday. Once there, they did not encounter any problems were able to cross fast, they said.
“I have friends who went to the Polish border and I feel so bad for them because they’re stuck there for two days now,” Ridha told Al Jazeera from the Siret border crossing with Ukraine, happy with what she described as a “good decision” to go to Romania.
“I feel so lucky,” she added. “It means a lot to us how the Romanians treated us.”
Two entry corridors
But Sruthi* – a fourth-year medical student in Vinnytsia, in west-central Ukraine, who arrived a day earlier at the Siret border crossing – said she had to wait for more than a day before being able to cross.
The Ukrainian border authorities made two entry corridors, the Indian student told Al Jazeera: one for Ukrainians and one for foreigners living in Ukraine.
According to her, about three foreign students could enter per hour, while Ukrainians were able to get in much faster.
“It was very hard to cross the border,” she said. “People from India felt that [the Ukrainian border authorities] were strict with them.”
At one point during the crossing, snow was starting to fall and the Ukrainian border closed for six hours. But Sruthi did not blame the Ukrainians even though they gave priority to their own people. They offered them warm beverages and blankets while they waited.
“It was hard but at least we didn’t go to Poland where I heard Indian students were treated badly,” said Sruthi.
Polish officials say anyone from Ukraine is allowed entry into the country, even those who do not hold valid passports, but there have also been reports of alleged discrimination at the border.
In Romania, a spokesperson for the border police told Al Jazeera that while it is possible Ukrainian border authorities had different procedures for Ukrainian and non-Ukrainians, Romanian authorities processed people in the order they arrived.
Jenadeen, a 19-year-old student who just started his medical degree in January, said he had to wait for four days at the border.
“They took so much time to let us in, Ukrainians were getting in faster,” he said. “But that’s the advantage they had; you can’t say anything about that.”
By Tuesday, some 3,000 Indian students had entered Romania from Ukraine, according to an official estimate.
A warm welcome
Meanwhile, volunteers at the Siret border crossing provided those crossing into Romania with blankets, hot drinks and food and also assisted them in finding shelter.
One volunteer, Magda, has been coordinating bus transfers of Indian students to Bucharest or to Milișăuți, a town of 5000 people just 30 minutes away from the border.
In coordination with local authorities, the Indian government opted for students to be kept at Milișăuți’s sports hall. There, hundreds of them have been staying on the floor, waiting for buses to transfer them to Bucharest where a charter flight would take them to India.
In Milișăuți, Mayor Vasile Cărare’s phone rang continuously as he was coordinating with his community to provide the students with food, blankets and fresh socks.
From Sunday evening until Tuesday, Cărare coordinated the accommodation of 1,500 students in total in his community’s sports hall. In the meantime, just under 1,500 students were housed on the outskirts of Bucharest.
“At one in the morning, I got a call from the Indian embassy,” Cărare told Al Jazeera. “They told me to stop sending students to Bucharest because there’s no space left and keep them here until they arrange a charter flight from Suceava,” which is the closest city to the border with an airport.
“We’re doing everything possible to help these children,” the mayor said, as he was showing volunteers where to put freshly arrived mattresses.
The 1,500 students who left on Monday were housed in community centres on the outskirts of Bucharest with seemingly better conditions than the sports hall in Milișăuți.
But Cărare was determined and pulled his community together in an impressive show of kindness and support for the students, despite lacking any financial or material support from the Romanian or Indian government.
While the optics of accommodating Indian students on the floor were bad, as many Ukrainians were accommodated in hotels and locals’ homes, Cărare insisted authorities were trying to respect the instructions of the Indian embassy, which wanted the students in one place for an easier transfer to a charter flight.
Taking matters in their own hands
Keerthi and her friends John* and Yulia*, three medical students freshly arrived from Kyiv on Tuesday, were sitting on the floor of the sports hall in Milișăuți.
They did not trust the Indian government would properly evacuate them, accusing it of doing little to help them while they were still in Ukraine. On Monday, India’s embassy in Kyiv issued a statement advising all students to head to the railway station to catch a train for Ukraine’s west.
“We’ve been contacting the embassy and they told us to escape Kyiv, but didn’t give us any proper support,” Keerthi told Al Jazeera.
When they got to the railway station in Kyiv, Ukrainian women and children had priority, so it took them hours to get on a train.
“We heard and saw the bombing, we were in a bunker every other night, a building really close to us got bombed,” Keerthi told Al Jazeera. “It was really traumatic.”
The three friends decided to hire a taxi and go to Brașov, 400km (nearly 250 miles) away from Milișăuți, where a friend of Keerthi’s friend could host them until they found a way to get back to India.
About 500 students were in the sports hall when Al Jazeera visited, with more coming in every hour. All were in good spirits and grateful they were sheltered from the snow outside.
“We tried to offer them whatever they needed; we gave them socks and blankets,” said Brandusa Peslar, a volunteer from Milișăuți.
“We can’t stay at home; this is our ‘war’,” she said. “We might not be on the front line but we’re fighting too here.”
Peslar was moved emotionally on Monday when the father of one Indian student flew from Los Angeles to Bucharest, hired a taxi, and travelled 500km (311 miles) to reach Milișăuți and pick up his son.
Upon his arrival, Peslar recalled, the father kneeled in front of the volunteers, hugged their legs and thanked them for taking care of his son.
“Only after that he hugged his son,” Peslar said. “This really motivated us to continue our work.”
*Name changed to protect their identity