Indian evacuee: The kindness of Ukrainians saved my life

Indian evacuee: The kindness of Ukrainians saved my life By A Robin - March 14, 2022
Polla Vishnu Vardhan Rao

Polla Vishnu Vardhan Rao

Smiling down the camera from his parents' home in southern India, with his dog Leo on his lap, it's hard to believe that only a few days have passed since Vishnu thought he was going to die as he sheltered from Russian shelling in the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia.

Even though Vinnytsia is in western Ukraine, a long way from the Russian border, it has still faced attacks. Last week nine people died in a missile strike that destroyed the airport on the outskirts of the city, officials say.

Polla Vishnu Vardhan Rao, 21, is one of the tens of thousands of Indian students in Ukraine to have escaped the country since Russia invaded.

He says the kindness of Ukrainians is the main reason he is still alive.

Two weeks ago Vishnu had been enjoying life as a fourth-year medical student.

His days were spent attending classes at the university and in the city's hospitals, studying in the library, and swimming in the river with Leo.

"Ukraine is the most beautiful, peaceful country. In Vinnytsia there are so many peaceful places," Vishnu says.

But on 24 February, the day Russia's invasion began, he woke up to "blasting sounds, firing sounds".

He and his two flatmates, also Indian students, had no idea what was happening.

"We were very panicked," he says.

"I see outside the window some Ukrainians running with bags - I don't know where they are going."

He'd never heard the sound of air-raid sirens and didn't understand the accompanying announcements blared out in Ukrainian.

Luckily, Vishnu's Ukrainian neighbours could translate the warnings into English and explain that war had broken out.

"They [said] some planes and tanks came and are fighting Ukraine - so don't go out, please stay inside," he says.

Over the course of the next two days, Vinnytsia's sirens sounded every few hours, forcing Vishnu and his friends into the dark bunker beneath their apartment, which was full of rubble.

He couldn't sleep, so spent hours on the phone, trying to work out a plan to escape the city.

"I thought: 'Maybe I will die in this situation,'" he says.

One of Vishnu's friends managed to find a Ukrainian minibus driver willing to take them to the Romanian border 250km (155 miles) away.

The driver, whose normal job involved taking people on day trips out of Vinnytsia, was not yet ready to leave the country himself because his wife was ill. So he agreed to make the risky trip, for which the group paid him a total of 12,000 Ukrainian hryvnia (£300).

Vishnu says he owes this driver his life.

"I can't express - it's because of him, only, we got saved. I say to him thank you, from the bottom of my heart."

Vishnu was worried pets might not be allowed on the border, so he left Leo with his Ukrainian teacher and boarded the minibus.

As the bus rolled through the roads of south-west Ukraine, Vishnu and his friends started to relax. There was one moment of tension when planes whizzed overhead - Ukrainian or Russian, Vishnu doesn't know - but for the most part they felt like they were moving to safety.

But the worst part of Vishnu's journey was yet to come.

When the bus driver dropped Vishnu and his friends off, they joined a throng of hundreds of people trying to pass through a gate at the border.

Vishnu says only Ukrainians were being allowed through - and each time he got close to the crossing, guards would "drag" him to the back again.

After a whole day standing in an ever-growing crowd, Vishnu began to worry that he would never get through the border.

Pop-up cafes serving refugees had run out of food and drink, and Vishnu had finished the bananas and buns he'd brought with him as snacks.

Eventually he resorted to pleading with the guards to let him and his friends through.

"We [were] asking: 'Please let us pass, we [have been] standing for two days, we are getting pains, we don't have food, water.

"Finally, they accepted."

So Vishnu passed through the border with a few of his friends - but 13 of his original group of 20 were left behind.

Speaking of how he felt in that moment, Vishnu said: "Personally, I'm happy. But so many friends aren't. I'm selfish, at this point. We have to be selfish because it's our own life. We can't risk our life for our friends - so we moved on."

Everyone in Vishnu's group of 20 has since made it home to India.

But he remains worried about other friends in Kyiv - also Indian students - who are stuck in their bunkers as Russian forces continue to bombard the capital city with attacks.

With the help of the Indian embassy in Romania, Vishnu was taken by bus from the border to Bucharest airport. His worried mum and dad smothered him with hugs and kisses when he landed at Rajiv Gandhi Airport in Hyderabad.

A few days after he arrived to parents' house in Suryapet, Telangana, Vishnu was also reunited with his beloved Leo.

His teacher in Ukraine had fled with her family to Moldova but took Leo on the bus all the way to Bucharest, from where the dog was flown to India.

Vishnu says he and Leo couldn't have got home without the kindness of the people of Vinnytsia.

"I'm lucky, so many guys helped me - my neighbours, the bus driver, my teacher.

"Ukrainian people are very good people."


By A Robin - March 14, 2022

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