'No one is coming to help us': The international students trapped near the Russian border

Mohammad Mahtab Raza, a medical student from India, and his
fellow international students are trapped in Sumy, Ukraine, a university town near the Russian border. He posted a video on Twitter to raise awareness about their situation.
Mohammad Mahtab Raza, a medical student from India, and his fellow international students are trapped in Sumy, Ukraine, a university town near the Russian border. He posted a video on Twitter to raise awareness about their situation. © Observers

Hundreds of international students, most from India or the African continent, have been trapped in the Ukrainian university town of Sumy, located about 50 kilometres from the Russian border, since the war there began. The students told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that they have been trapped in their dorms with little assistance since the fighting began. 

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Hundreds of international students are currently stuck in Sumy, a town in eastern Ukraine, located just 50 kilometres from Russia. Left to fend for themselves, some have taken to social media to ask for help in getting home. 

Mohammad Mahtab Raza is 23 years old. Originally from India, Raza has been studying medicine at Sumy State University since 2019. He spoke to our team from his dorm, describing the horrible situation that he and other international students have found themselves in, trapped in a war far from home.

The train tracks [in Sumy] were destroyed, the buses aren’t running and taxi drivers aren’t taking any passengers. It’s impossible to even leave the building. There are new explosions nearly every hour. 

Yesterday [March 3] there was a massive airstrike around 7pm that just missed our building. We had to run for the bunkers. Lots of students were screaming and crying. 

After the airstrike, we didn’t have any electricity or water.  The electricity eventually came back but, without water, we haven’t been able to even brush our teeth or use the toilets. 

According to Raza, there are nearly 800 Indian students stuck in Sumy. There are also a lot of students from Nigeria, Egypt and other countries in Africa. 

No one is helping us. We are cut off from the rest of the world without any information about what’s happening and how the situation is evolving.  [...] I talk to my parents on the phone every day and they are really scared for me. There is no certainty about how the situation will evolve. We really want to get out of here. 

Shivangi Shibu is also a medical student from India. She’s 25 years old and has lived in Sumy for the past four years. She spoke to our team from another dorm, not far from Raza’s, where she lives with 30 other international students. 

Since the war started, she’s been documenting her daily life on Twitter.

We’re tired, really tired. We don’t know how we are going to get out of this situation. It’s been nine days today. So far, we are surviving and we are learning a lot. 

Students from Shivangi Shibu’s dorm gather in the building’s bunker.

Some African students in Sumy have also spoken out about the terrible situation they’ve found themselves in. 

Many of these students have reached out to a group called “Black Women for Black Lives”, which was created to help the Black students encountering racism and discrimination in their attempt to flee Ukraine and the war. The group is working to provide both information and assistance to the trapped students.

This screengrab shows two messages that students in Sumy sent to the organization Black Women for Black Lives. The first was sent by text, the second came through a direct message on Twitter.
This screengrab shows two messages that students in Sumy sent to the organization Black Women for Black Lives. The first was sent by text, the second came through a direct message on Twitter. Observers

'Sumy will surely be the last place to be evacuated'

Thousands of foreign students have been evacuated from Ukraine but the situation is more difficult in Eastern Ukraine, where fighting is raging. The students in Sumy have been waiting to be evacuated since Saturday, March 5, but the evacuation has been put on hold due to "ongoing shelling, violence and the lack of transportation", according to Indian media NDTV.

Shivangi Shibu explained that before this evacuation effort, Indian students were told to leave on their own:

We hope that we’ll get positive news from India soon. The embassy just told us to leave the country, but that’s really hard to do. We heard that Indian and African students have been barred from getting on trains or stopped at the border. I don’t know what will happen when it is our turn. But Sumy will surely be the last place to be evacuated. 

On Thursday, March 3, Russia and Ukraine agreed on the creation of humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians from combat zones. On the same day, during a phone call with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Vladimir Putin spoke about the Indian students trapped in the east of the country, claiming that they had been “taken hostage” by the Ukrainian army, a statement later contested by the Indian government

The Indian Minister of Foreign Affairs said that he was “worried about the students in Sumy” and asked Ukraine and Russia to put in place a ceasefire in the area so that they could be evacuated. However, on Monday, March 7, Ukraine rejected a Russian proposal to open humanitarian corridors which would allow people to exit only to Russia or Belarus

Our Observers hope that both Ukraine and Russia will take their situation into account. Shivangi Shibu said:

We hope that someone will be able to get us far away from here, I don’t know where. The Polish border, maybe, but it is far. The closest option is Russia. All that we want is to get home, however we can. We haven’t lost hope.

We are Indian but Ukraine is our second home. I’ve been living here for four years, I have so many memories here and so many friends. And all of that is being destroyed. Please, make peace and stop the war.