‘I am so scared and time is running out’: Students say they are trapped in Ukrainian city of Sumy

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Students in Sumy are stuck in bunkers as the city faces heavy shelling from Russian forces. Source: @shemin_joy on Twitter

Key developments regarding the news in Ukraine shows a combination of good and bad news for international students.

According to The Guardian, more than 500 international students are trapped in the Ukrainian city of Sumy, which is facing heavy shelling by Russian forces. Most are Nigerian, with the rest hailing from Ghana, Ethiopia, Angola, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ireland, India, Lebanon and Turkey.

Pathways out of the city are blocked. Trains and buses have stopped running, and roads and bridges have been destroyed by heavy blasts. Reports say fighting has broken out in the city’s streets. 

Students are taking shelter in five hostel buildings after following advice from their university to stay behind. Oluwaseun Adefemi, a Nigerian medical student, says that many feel let down by the advice given. 

“We expected that the school would give us the best information,” he told The Guardian. “They told us to stay in our hostel, to stock and buy food that we’d need for the days ahead. If we’d have known we’d have gone to neighbouring cities – but now we are stuck.”

The attacks have left many students without basic essentials such as food, water and electricity. “We are running out of food, we’re running out of water. What we have now is mainly soda water,” Adefemi added.

“There is no water or electricity in all of Sumy because of the bombing,” tweeted one Twitter user. “Thousands of people are in danger. The students in the bunkers, and all the residents of Sumy who have helped them. This is a humanitarian crisis and is already across Ukraine. No food. No medicine. No water.”

News in Ukraine: Students in Sumy have no escape

Sumy is located on the northeastern side of Ukraine — approximately 48km from the Russian border — and are surrounded by conflict.

“We are hearing blasts every day,” said Adefemi. “We have to run into our bunkers each time. Yesterday we heard the blasts at six or seven in the morning. When we hear them, we run to the basement – that’s our makeshift bunker.”

Nigerian student Excel Ugochukwu says that there are “air strike warnings periodically” and curfews have been put in place. “There is a curfew [from] 6 p.m. to 6 a.m,” he told CNN. “During curfew hours there are total blackouts. Street lights and lights inside the house are turned off.”

Students have turned to social media for help, using hashtags such as #SaveSumyStudents and #HelpIndiansinSumy. But many are left without electricity and are unable to charge their devices.

“My sisters said they just heard another explosion in Sumy,” tweeted one user. “Their phones are dying, they’re running out of supplies. It’s not safe there. There’s no way for over 500 of them to leave that place! The Nigerian embassy in Ukraine, idk what they’re doing! Please SAVE SUMY STUDENTS!”

The city’s proximity to the Russian border means that students are left with little to no way out. The Guardian reports that some drivers have offered to take students to other regions, but are charging up to 1,600 US Dollars. Most students are unable to afford such an amount. 

“Sumy is bordered by Russia, and as such, there is no way for us to escape,” another Nigerian student, Nnamdi Chukwuemeka, told CNN. “We want the international community to help provide a safe corridor for us to move out of Sumy. Things are getting serious.”

“Countries like Romania, Hungary and Poland have opened their borders to Ukraine but it is impossible to travel there without crossing Kiev,” tweeted Shivangini Bhattacharyya, an Indian student currently trapped in Sumy. 

Here, Indian students are are pictured taking shelter in Sumy Medical University. “No help has reached them yet.” Source: @moni_caa_ on Twitter

Reports have also come in about international students facing a barrage of racism and mistreatment at the hands of Ukrainian soldiers, who are preventing them from boarding buses and trains out of the country. The authorities are allegedly prioritising their own citizens’ safety over foreign nationals.

“The official literally looked me in the eye and said in his language, ‘Only Ukrainians, that’s all’,” a Nigerian student told the BBC. “That if you are black, you should walk. And that was an additional eight hours from where we were. By car, it was like 30 minutes.”

Students are pleading for their respective embassies to arrange for their evacuation. “All Indian media are only talking about [West Ukraine],” tweeted Aashiq Hussain Sarkar, an Indian medical student in Sumy. “India [is] evacuating students from west [but] not from East.”

According to students, officials are unreachable. Niranjana Santosh, an Indian medical student, told The Indian Express: “We have been calling several numbers listed on the Facebook page and checking updates from India, but there has been no response. Over the last eight days there has been bombing. There is no way we can step out. We are mentally traumatised. We just want to go home.”

Vivian Udenze, a 21-year-old Nigerian medical student, tells a similar story. “People have tried to contact [the Nigerian embassy],” she said to CNN. “I personally sent a message to someone there [but] I didn’t get a reply.”

Geoffrey Onyeama, Nigeria’s foreign minister, told CNN that they are “aware and are making arrangements”, but Udenze is worried that this will be too late. 

“I am so scared and time is running out,” she said. “We don’t want the Russians to enter the city and meet us here. We need a humanitarian corridor so we can get out.”

Separately, according to Al Jazeera, nearly 200 Indian students recently landed in New Delhi from Poland on Wednesday after trying to flee Ukraine.