‘You’ll Be Expelled’:How Ukraine Colleges Held Kashmiri Students Hostage

“They knew if these students aren’t able to leave now, then probably cannot leave when Russia really invades Ukraine. We were literally left to fend for ourselves.”

The killing of an Indian student in Ukraine on Tuesday once again alarmed the valley due to the presence of around 180 Kashmiri students in the warzone.

With major cities of Ukraine already on the ‘no flight mode’ because of a brutal siege laid down by Russian air and land offensive, stranded Kashmiri students are finding it hard to exit the country.

“It’s getting tough by the day,” a Kashmiri student told Kashmir Observer minutes before his phone went switch off. “It’s like a death trap here. You fear missiles inside shelters and fret over the bloody war on streets.”

Amid this dreadful situation, these Kashmiris—for the very first time—sent home a detailed account about their failure to leave the country on time.

Why Couldn’t They Leave

Several Kashmiri students that Kashmir Observer reached out said they chose to stay back in the country due to campus compulsions, fake normalcy by the citizenry—now up in arms against the invading Russians—and false assurances by the Indian Embassy.

“In the second week of January, the Indian embassy asked students to submit a form with their contact details, passport number, temporary address of Ukraine, University’s name, course name and year of college,” said Mir Asif, a Kashmiri student in Ukraine.

“The embassy issued no specific reasons behind this sudden activity leaving us all baffled.”

At the fag-end of January 2022, several foreign embassies in Ukraine’s capital city, Kyiv had already issued an advisory to their citizens, who were putting up in the country, to stay alert.

The advisory had come in reaction to Kremlin’s persistent armed fortification on the Ukrainian border.

“Despite its other counterparts issuing advisory and creating apprehensions that something terrible is on its way, the Indian embassy in Ukraine remained tight-lipped and continued with its daily affairs normally—as if nothing had happened in and around the country,” Asif said.

Later, on February 24, when Russians invaded Ukrainian land, many foreign embassies including the United States, Britain, Canada, European Union, Australia and Israel issued an emergency advisory to their citizens in Ukraine.

All of these countries had also asked its embassy staff to “leave immediately” besides advising its citizens in the turbulent country “to consider departing now using commercial or other privately available transportation options".

But while these foreign students were allowed to leave after their embassies requested the University authorities, Kashmiri students were left to fend for themselves in the battleground.

As war reached their doorsteps, Kashmiri students studying in medical Universities in Kharkiv, Sumy, Odessa, Kyiv and Oblast cities of Ukraine tried to contact their campus administration for seeking the permission for leaving the country.

“While the road into Kyiv was silently lining with additional military checkpoints, many of which were manned by Russia’s elite forces from whatever way the highway passes through, three main medical Universities of Ukraine comprising Uzgordu University, Kharkiv medical National University and Kyiv Novkova University were trying to subside the reports of an upcoming war,” said Arsilan Ahmad, a medical student in Ukraine.

While apprehensions of war were slowly taking over these young doctors, the university administration denied their requests of campus closure—stating two main reasons: Indian embassy hasn’t issued any advisory for its citizens in Ukraine and Ukrainian Government has denied reports about any Russian escalation.

“This campus posturing persisted even as the outskirts of the city were being fortified with an improvised construction of cement blocks and sand bags,” Arsilan recalled the unfolding war scenes in Ukraine.

On the face of the fear that had forced Ukrainians to increase their military presence amid an upcoming trouble, these students tried approaching officials at the Indian Embassy in Kyiv. To their surprise, the Indian Embassy was the only embassy in the capital where a federal government hadn’t issued any “leave immediately” advisory for its staffers and citizens.

“While other foreign students were already catching trains and flights for their homeland, Kashmiri students were looking at the ominously quiet faces inside the Indian embassy,” Arsilan said. "It was a catch-22 situation for us. We wanted to run away but the fear of being expelled from our campuses kept us grounded."

But when the panic grew and the students raised the homecoming pitch, an official at the Indian Embassy played fireman amid the blatant battle blaze. “The embassy people would tell us that they were staying put in Ukraine and that we don’t need to worry," Arsilan recalled the terse conversation aiming at hushing the shrill. "Don’t create unnecessary panic. Russia won’t attack!”

Such assurances, however, soon ran out of the steam as Kremlin sent its invading army and started an offensive against the Ukraine.

Sensing the full-blown between pugnacious Putin and NATO-ally in Ukraine, these Kashmiri students started fearing for their lives. They wanted to run away from the invaded country, but their universities had put an embargo on their departure.

Despite the deafening din of war, the campuses in Ukraine were still reluctant about the work from home, leaving all of these students with the choice between risking their safety and completing their education.

Was University’s Nod Necessary?

Ukrainian Universities have some already laid down rules. After almost every class in the medical universities, the students have to sit for a work-up—an exam which they’re mandated to qualify.

If somehow, these students fail to attend that exam, they’ll have to pay a fine and request the subject head to allow them to appear again.

If the head of the subject accepts the students' request, then the students have to submit an application to the university seeking a re-appear.

“But if somehow we fail to submit the necessary application in one month, then a hefty fine is imposed on us,” said Shahid Habib, another Kashmiri student in Ukraine. “And if the same continues for two months from the date of original exams, then the University contains a full impunity to expel the students, that too, without giving any specific reasons.”

The second laid down rule in Ukraine’s Medical University is that a third year to fourth year student is mandated to qualify the KROK exam—a Licensing examination in Ukraine and an obligatory part of state certification for awarding the qualification of doctor or pharmacist.

If anyhow these students fail to appear for the exam, they’re directly considered to fail and subsequently their whole one year of degree is disbanded.

Notably, almost 50 percent of the Kashmiri students currently studying in Ukraine’s Government Medical Universities are either in third year or the fourth year. And that’s exactly what had unfurled the crisis and forced these students to be stranded in the deadly war between Kremlin and Kyiv.

And this was exactly why these young doctors couldn’t leave Ukraine despite repeated calls of their families demanding them to return back.

However, as a fortnight passed since the first war bugle in Ukraine and the subsequent emergency across the country, Kashmiri students were forcibly thronging their classes despite knowing that Putin’s forces can overtook their campuses anytime.

Ukrainian servicemen ride on a fighting vehicle in Kyiv. Photo by Vadim Ghirda/AP

The Russian armoured tanks started rumbling on the Valentine's Day. And upon their arrival, Ukranians began finding ways to prepare for war. They refreshed their first-aid skills and made arrangements with friends who might come and stay at their houses.

“But they all knew—with past experiences—that it was impossible to prepare for a war,” Shahid said. “What their government however had done was brutally inhumane. They were still not allowing closure of universities where we Kashmiri students were losing our hope with each passing day.”

Despite the Ukrainian Government’s blunder of forcing these students to stay in their turbulent country, the Indian embassy had done nothing less.

Even after three weeks since other foreign embassies had issued alerts for its citizens, the Indian embassy was still tight-lipped, silently watching the growing resentment among its own students.

And then on February 15, hours after the White House officially confirmed the Russia invasion, the Indian Embassy issued an advisory.

When it came out, students felt exhilarated that they finally had some legitimate paper to make their University officials revise their decision. But what was written in the advisory was something that many termed as “grossly absurd”.

In view of the uncertainties of the current situation in Ukraine, Indian nationals in Ukraine, particularly students whose stay is not essential may consider leaving temporarily,” the Embassy had said in a public notice.

What the embassy had mentioned in its advisory was that all these students staying in Ukraine were there because their education was essential, even in the times of the ominous war. And that was exactly what the university officials had used as an excuse to hold these students back as 'hostages'.

When Kashmiri students approached their campus authorities, they had once again stepped out of the large corridors, all dismayed.

Your Government has clearly written that only those whose stay isn’t essential should leave. Your stay in this country is essential,” a University official had told a Kashmiri student. “But, if you still want to leave, go! No one is stopping you. But remember you’ll be expelled.”

With the same fear enforced upon these future doctors, they kept on attending their classes ignoring their families’ fervent appeals to leave the country.

“But how could we,” asked Shahid. “The reason was quite clear. It was a hostage situation for us.”

The Ukrainian Government had clearly instructed the Universities to not allow these students from leaving the country, knowing that it would create panic among the public.

“It was never about expensive air tickets, but it was all the Ukrainian government’s decision to somehow maintain a false peace among its citizens on the pretext of coercing us to stay,” Shahid said.

“They had clearly asked the campus authorities not to spread a word about war. They knew the war had already started. Even the locals knew it, but they refrained from spreading a word about it.”

This had also demystified Indian Embassy’s move of collecting details.

“They knew that a war was on its way,” Asif, the student quoted above, said. “They knew if these students aren’t able to leave now, then probably cannot leave when Russia really invades Ukraine. We were literally left to fend for ourselves.”

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Zaid Bin Shabir

Zaid Bin Shabir is a special correspondent at Kashmir Observer. He tweets @Zaidbinshabir

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