‘Doomsday’: Pakistani student recalls dreadful journey from Ukraine to hometown

Junaid Hassan, a Pakistani student studying in Ukraine, sensed the war was coming. But it came before he expected, compelling him to spend several sleepless nights in his hostel basement in an attempt to avoid shelling by Russian forces.

"It was 5:05 a.m on Feb. 24, when a powerful explosion shook my room. The first thing came to my mind was that the war has come," Hassan, the first Pakistani to evacuate from the war-hit country via neighboring Hungary and then Turkiye, told Anadolu Agency.

There were five to six explosions in the next hour, forcing him together with hundreds of students to run for shelter to the hostel basement, which otherwise was used as a storeroom.

"After a few hours, we were asked by the hostel management to store food and water and stay indoors," Hassan, who hails from the port city of Gwadar, said adding that they spent next five nights in the basement until students were allowed to leave Kyiv for the Vannnytsia city and subsequently Hungary border in a bus arranged by the Indian embassy.

Russian forces, according to Hassan, would usually shell at night, while mornings were relatively peaceful until March 1, the day he left Kyiv.

"We would spend nights in the middle-size basement like sardines and go to our rooms in the morning to sleep," he maintained.

Ukraine has become a key destination for students from Asian and African countries over the past decade due to relatively low-priced education, and hassle-free visa policy.

Currently, some 76,000 foreign students are studying in different Ukrainian universities, mainly in the fields of medical and engineering, of them a quarter are from India followed by Nigeria, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Although many Pakistani students have managed to flee Ukraine, however they are still stuck in Poland, Hungary, and Romania, desperately waiting for flights to take them back home as, Hassan charged, the diplomatic missions are not "assisting."

Thousands of Indian students are also trapped in several Ukrainian cities, which are the target of heavy shelling from Russian forces, appealing for an urgent evacuation.

Hassan’s another Pakistani colleague also managed to arrive in Pakistan via Istanbul on Monday.

Frightening journey

Over 3,500 Pakistani students are enrolled in different medical and engineering universities in the former Soviet state. However, hundreds had already left Ukraine either due to semester breaks or sensing the looming war.

"We were only two Pakistanis at the hostel, while a majority were Indians. They kept us in the loop as their embassy was constantly trying to evacuate them," he further said thanking his Indian classmates for not abandoning him at testing time.

Recalling his two-day frightening journey from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv to the Hungary border, Hassan, a second-year student at Kyiv Medical University, said he was not sure if he would manage to reach the border due to ferocity of the war.

Their first target was to get to a train to reach the Vannnytsia city, which is located 1,006 Kilometers (625 miles) from Hungary border.

"It was a doomsday scene at Kyiv railway station as thousands poured in to catch trains. We managed to get to our train after hours-long struggle," he reminisced.

A five-hour journey took the 73-member group to Vannnytsia, where they spent night at a hostel of a medical university already abandoned by the students for safety.

"We were expecting same shelling and bombing there but luckily it was a peaceful night," he maintained.

The next morning, the group embarked on an 18-hour journey to Hungary border amid fears of being caught in fighting.

"We could spot heavily armed Ukrainian troops throughout our journey to the border, however, nothing untoward (shelling and firing) happened," Hassan went on to say.

Another surprise was awaiting him at the Hungary border, where contrary to his apprehensions, the border authorities let him enter Hungary without any complication.

The UN has acknowledged that people from Indian and African descent have faced racial treatment at borders with neighboring states, while attempting to leave Ukraine.

The group changed three buses to finally reach Hungary's capital Budapest, where Pakistan embassy arranged stay in a local hotel for Hassan.

Willing to go back

A senator from Gwadar, who remained in constant touch with Hassan during his journey, booked an air ticket for him to return to Pakistan.

A Turkish Airlines flight first brought Hassan to Istanbul and then to Karachi, where his family members and friends greeted him.

"I already felt home when I reached Istanbul," he said, smiling.

"The first thing I did after landing in Istanbul was to telephone my mother, who broke into tears as soon as I told her I am safe now."

Hassan, who still needs to study three more years to complete his medical degree, wishes for an immediate end to the war.

"I want to and will definitely go back (to Ukraine) to finish my studies. I miss my friends, especially those who helped me when I really needed," he maintained.

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