Trapped in Ukraine

Of the estimated 4,000 Nepalis trapped by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, only about 400 have managed to escape to neighbouring countries. Among the many who are still in Ukraine are six Nepalis stuck at the frontlines of the war zone in the breakaway province of Luhansk.

Kamal Pokhrel had just arrived in Ukraine and was into his first few days of language classes before starting college in Staroblisk in eastern Ukraine, the part of the country that bore the brunt of the first Russian advance last week.

Kamal spent Rs700,000 to get him into Ukraine in February via India. The five others also paid similar amounts, and only got here in the past three months. The plan was to first learn the language, and study management, so they could get a job.

Since it is more difficult and expensive to get into western European countries, recruitment agents often convince Nepali migrants to go to Ukraine on student visas and find work.

Pokhrel and his friends were woken up in the early morning of 24 February with sounds of blasts. They went down to the hostel’s underground bunker where there were already over 100 people, mostly locals and ethnic Russians who do not have shelters in their homes.

These Nepalis are 1,300km from Lviv, the farthest away from Ukraine’s western border with Poland that they could be. The fighting has now shifted to the outskirts of cities like Kyiv, and because most of Luhansk is now under Russian control it is  relatively quiet here.  

Map: The Mercury

“In the initial days when transportation was available, we were advised not to leave as it was safer to remain. I wish college authorities had instead sent us to the border in time,” says Arun Pokhrel, another Nepali. “Now, Kharkiv has been attacked. Will we be safe in our bunkers? What about food supplies? There are no trains, and taxis or locals with cars willing to drive us out no matter how much money we offer.”

The Nepalis have sought help from the Nepal Embassy in Berlin, and the Non-Resident Nepalese Association (NRNA) but they are so deep inside Ukraine that there is little that anyone can do.

“They want us to make our way to the border, but there is no way to get there, we are trapped,” says Kamal. 

The students  are also hurt by the lack of empathy shown towards them by officials and volunteers, which makes them feel further isolated. Says Kamal, “Many phone calls go unanswered. Others ask us insensitive questions like what we have been upto till now and why we did not get out earlier. It was not our choice to be trapped like this."

There was a small ray of hope when they came across a social media post by Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine's Minister of Foreign Affairs, who shared on social media that an emergency hotline for African, Asian and other students wishing to leave Ukraine because of Russia's invasion had been setup. 

But when they called the helpline number, they were told that Luhansk is too far and they should try to move westwards towards Kyiv.

With the Ukrainians themselves fleeing eastern Ukraine, the Nepalis have not got any help from their college either. Even the recruitment agents based in Ukraine have stopped answering calls. Says Kamal, “You know things are bad when even agents who are being offered money cannot help.”

The Nepalis keep getting calls from families back home. “They are helpless, what can they do? They trust our judgement and tell us to be safe. We do not tell them everything since we do not want them to worry,” says Arun.

The students have taken videos of Russian armoured convoys (right) with the distinctive white ‘Z’ of the invasion force painted on the side driving through Staroblisk. The Ukrainian troops appear to have fled, or surrendered.

There are not many cars or people on the streets of this region close to the Russian border. It is bitterly cold. Some shops are still open, but they are running out of supplies. And the students are running out of money.

“We have been going in and out of our bunkers where it is relatively safe to get a phone signal,” says Kamal who has been in touch with his ageing parents in Dang. “When we hear blasts, we run back down to the bunker. Sometimes, we feel the urge to just trek to the border. जे पर्ला पर्ला, मरे मरिन्छ।”

The Nepalis are not afraid of being shot by the Russians or Ukranians, but of being caught in a crossfire or in missile attacks. They tried to get help from a nearby police station, but found some Sri Lankans and Afghans sheltering there who did not even have accommodation.

Says Kamal, “We went there to see if the police could help us with transportation, but we ended up bringing the Sri Lankans and Afghans to our bunkers, and shared our little remaining food with them.”