Monday, May 6, 2024

From Chaos to Compassion: The Remarkable Ukraine Rescue Efforts

In February 2021, approximately 19,000 Indian students found themselves caught in a precarious situation as the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfolded.

Many people saw and debated the evacuation operation done over the next few days based on what they on the TV.

Let me share you somewhat an insider story of that operation.

The Beginning

The Indian medical students had traveled to Ukraine with dreams of pursuing higher education, but the sudden outbreak of war disrupted their academic journey. Despite receiving notifications from the Indian Foreign Ministry, most students chose to stay in Ukraine until the war was officially underway. The uncertainty of the conflict’s duration played a significant role in their decision.

They worried about losing an entire semester’s worth of studies if they returned to India prematurely. Little did they know that the war would persist for more than two years.

Ukraine shares its eastern border with Russia, making it nearly impossible for students to exit from that side. On the North-Western side, Ukraine borders Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova. These neighboring countries provided alternative routes, but each had its own challenges.

(Image courtesy -

Operation Ganga

Indian government launched an evacuation mission, Operation Ganga, to rescue its citizens stranded in neighboring countries of Ukraine.

Alongside government agencies, ministers, and embassies, global social organizations played a pivotal role in this humanitarian effort.

One such organization was Sewa International. With a team of experienced senior volunteers who had previously worked in crisis situations, Sewa swiftly organized their efforts. 

Sewa International assembled a dedicated team to compile essential information. They created a comprehensive datasheet containing details of all Indian nationals stranded in Ukraine based on the information received from various sources, including Indian Embassy. Having accurate data was crucial for effective communication and coordination during the evacuation process.

The team of online volunteers at Sewa International utilized various messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal. Their mission was to reach out to each stranded individual, ensuring they were aware of the evacuation efforts and providing them with necessary instructions. 

By leveraging these digital channels, Sewa established direct communication with those in need. Different volunteers started contacting people stranded in different cities, mainly Kyiv, Odesa, Zaporizhzhia and Kharkiv.

The Rescue Begins

As the Russian invasion unfolded in Ukraine, chaos gripped the streets of cities across the country. As the situation escalated, panic set in, and many sought refuge in underground bunkers with limited network connectivity.

In the midst of this turmoil, Sewa volunteers reached out to the stranded Indian students to provide critical support.

J (Sewa Volunteer): "Hi A, where are you? Are you safe?"

J: "I am calling on behalf of Sewa International. We're here to stay in touch with you and provide information to help you cross the border."

A (Stranded Student): "Ma'am, we're in a bunker right now."

Slowly, trust bridges formed, and emotions poured out. Fearful students shared their plight:

A: "Ma'am, we're frightened. Please help us get out of Kyiv. They're not allowing us on the trains."

J: "A, don't worry. You'll soon find a way."

Any important information that would help in the evacuation was conveyed to the team of volunteers through the channels setup by Sewa team. The volunteers would also coordinate with each other to share information related to specific cities and geographies.

The Challenges

As the volunteers started working, the demographic situation posed challenges. With Western border invaded, only option was to exit via North-Eastern border. But reaching there was not easy. The students in Kharkiv, a city near Russian border, were worst affected. 

Despite the odds, students managed to reach the border town of Lviv. Conversations with their Sewa buddies kept them going during the harsh conditions and kept record of their whereabouts. Some trekked to Romania, others to Poland, covering distances of 15 to 30 kilometers.

Sewa volunteers stationed in Europe played a crucial role. They assisted incoming students settling near the Ukraine border. Locals opened their doors, offering comfort and food to these strangers. Humanity prevailed even amidst conflict.

The Flight

Once away from war-torn Ukraine, students' anxiety shifted to flights to India. A no-fly zone loomed over Ukraine, and flights were scarce. The Indian government enlisted the Air Force to expedite evacuation.

A: "Ma'am, we are now stuck on Romania for two days. When will be get our flight?"

It took time, but one-by-one all of them were accommodated in different flights over the next few days.

Finally, the messages started coming about their safe arrivals.

A: "I have reached India safely. Thank you so much for being there. World needs more people like you." 

Some even sent video messages summarizing the eventful last few days.

These messages encapsulated the bond forged between two complete strangers living across borders in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. 

While the unfortunate war still goes on, the society will remain extremely grateful of those involved in this rescue operation.

The Ukraine rescue operation involving Indian students is a testament to the power of collective action and humanitarian efforts during times of crisis.

Operation Ganga: Indian nationals returning from Poland 
(Photo: Twitter/@Gen_VKSingh)

The Home Connection

How do I know this so well?

This story is close to our heart because my better half, Jyoti, operated a help center from our own residence in Pune. 

The first call/message was done on February 25, 2022, and the last on March 3, 2022. 

Every person contacted returned safely to India. 

This is an example of how sheer goodwill can make seemingly impossible things happen. 

Evacuation of people from an active warzone is a complex operation, and it was the combined effort of many people, from the ministers to ambassadors, government officials to NGOs, made it possible.

We are extremely proud of Jyoti and all other silent heroes involved in this operation.

Trivia - Sewa International helped about 30,000 people across multiple nationalities amidst Russia-Ukraine crisis

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