Didn't have a meal in days, went out to get food for all, say friends of student killed in Ukraine

Published on Mar 01, 2022 11:51 PM IST

Hours before his death, Naveen Shekharappa Gyandagoudar had called to reassure his parents that he was “okay” and they should not be worried about his safety.

Father of Naveen Shekharappa Gyandagoudar, who was killed in the shelling in Ukraine, breaks down, in Karnataka. (ANI)
Father of Naveen Shekharappa Gyandagoudar, who was killed in the shelling in Ukraine, breaks down, in Karnataka. (ANI)
BySharan Poovanna

Bengaluru: When Naveen Shekharappa Gyandagoudar, 21,  called his mother in Karnataka from Kharkiv in Ukraine at around 10.30am local time on Tuesday, his family did not know it would be the last they would hear from their son, a fourth-year student at the Kharkiv National Medical University.

Also Read | Indian student killed in Ukraine grocery queue

The call to Chalagere in Karnataka’s Haveri district, some 300km from Bengaluru, was to reassure his parents that he was “okay” and they should not be worried about his safety, though he was in the middle of a war zone nearly 7,000km from home.

There was nothing especially notable about the call, Sadanand, Gyandagoudar’s uncle, told HT on Tuesday.

Gyandagoudar left his apartment in Kharkiv in the morning of Tuesday to buy some provisions from a store that was barely 50-60m away. Having survived on candy bars, biscuits and juices with his flatmates for the past few days, he had volunteered to try and get his hands on some wholesome food in the hope of eating a proper meal, said his friends.

“We were sleeping at the time since we were up till 3.30-4 am,” Amit Vaishanavar, his flatmate and friend of four years, told HT over the phone from Kharkiv. “We didn’t even know when he left.”

The curfew in the embattled city ended at 6am local time and people were allowed to buy provisions, his friend said. Sometime after he left the apartment, Gyandagoudar reached out to a friend to transfer some money to his account to buy provisions.

Also Read | On phone with France, Poland, EU, PM Modi renews call to end Ukraine hostilities

While standing in a queue for groceries, Gyandagoudar, a topper in his class, became the victim of a missile attack, the first Indian to be killed in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine that started six days ago. Over the past two days, an intensifying Russian assault has pummelled Kharkiv with bombs and rockets. Some of his friends said he was shot dead, and there was no confirmation from authorities.

When he did not return, his friends kept calling his number. A Ukrainian local picked up the phone.

“We didn’t understand the language, so we ran to a lady in our building who is a local,” Vaishanavar said. “She started crying but could not explain to us what happened. That’s when a person who spoke some English told us that our friend was dead.”

They ran to the supermarket but found no traces of an attack as was being reported on Indian TV channels, watched avidly by students in Ukraine. His body is still to be located.

Also Read | ‘Ensure safe passage for Indians’: New Delhi’s sharp message to Russia, Ukraine

Vaishanavar, his brother Suman and Gyandagoudar hail from the same village in Haveri, and have lived together for over four years now. Gyandagoudar reached Ukraine in November 2018 to pursue a medical programme, according to his residence permit.

“We are from middle-class families and cannot afford to pay 1.5-2 crore donations to medical colleges there (in India). So we managed funds and came here,” said Suman Vaishanavar, Amit’s brother and Gyandagoudar ’s flatmate.

All three had gone to Ukraine through Parthan’s consultancy, an agency that sends students to other countries for medical education.

The victim’s father, Shekharappa Gyandagoudar, appealed to the government to bring back his son’s body, and requested them to look into the problems of medical education.

“Kindly look into the matter, and donation it is very bad. Intelligent students are going abroad to study. (If) they plan to get their education here, they have to pay crores to get that seat. They are getting better education abroad ...my son got 97% in PUC (pre-university),” he said.

Gyandagoudar did most of his schooling and college education in Nanjangud in Mysuru. His father Shankarappa Gyandagoudar worked in a private factory and is now retired, while elder brother Harsha is pursuing doctoral studies.

Both Gyandagoudar and Vaishanavar’s families knew each other well, and it was one of the reasons that led them to consider pursuing higher education in Ukraine.

“It’s like a chain link,” explained Amit Vaishanavar, adding that they followed someone else’s footsteps to Ukraine, much like Vaishanavar, who followed them.

There are around 3,000 Indian students in the colleges in Kharkiv, of which nearly 10% are from Karnataka, according to estimates by expat students.

Students trapped in the war-torn country have made several appeals to the Indian government to be evacuated as soon as possible. Just two days ago, Vaishanavar stood in the background of one such video interview with a Kannada television channel, in which students shared their plight and requested Indian authorities to evacuate them.

Students told HT that the embassy was unclear in its messaging, as was the university.

“The university told us (before February 24) that these such conflicts have been ongoing since 1991 and told us not to worry. The (Indian) embassy also did not give us any clarity,” said Suman.

On February 18, the Indian embassy in Kyiv shared a note that three additional flights would start “in view of the demand from Indian community/students in Ukraine for flights between Kyiv-Delhi due to uncertainties of the current situation in Ukraine.” HT has seen this note.

“Flight prices, which were around 20,000, jumped to 75,000-80000,” said Suman. “We thought it might get cheaper the next day or the next.”

Kharkiv is just 40km from the Russian border, from where assaults are largely taking place, while the evacuation on the western border was nearly 1,500km away, a student said.

Amit and Suman Vaishanavar said they are not safe in their apartment or even in the bunkers, and asked for help from anyone who reached out to them, including this reporter.

They are still unsure where the body of Gyandagoudar has been taken.

Meanwhile, in Chalagere, Gyandagoudar’s parents, who once dreamt of seeing their son become a doctor, are hoping just to see the mortal remains of their second child, who died in a war he had nothing to do with. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Karnataka chief minister Basavaraj Bommai spoke to Gyandagoudar’s father on Tuesday to offer condolences.

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