Indians caught in Russia-Ukraine conflict | The dream chasers who got inducted into a war

Scores of Indian men who left for Russia in the hope of well-paying jobs and a secure future, instead find themselves in the battlefield on the border with Ukraine. At least two have died and a few have managed to return, but many are desperately waiting to come back. Vijaita Singh visits the worried families and reports on the men who were sold dreams by YouTube videos

March 23, 2024 02:29 am | Updated 02:09 pm IST

Sajad, the brother of Azad Yousuf Kumar, in Poshwan village in Awantipora, a sub-district of Pulwama district in Jammu and Kashmir. Kumar went to Russia to work as a helper in the army.

Sajad, the brother of Azad Yousuf Kumar, in Poshwan village in Awantipora, a sub-district of Pulwama district in Jammu and Kashmir. Kumar went to Russia to work as a helper in the army. | Photo Credit: Nissar Ahmad

A few years ago, Raja Bano’s son, Azad Yousuf Kumar, 31, travelled to Srinagar to learn English. The family of potters lives in Poshwan village in Awantipora, a sub-district of Pulwama district in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Located off the Jammu-Srinagar national highway, a mud track leads to Poshwan. Bano sits on the floor of an empty room in the two-storey house.

Kumar, who dreamed of a successful life, went to Srinagar, just 30 kilometres away, where he taught himself the language that he believed would take him places; learning English is one of the most common ways of seeking social mobility in India. With the help of a consultancy firm, Kumar then found himself a job in Saudi Arabia, says Bano, 56, a home-maker. He worked as a cashier only to return after two years.

Editorial |Lives and livelihoods: On perils and the Indian emigrant 

“He was the first in the family to get a passport,” says a proud Sajad, 36, Kumar’s brother. “But he came back from Saudi Arabia as he was earning only ₹27,000 a month there. He got married and became a father. Unfortunately, his son, who was nearly one and a half years, died. Kumar was disturbed by his death and became a cleric at the local mosque.”

When Kumar’s wife got pregnant again, he came across a YouTube channel called Baba Vlogs, promising people a decent life in Russia. Sajad says Kumar withdrew ₹3 lakh from their younger brother Irshad’s account without telling anyone. Kumar paid an agent and signed up for a job in Russia.

Kumar first went to Dubai, where he met 11 other Indians. On December 14, 2023, the group travelled on tourist visas to Moscow to work as helpers with the Russian army. At the airport, they were received by two Indian agents and taken to a hotel. They met Russian officials and signed a contract written in Russian.

The father of Azad Yousuf Kumar shows his son’s photo.

The father of Azad Yousuf Kumar shows his son’s photo. | Photo Credit: Nissar Ahmad

“He was told that he would have to remove rubble, dig trenches, and assist their army as part of his job,” says Sajad. “He was also taught how to handle weapons. He even sustained a bullet injury during a training session. After he recovered, the Russians sent him to the Ukraine border to fight their war. Now, my brother is caught in the middle of a war that we have nothing to do with.”

Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. What many believed would be a swift military operation has dragged on for more than two years. Kumar is among the scores of Indian men who left the country in the hope of a well-paying job and a secure future, but find themselves fighting the largest land war in Europe since the end of World War II.

Hope and despair

At least two men — Hemil Mangukiya, 23, from Surat, Gujarat, and Mohammad Asfan, 31, from Hyderabad, Telangana — who were part of Kumar’s group have been killed. Their bodies were brought to India on March 16, several days after their death. Another resident of Jammu and Kashmir, Zahoor Ahmad, 32, is missing. His family says they have not heard from him since January 1, when he informed them that he would be gone for training for a few months.

Also read | Family of Narayanpet resident worried after Hyderabadi’s death in Ukraine

Asfan’s brother, Imran, was the first to alert the Indian authorities to middlemen taking advantage of desperate Indians seeking better livelihoods abroad. Imran approached Hyderabad Member of Parliament Asaduddin Owaisi on January 23 asking for help after Arbab Husain, a resident of Kasganj in rural Uttar Pradesh, who had also been sent to fight the war, informed his family that Asfan had been with him. Owaisi wrote to the Ministry of External Affairs seeking the government’s intervention. The family did not hear from the government until March 8, when the Indian mission in Moscow informed them that Asfan has died in an explosion.

“My brother went to earn a decent living and returned in a body bag,” says a distraught Imran, who mobilised the families of other Indians to pursue the issue with the Ministry.

There had been several reports of Nepalese citizens being killed in Russia, but the Ministry had not put out a formal advisory cautioning Indians against taking up jobs of security helpers. It was only after The Hindu first reported on February 20 that Indians were being forced to fight alongside the Russian army that the Ministry issued a statement. It said that India had approached the Russian authorities for the “early discharge” of Indians and added that it was aware that a few Indians had signed up for support jobs with the Russian army. The official spokesperson of the Ministry, Randhir Jaiswal, says about 20 Indians have sought help from the government to return.

Husain, 22, managed to escape from the war zone feigning illness. Hiding somewhere in Moscow, he has been surviving on one meal a day. Husain’s passport is with his employers and he has no money. For the last two months, he has spent his days oscillating between hope and despair, waiting for a call from the Indian Embassy.

Like many others, Husain was also inspired by Baba Vlogs. He took a personal loan of ₹3 lakh to travel last November to Russia, where he was promised the job of a helper. He was assured a salary of ₹2.5 lakh per month.

“I did not know what was written in the contract,” he says over a call. “I signed it as I trusted the agents who I met through Baba Vlogs.” The contract, he learned later, said that he could be sent to the battlefield and would not be allowed to leave for a year.

“I don’t have any documents. They took my passport. For the two months I served in the army, they paid me ₹1 lakh, though the amount due is ₹4 lakh. The Indian Embassy says it can arrange my return only when it gets my documents back from the Russians,” Husain says.

After graduating from Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar University in Agra in 2022, Husain scoured the Internet for good career opportunities. He was interviewed online for a short-term project in Qatar during the football world cup for which he was promised ₹80,000 along with food and accommodation. He was thrilled.

“Before applying for the job in Qatar, I had worked in Delhi at a mobile phone production company for five years. I was paid ₹7,500 a month. The maximum salary I could have earned in India was ₹10,000-₹15,000 a month. My father is an accountant. My mother passed away a few years ago. I knew that I would be able to earn a decent amount only if I left the country,” he says.

The man who runs Baba vlogs

On March 7, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) announced that it had exposed an organised network of traffickers who lured Indians through social media for ‘well-paying’ jobs in Russia. It said the “trafficked Indian nationals were trained in combat roles and deployed at front bases in the Russia-Ukraine war zone against their wishes.” The CBI conducted searches at 13 locations in Delhi, Thiruvananthapuram, Mumbai, Ambala, Chandigarh, Madurai, and Chennai. “So far, around 35 instances of victims being sent abroad have been established,” it said.

One of the suspects named by the CBI in its First Information Report is Faisal Khan, 37, from Mumbai, who runs Baba Vlogs. The channel, which is now blocked in India, has more than 4 lakh subscribers.

Khan is based in Dubai. He says on a call that he inspired others like him, that is, people from modest backgrounds, to hope for good money and a stable life through his vlogs. He claims that he has helped 500 people get jobs as waiters, delivery boys, and parking attendants, among others, in Dubai and Europe in the past seven years.

“I am a Class 7 dropout. I used to sell fish in Mumbai. Sometimes, municipal authorities took the stock away and sometimes it rained. I contacted many agents in Mumbai who took money but never sent me to Dubai. In 2008, a friend helped me get a job as a parking attendant here. Later, I got the job of a medical representative and also sold luxury watches,” he says.

When Khan returned to India in 2014, he started posting videos on YouTube promoting tourism in the Gulf country. “One day, someone posted a comment saying I should educate my viewers on how to get jobs in Dubai. That was when I started guiding people,” he recalls.

Sensing the potential and reach of his videos, Khan started consultancy work in 2018. Last year, he says he got a call from a man called Moin who invited him to Russia and asked him to shoot a video about the various job opportunities in the country, such as security helpers and taxi drivers. Khan travelled to St Petersburg in Russia to shoot the video. He then got several requests seeking details of these jobs. He contends that he has helped send at least 35 people to Russia.

“I was clearly told that these men will not be sent to the battlefield,” he says. “However, when I started getting distress calls in January from the men and their families that they were being forced to fight, I decided to help them and vowed not to send anyone else to Russia. I called Moin, who also approached the Indian Embassy seeking cancellations of their contracts.”

Khan says not everyone wants to come back, though. “Six people have managed to come back. But many do not want to. I helped three Indians get jobs in a chocolate factory in Russia,” he says.

After spending a year in Russia, the men could have made ₹12 lakh and even got an opportunity to obtain a permanent residence permit for their families, he says. “For people like us, it was unthinkable that we could ever own a house. No bank will give us loans. These jobs may be menial, but they give people like us an opportunity to earn a few lakhs in a short span of time and then buy a house,” Khan says.

His initiative has come at a personal cost. After the CBI case against him followed by the media glare, Khan’s wife left him.

Watch | Two years of Russia-Ukraine war: Has India’s foreign policy changed at all?

The horrors of war

Mohammad Sarfaraz, 31, a resident of Kolkata, was one of the lucky few to escape Russia. He has come back shaken, and armed with stories of the horrors of war. “I saw many people with limbs missing, a ear gone. Many had their fingers amputated. They had all been injured during the war,” he says.

Sarfaraz, who went to Russia as a security helper last year, says he was able to befriend the watch and ward staff at the Ryazan military camp as he was “well-behaved”. On the night of January 17, Sarfaraz told the staff that he was stepping out to buy something. “I ran, hired a taxi, and reached the Indian Embassy in Moscow,” he recalls. “I was told that since I had signed a contract and did not have my passport, they could not help me as doing so would be against Russian law. I was asked to wait.”

Editorial | Not law, nor duty: On ‘safe military jobs’ and Indians in war zones

Faisal Khan told Sarfaraz that the job included basic arms training and that he would be asked to load and unload missiles and weapons.

“The five-star hotel in Kolkata where I used to work till June 2023 refused to extend my contract. I was jobless. No one was ready to match the salary I was getting at the hotel. I came across Baba Vlogs and called the numbers provided on the channel. I paid ₹1.5 lakh as advance. They arranged our papers and I reached Moscow in December 2023,” he says. Sarfaraz says the agent in Russia sought his bank account details and wanted a share from his salary.

After escaping from the camp, he stayed at a dormitory that agreed to take him without a passport. “The Indian Embassy officials asked me to go back to the camp as they did not have clearance from the Russian authorities to leave me. I begged them not to send me back as desertion means death in Russia. After I fled, they sent one of my friends to jail for a day. Had I gone back, I would have been beaten, made to sleep on the floor, and sent to the battlefield. I gave all the evidence I had, such as video clips, to the Embassy officials to prove that I had been duped. Finally, I got an emergency certificate and an exit visa and I returned to India on February 24,” he says.

All the victims say they were at the mercy of the commanders. An escape from the front lines was next to impossible as there were check posts every 2-3 km. They were told that they would have to work in eight-hour shifts. “There was no break. You are always staring at death. The contract said that we cannot take a holiday for six months,” says Sarfaraz.

Their return was incumbent on Russia honouring India’s request. Mohammad Mustafa’s brother, Sameer Ahmed, is in Russia. Mustafa, who lives in Kalaburgi in Karnataka, says the family had no idea that Russia was at war, and only expected Ahmed to earn some money. Scared that Ahmed is stuck there, they keep calling the Indian mission in Moscow. A worker is allowed access to his phone depending on his equation with the commander, he adds. “We have been speaking to Ahmed through WhatsApp calls. In his last video, he said that he was being sent to the war zone as reinforcement,” he says.

It was Ahmed who saw Hemil Mangukiya from Surat die in a Ukrainian air strike on February 21. “I was digging a trench and Hemil was learning how to fire, around 150 metres away. Suddenly, we heard some noise. I hid in the trench along with two other Indians and some Russian soldiers. The missiles struck and the earth shook. We got out after some time and found Hemil dead. I was the one who put his body in the truck,” says Ahmed over a call. He managed to inform Hemil’s family only days later when he got access to Internet and his phone.

Sarafraz says the Russians bury bodies in trenches. “I know of many Nepalese and Cuban citizens whose families will never know what happened with them. They will remain ‘missing’ in official records.” Sarafraz says he has learnt his lesson the hard way. “The place offers you nothing but death,” he says.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.