‘He had no idea he was being sent to a war zone’: the Indian and Nepali men on frontlines in Ukraine

When Hemil Mangukiya left his small village in the Indian state of Gujarat last December, he told his family he was off to Russia to make a better living than was possible at home in India.

Lured by a recruitment video he had seen on YouTube, the 23-year-old had thought he was going for a secure security job far from the war in Ukraine. But in strained phone calls home from Russia, he told his family he was instead sent to a month-long military training camp and then taken to the frontlines, where he was made to dig trenches, carry ammunition and operate rifles and machine guns. Then, in late February, his calls abruptly stopped.

The call that came days later shattered his father’s heart: Mangukiya had died in a missile strike somewhere in Ukraine.

“I think he hid from us the danger he was in,” said Ashwin Mangukiya, 52. “Our entire family is devastated by this. We are still trying to get back his dead body.”

Mangukiya’s death has shed light on the fate of dozens – by some estimates, hundreds – of Indians who have ended up on the frontlines of the Russia-Ukraine war against their will, after signing up for roles described as military helpers or security guards. In some cases, families say the men thought they were flying out for jobs in Dubai but then were sent on to Russia by agents.

This week, a video circulated on social media of seven Indians from Punjab who claimed they had travelled to Russia as tourists for New Year but had been taken by an agent to Belarus and detained. “The police handed us over to Russian authorities, who made us sign documents,” said one of the men in the video, identified as Gagandeep Singh. “Now they are forcing us to fight in the war against Ukraine.”

Mohammad Asfan (right), with two comrades. Photograph: Handout

On Wednesday, it was reported that another Indian, Mohammad Afsan, had died on the frontlines of the war, after travelling to Moscow in November for what he thought was a job as a security guard. “He had no idea he was being sent to a war zone,” said his brother Mohammad Imran.

The problem has been even more pronounced in Nepal, where the government was recently forced to ban citizens from working in Russia or Ukraine after it was estimated that thousands had ended up in the Russian armed forces in Ukraine. Some went voluntarily, but others say they have been trapped.

Many of the Nepali were from impoverished villages where employment is scarce, and travelled under the false promises of high-earning jobs – with no mention of active warfare – and often accrued thousands of dollars in debts for fees paid to agents. Officially, 12 Nepalis have died in the conflict, but one organisation said they had confirmed 19 fatalities from the country. According to reports, a fighter from Nepal died in the same missile strike that killed Mangukiya.

Accounts from Indians and Nepalis detail how, upon their arrival in Russia, they were coerced into signing contracts written in Russian (which have been viewed by the Guardian) and then had their passports taken away. Only later would they learn they had committed themselves to a year in the Russian armed forces, with no way out except years in jail. After often less than two weeks of weapons training, they were shipped straight to the brutal conflict zones of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Speaking from an army hospital somewhere in Russia, Nandaram Pun, from Rolpa in Nepal, said he had been promised a job in Germany through an agent he met on social media, and was told he needed to fly to Russia only as a transit stop. Yet after being collected in Moscow, taken to a military training camp and taught to operate a gun for the first time in his life, Pun had the sinking realisation that Germany had only been a ploy.

Not long after, he was sent to Bakhmut in east Ukraine, a city where one of the bloodiest and longest-running battles in the war continues to play out. Two Indians and four other Nepalis were in the bunkers with him, alongside Russian troops and commanders.

One night, as Pun was transporting weapons in the depths of Ukraine’s harsh, snowy winter, a Ukrainian drone hit. “We had no idea about the drone attacks. My legs, thighs and right hand were hit by shrapnel,” he said. He said he was first taken to a hospital in the Russian city of Kaspiysk, in Dagestan, but had since been moved around and, not understanding Russian, now has no idea where he is being held. Several fellow Nepali fighters are also in hospital, while one more is missing and another is in jail after trying to escape.

“I don’t want to be cured, because if they think I am better, then they will send me back to war again,” said Pun, who added that his efforts to get the Nepal authorities to rescue him had been in vain. “I don’t even have my passport. Please, I don’t want to die.”

Azad Yousuf Kumar, 31, seen here in a picture on his father’s phone, from Kashmir, is serving in an army unit alongside others from India and Nepal and urging his family to ‘get him out somehow’, his brother said. Photograph: Faisal Bashir/Sopa Images/Rex/Shutterstock

Azad Yousuf Kumar, 31, left his home in the Indian region of Kashmir in December to take a job as a domestic worker in Dubai, paying an agent he met through YouTube 300,000 rupees (£3,000) as an advance on his pay. But instead, his family says, he was sent on to a military training camp in Russia, where he was shot in the leg during an exercise, and then dispatched to a Russian unit in Ukraine.

“He wanted to go abroad because there are hardly any jobs here and his wife had just had a baby,” said Kumar’s elder brother, Sajad. “But he called us distressed to say he was sent to Russia from Dubai and made to join the military. He has been posted in a dangerous war zone, and he has to see injured every day, many with lost limbs and torn bodies.”

Kumar told his family that most of those posted in the unit alongside him were from India and Nepal, and in a similar situation of exploitation. “He has been urging us to get him out somehow, but we are helpless,” added his brother.

In India, several cited a YouTube channel, Baba Vlogs, which is run by Faisal Khan – an Indian recruiter operating out of Dubai – as the platform that had duped them. Khan posted a series of videos to his 300,000 followers from the streets of St Petersburg promoting jobs in Russia as military helpers, categorically stating that they would be safe and not sent to the frontlines, and that this could also help them get permanent residency in Russia.

Khan told the Guardian that he had sent 26 Indians to Russia before claiming he realised that he had been “misled” by a Russian intermediary about the nature of the job and had “no idea they would be sent to a war zone”. “We are trying to get these people out of there now,” he said.

An Indian man working as a translator for the Russian ministry of defence, who is posted in a Moscow facility that recruits foreign fighters, said many who arrived from India and Nepal had no clue they were there to work in the conflict zone.

“The agents persuade them that no harm will come to them. Given that these people come from poor backgrounds and spend a lot of money to reach Russia, they sign the contracts,” he said, requesting anonymity. “After that, they can’t back out.”

The Indian government, which enjoys a close relationship with Russia, has acknowledged 20 Indians who are working for the Russian army, and said it was “trying our level best for their early discharge”.

Amrit Bahadur Rai, a spokesperson for Nepal’s ministry of foreign affairs, said they too were working “constantly” to bring people back, but admitted they did not know the exact number of their citizens in Russia. Rai said 245 families had filed petitions claiming that their relatives were trapped in the army there, and five more were known to have been taken as prisoners of war by Ukraine.

Among them was Siddhartha Dhakal, 22, from Mandandeupur in Nepal, who was captured by Ukrainian forces in November. A video of him pleading for help was widely circulated on social media.

Dhakal, a committed student, had travelled to Russia to study medicine, but found on his arrival that he had been tricked and that his only option was to join the military. “He is our only one son, our only hope,” sobbed his father, Biru Dhakal. “Please bring him home.”

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