Job hunt, YouTube channel, false promises – how Indian youths landed on Russia-Ukraine war frontlines

From Kashmir to Karnataka, from Gujarat to Telangana, a thread connects the Indian youths trapped fighting Russia’s war with Ukraine – desperation for a job, a YouTube channel that provided hope, and a lie that became clear only after landing in Moscow.

The families of men The Indian Express spoke to detailed how they were tricked into believing they were applying for a job as helpers in Russian government offices, but were forced to head to the frontlines, putting their life in danger.

From Telangana, Mohammed Afsan (30) of Hyderabad and Mohammed Sufiyan (23) of Narayanpet district went to Moscow in November and December respectively. “They were duped. The agent who recruited them said they would work in Moscow only; instead, they were given 15-day training and dropped in Ukraine, where they are being forced to stay alongside Russian troops fighting the war,” said Afsan’s brother Mohammed Imran.

Afsan was working as a salesman at a clothes showroom when he chanced on the job opportunity in Moscow. “He, like the other youths, was promised a salary of Rs 45,000 per month for the initial three months, which would gradually increase to Rs 1.5 lakh. After working for a year, he could apply for Russian passport and citizenship. It was a lucrative offer and unfortunately they fell for it. Afsan left for Moscow on November 9,” Imran said.

Afsan’s last video call from the Russia-Ukraine border was on December 31. “After that, there has been no contact with him; we recently discovered he has injured his leg. We request the Centre to intervene and arrange for their evacuation,” he said.

Festive offer
russia ukraine war Men in fatigues: Mohammed Sufiyan from Narayanpet, Telangana (left) and Mohammed Samir Ahmed from Gulbarga (right).

Sufiyan was working at a packing company in Dubai, earning Rs 30,000 per month. “He came in contact with an agent named Faisal Khan, who runs a YouTube channel, and was brainwashed into applying for this job in Moscow, saying he would never earn more,” said Saiyed Salman, Sufiyan’s brother.

“He was told the job was as a helper in a Russian government office. He was promised over Rs 1 lakh per month and citizenship after one year. He paid Rs 1.5 lakh as commission to the agent and came to India. The agent arranged flight tickets and Sufiyan left on December 17,” Salman said.

Faisal Khan, and his YouTube channel Baba Vlogs, found a mention in the testimonies of other families too.

In video calls to his brother, Sufiyan said that he along with other youths from India were taken to a military camp and, after three days, sent for training. “At the camp, they saw other Indians who had returned from the frontlines. They had shrapnel injuries, broken limbs, and Sufiyan came to know that he and the others undergoing basic training would also be sent to the frontlines. On February 27, Sufiyan was almost killed in a drone strike. A youth from Gujarat (Hemil Mangukiya) was killed along with several Russian soldiers. Sufiyan called us on January 29 to narrate the ordeal. He was traumatised seeing death up close, and desperate to return to India. That was his last call and his phone has been unreachable ever since, so we assume he is on frontlines again,” Salman, an autorickshaw driver, said.

Both families were unaware if the men had even been paid.

The three from Karnataka’s Gulbarga have been identified as Mohammed Samir Ahmed, 23, Saiyed Iliyas Hussaini, 22, and Abdul Nayeem, 23. All of them were working alongside Sufiyan in the Dubai company.

Samir Ahmed’s elder brother Mustafa said the agent explicitly promised that the job was in Moscow. “He even allayed concerns that they may be sent to the war, but after reaching there, the men found that they would be helping Russian troops in the field. Samir called four-five days ago and was extremely scared. He pleaded with me to approach the authorities here to evacuate him safely,” said Mustafa.

“I am even more traumatised because the youth from Gujarat, Hemil, had called me just two days before he died in a drone strike. They (the others from India) loaded his body in the back of a truck… The Centre should do whatever it can to rescue all of them. We don’t want the money, just bring them back,” he said.

war Man holding a photo: Mohammed Imran with a photo of his brother Afsan. (Express Photo)

Surat resident Hemil Mangukiya, 23, died on February 21. Like the other youths, his journey to the warzone started via a YouTube video on the Baba Vlogs channel. According to his family, he was “put on duty from December 24”. “Their work was to dig mud and make bunkers for a couple of hours in a day and later supply arms and ammunition to the Russian soldiers on the frontlines. They were also trained in using machine guns and other arms. Hemil was made to undergo one-month training in a camp.”

In south Kashmir’s Awantipora, Aazad Yousuf Kumar, 32, had been keen to move out as his family work – of digging borewells – didn’t fetch enough returns. In search of something more lucrative, Kumar would often scan his phone for job opportunities outside the state.

It was during one such search that he came across a YouTube channel promising jobs in Dubai. “Digging borewells is an irregular source of income. He got married three years ago and wanted a better job,” said Kumar’s brother Sajad Ahmad.

Ahmad, too, said the YouTube channel was run by Dubai-based Faisal Khan. “My brother was told that he would have to clean rooms and work in the kitchen in Dubai and would earn well.”

The YouTube channel often advertises jobs in the Gulf. In one video, Faisal Khan says he has studied only until class VI and earns Rs 80,000 a month.

A week after the birth of his child, Kumar left for Mumbai on instructions from his “recruiters”. “From Mumbai, he was taken to Chennai. But once he left Chennai, we lost contact with him,” said his brother.

In January, Ahmad received a WhatsApp call from an unknown number. When he answered, it was his brother. “He told me that when they reached Dubai, they were asked to sign a contract for a job in Russia. Azad told me he thought it was a cleaning job in Moscow. But when they reached Russia, they were directly sent to a training centre,” Ahmad said. “He said he received a gunshot wound in the foot at the training centre and was admitted to a hospital, while 11 others with him were sent to the frontlines. He was calling from the number of a Russian citizen.”

Ahmad said that since then, Kumar has sent him occasional messages. “He told me he is now at the border with Ukraine. He said they have been divided into six groups of two each and each group has been assigned to a unit.”

Ahmad said his brother fell prey to a “big gang that is luring desperate job seekers to Dubai and then sending them to Russia to fight against Ukraine”.

Gurpreet Singh, 23, from Punjab’s Hoshiarpur is another youth pleading for help to escape the war. While the way he landed up there is different, he too fell prey to a lie. An avid traveller who has been to several foreign countries on low-budget backpacking trips, he decided to go to St Petersburg to attend a New Year’s festival. According to his cousin Sandhu, he left on December 27 and stayed in Moscow for a few days before proceeding to St Petersburg. After attending the festival, he hired a cab and went to Belarus, thinking his Russian visa was valid there. He was detained and the Belarus Army handed him over to Russian Army personnel at the border.

“The Russian personnel told Gurpreet he had broken the country’s laws by illegally entering Belarus, and threatened to jail him for 10 years. They seized his phone and other belongings and kept him confined. After he pleaded for several hours, the Russian troops connected him on the phone with a translator, who explained to him that instead of rotting in jail, he should join the Russian army as a helper. He was promised Rs 1 lakh salary and told that he would live and work in Moscow, but after two days, he was sent for training and is now at the frontlines. With bombs falling everywhere, he and the others are scared for their lives,” Sandhu said.

Last week, the Ministry of External Affairs said India is trying its best for an “early discharge” of around 20 Indian nationals working as support staff to the Russian army.

“It is our understanding that there are 20-odd people (Indians) who have gone there to work as support staff or as helpers with the Russian army,” MEA official spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal said. “We are trying our level best for their early discharge.”

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