'Just Want to Come Home': Indian Men 'Duped' into Fighting Russia-Ukraine War

Families of seven Indian men, allegedly duped into joining the Russian army and sent to Ukraine, seek their return.

6 min read

Video Producers: Jaspreet Singh & Sakshat Chandok

Video Editors: Purnendu Pritam & Abhishek Sharma

(Disclaimer: This story was first published on 7 March, 2024. This has been updated on 8 March to add new updates received from one of the men stranded in Russia)

"Feelings tho yhi ha bhai ke jaldi se jaldi apni country wapis aa jaya (All I feel is that I want to be back in our country soon)," Harsh Kumar, 20, told The Quint in a WhatsApp message on Thursday, 7 March.

Harsh is one of the seven Indian men stranded in Russia after allegedly being duped by a travel agent.

On being asked if he's safe, Harsh replied: "Hnji bhai (yes brother)".

On Friday, 8 March around 5.30pm, Harsh confirmed to The Quint that he was still in Ukraine, and yet to be brought back to Russia. Asked if anyone from the Indian government or the Embassy has contacted them yet, Harsh replied: "Nhi Mari abhi thak kise ka be sath koi baat Nhi hui ha (No, I haven't talked to anyone (from the government) yet)."

Meanwhile, a pall of gloom has descended upon the humble house of Balwinder Kaur, in Dehriwal Kiran village in Punjab's Gurdaspur district, as she eagerly waits for her son, Gagandeep, to come back home.

"...We hadn't heard from him for long. He called me up one day and said, 'Mumma, they forcefully admitted me to their army. I want to come back home.' He doesn't call me that often now. Even when he calls, he hurriedly puts the phone down saying he can't talk: 'Mumma, sahab aa gaye ne' (Mom, my senior has come)," narrates Balwinder Kaur.

Like Harsh, Gagandeep Singh's 'Russia tour' turned sour when a travel agent allegedly duped him into joining the Russian army. They have now been reportedly deployed into the Donetsk region to fight the Russia-Ukraine war.

Gagandeep is 23.

"They can send him to fight anytime. We don't know what might happen to him. Mere munde nu waapas lae aao... (Please bring my son back), that's my only request to the government," Balwinder told The Quint on a phone call.

'Arrested in Belarus, Handed Over to Russian Army'

It was Harsh Kumar, a resident of Haryana's Karnal district, who released one of the now-viral videos on social media on 4 March narrating their ordeal.

In the video, Harsh can been seen standing with around six other men, all in military greens, pleading the Indian government for their release. He said in Hindi that they arrived in Russia on tourist visas, and were later "detained" by the police for not having necessary documentation.

"We came to Russia to celebrate the New Year. Here, we met a tour guide who took us around the tourist sites. He later took us to Belarus. We didn't know we required a (separate) visa to travel to Belarus (from Russia). He then started demanding money from us. When we couldn't pay him, he left us there, stranded. The police later caught us and handed us over to the Russian army."
Harsh Kumar, 20, in the viral video
  • Gagandeep Singh with a firearm. The Quint couldn't verify if this photo was taken in Russia or Ukraine.

    (Source: Family)

After they were handed over to the Russian army, Harsh added in the video, they were "threatened" a 10-year jail term by a person who "spoke our language".

"They asked us to either serve a 10-year prison term in Russia, or join the army as a 'helper' on a one-year contract. We signed the contract. It was in their language (Russian); we didn't know what's written on it. It was later when they sent us to an army training camp, that we got to know we have been duped," Harsh added in the video appeal.
"They are saying they will send us to the frontline. We don't even know how to hold guns. We are afraid," Harsh rued.

'Skipped' Flight Back Home, Visa Expired

Harsh's flight tickets, accessed by The Quint, show that he boarded the 26 December Aeroflot flight from Delhi to Moscow.

His brother Sahil said he had gone there to "strengthen his passport".

"Our plan was to send him to a good country first, so his passport can become strong. We were then planning to send him to Canada, Australia, the US, or even some country in Europe," Sahil told The Quint.

Harsh had also booked his return ticket for 5 January — a flight he never boarded back home. As per Sahil, the family had last contacted Harsh just a day before, on 4 January.
"We spoke to him around 4 January. Then, there were no plans of him staying back. But when he didn't return for a few days, we just assumed he must have extended his trip, as he had a two-month tourist visa. We didn't hear from him for almost 7-8 days after that..."
-Sahil, brother of Harsh
But the family hadn't raised any alarm bells with the authorities back then. Sahil said they simply "assumed" he extended the trip to "explore the country".

It wasn't until mid-January that Harsh again contacted his family back in Karnal.

"Sometime around 15 January, he finally called us and told us he has been employed as a 'helper' with the Russian army. They returned his phone after he signed the contract. He actually never made it to Belarus, and was intercepted by the Russian police midway."
Sahil, brother of Harsh
It is pertinent to note here that Harsh's two-month tourist visa expired on 22 February. Interestingly, the place of issuance of his passport is Jaipur, miles away from his homeplace Karnal and the nearest passport office. Sahil clarified this was done to "expedite" the process as there was a "three-month-long waiting time" at the Ambala office.

Meanwhile, back home, Harsh's mother Suman faces the same predicament as Balwinder.

"I am very worried about him. He is in distress, but he doesn't tell me anything. He doesn't want me to get worried. He only shares his problems with his father and his brother. But I can sense the pain in his voice everytime I talk to him."
Suman, mother of Harsh

'Deployed to Fight in Donetsk Region'; Later Brought 'Back'?

Before Harsh released the 4 March video in Hindi, the seven men had released another video on 3 March.

In that, a man, who could not yet be identified, said in Punjabi, "We didn't know they are recruiting us in the army when we signed the contract. We are currently in Ukraine, they will send us to the war soon. Please save us."

As per Sahil, Harsh disclosed to his family that they were sent to the war-torn Donetsk Oblast region in Ukraine, which is surrounded by Russia to its east.

Largely controlled by the Russian army at present, Donetsk has been at the forefront of the Russia-Ukraine War which broke out in February 2022. Since then, the region has witnessed massive destruction.

Gagandeep's mother Balwinder also told The Quint, "He told us he has been taken to the war zone, somewhere near the sea."

Sahil claimed he last talked to Harsh on the morning on 7 March, when he told them that they have now been brought "back to the training camp". However, it could not be ascertained whether the said "training camp" is located at the war-front in Ukraine, or back in Russia.
Families of seven Indian men, allegedly duped into joining the Russian army and sent to Ukraine, seek their return.

Map shows the war-torn Donetsk Oblast region in Ukraine. Russia lies to its east and the sea of Azov to its south

(Source: Screengrab of Google Maps)

Gagandeep's mother Balwinder Kaur said that her husband, Balwinder Singh, is a dairy farmer. Her family earns a mere Rs 1,500-2,000 per day.

Asked how her son managed to fly to Russia, Balwinder said she had no details about that, and that Gagandeep arranged for the travel money himself.

Gagandeep also has a younger brother.

Harsh, too, comes from a middle-class family. His father runs a local grocery shop below their house.

'In Touch With Russian Counterparts': MEA

Addressing a press briefing on 29 February, Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) Spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal categorically stated for the first time that it had come to know about "20-odd people stuck in Russia".

“We have an understanding that 20-odd people are stuck. We are trying our level best for their early discharge. We have issued two statements... We’ve also told people not to venture in the war zone or get caught into situations which are difficult."
-Randhir Jaiswal, Spokesperson, Ministry of External Affairs

The Hindu had earlier carried a report that at least three Indians had been forced to fight as “army security helpers” for Russia, during the ongoing conflict.

On 6 March, 30-year-old Mohammed Afsan from Hyderabad died fighting the Russia-Ukraine war, after he was allegedly "duped" into joining the Russian army. He became the second Indian to have died in the conflict, after Hamil Mangukiya, a Surat-based man, was killed in the war, last week.

The Quint has reached out to the Russian Embassy in India for comments. This story will be updated as and when they respond.

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