Back from Russia, Indian recruit recounts horror, safe return | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Back from Russia, Indian recruit recounts horror, safe return

Feb 27, 2024 07:56 AM IST

Tahir Mohammed recalls how a phone call from his friend Hemil Mangukiya, asking not to follow him to the frontline and instead return to India, saved his life

Ahmedabad: Tahir Mohammed, 24, recalls how a phone call from his friend Hemil Mangukiya, a fellow Gujarati, asking him not to follow the latter to the frontline and instead return to India from the Russian army’s training camp in Moscow, saved his life. Mangukiya was killed in a drone attack in Ukrainian territory last week while fighting alongside Russian troops, his family has confirmed.

On Monday evening, Hemil’s family and friends organised a prayer meeting in Surat in his memory. (AFP) PREMIUM
On Monday evening, Hemil’s family and friends organised a prayer meeting in Surat in his memory. (AFP)

On Monday evening, Hemil’s family and friends organised a prayer meeting in Surat in his memory.

“We came to know about Hemil’s demise only two days later, on February 23, after some of his friends called and informed us. We wrote to the Indian Embassy several times in the past to bring back our son safely from Russia, but there was no response,” Ashwin Mangukiya, Hemil’s father, told HT over the phone. “Many of his friends would still be stuck there.”

Both Hemil and Tahir were among a group of Indians who were sent to Russia by recruitment agents assuring to land them high-paying jobs as “security helpers”. However, their hopes came crashing when they found out that they were being sent to Ukrainian border as inexperienced foot-soldiers to fight alongside Russian troops.

Shaken by the news of his friend’s tragic death, Tahir, a resident of Sarkhej neighbourhood in Ahmedabad, said he stumbled upon a YouTube channel featuring a company named Baba Blocks while he was searching for a job. A high-school graduate, Tahir had previously worked at a retail store in a mall in his home town.

“They advertised employment opportunities with the Russian army as ‘security helpers’ and offered a monthly salary of 2 lakh... When I called them to clarify if the job only involved assisting the army and not combat duty, they assured me it did not entail going to the border,” Tahir told HT.

He spent over 4 lakh for visa, flight tickets and other expenses involved for going to Russia. He also shared his appointment letter, written in Russian, which included some details such as his name filled in English with a symbol resembling the Russian army on the top of the letter head.

While a person called Faizal Khan was the one communicating on behalf of Baba Blocks, Moinuddin Mohmmad who the main person involved in the hiring process, Tahir said.

On December 13 last year, he received a call instructing him to travel to Chennai, where he met Hemil and nine other Indians selected as “security helpers” for Russia. Two days later, Tahir along with the others flew from Chennai to Moscow via Bahrain, and they were accompanied by a person named Nigel, who facilitated their journey.

In Moscow, their SIM cards were taken away and they were issued new ones. They were instructed to use only specific apps, including Telegram.

“We stayed in a flat for a night and the next day Nigel said we would be taken to the borders. We got worried and called Moinuddin, who at the time was in Moscow. He told us not to worry as he had everything arranged with the Russian army... Next day a military car took us away from Moscow. It was almost half a day’s drive,” Tahir recalled.

They were taken to Ryazan, about 200 km from Moscow, where their phones were taken away. It was a training camp where soldiers were being prepared for battle, he said.

“We were given army uniforms and were kept in batches. It was Christmas time then and suddenly all activities came to a halt. Most of us, including Hemil, had managed to sneak another phone with us using which we stayed in contact with each other,” Tahir said.

The Indian recruits were given a 15-day training programme, which included rifle shooting, grenade throwing, and basic rifle repair. “We were informed about this training earlier too, but nobody told us that we had to use these skills at the border. There were four of us in my batch, including Surendra Paul from Jammu, Praveen Lamba from Darjeeling and Sarfaraz Sheikh from Kolkata,” Tahir added.

Hemil and a few others were in a batch prior to Tahir’s and had already completed their training. Later, all of them were kept in separate places.

“Some time in February I got a call from Hemil asking me to not advance any further and return to India. He said a fraud had occurred with us. Hemil told me that he was on the frontline somewhere near Luhansk and that two-three people were dying every day,” Tahir said.

When Tahir contacted Moinuddin, he was reassured that they would not be sent to the borders. However, Tahir approached a commander on-site, emphasising they were recruited as “security helpers” and not soldiers.

“During that time, I sent emails and reached out to a YouTuber who created videos on how to return from Russia if you found yourself ensnared in such a scam. Since I was in Ryazan and not on the frontline, my return was possible. I was instructed to send emails to a few Russians who arranged for the return of my passport. A taxi was booked for me to travel to Moscow, from where I took a flight to Delhi and returned home a few days ago,” Tahir said.

He learnt about Hemil’s death through Samir Ahmed, who was also sent to the frontline. “Samir told me that Hemil died in a drone attack and that the three other Indians accompanying him, including Samir, were only 200 metres away. They were digging burrows for a bunker and narrowly escaped death that day. He told me that their commander also died in the attack,” Tahir claimed. He added that at least 22 people died with Hemil on February 21 in the drone attack.

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