How a store manager from India ended up killed on the battlefields of Ukraine fighting for Russia


They opened the box on a Sunday in late March, getting their first look at Asfan Mohammed since he departed India for Russia four months earlier.

He was better dressed than when he’d left – a black suit, white shirt, tie and shoes replacing the casual attire he’d worn when family and friends saw him off.

But he had to be buried in line with his Muslim beliefs, so his body would need to be prepared; the neat clothes removed.

It was then Imran Mohammad, 41, saw the extent of what had happened to his 31-year-old brother while fighting for the Russian armed forces in Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

“I saw holes on the back of his shoulder, his ribs right down till his lower back,” Imran told CNN.

“There were six to seven holes caused by a drone attack. It ripped through his body. There was internal damage. Two teeth were broken.”

And now this tight-knit family in Hyderabad, southern India was broken too. A husband, father and provider gone.

Imran’s business was also in ruins, rotted by neglect as he’d focused all his energies on finding out what happened to his brother on the battlefield of Europe’s bloodiest conflict since the Second World War.

Imran noted the time.

“I opened the box at 11 a.m. Sunday. When I saw his body for the first time, it hit me that he’s no more,” he said.

“My efforts to look for my brother, my two-month fight for my brother, came to a painful end. I wanted to react looking at his corpse, but I just couldn’t. I went totally numb.”

A dream lost

Asfan met an unlikely fate – one his family could never have imagined when Putin ordered Russian troops into Ukraine in February 2022.

At the time, the father of two managed a clothing store, one of almost 300 across India in the homegrown Allen Solly chain, selling kids’ clothes, wedding tuxedos and just about everything in between.

He’d been there eight years, his brother said.

It wasn’t the worst job, but Asfan wanted more for his wife and two children, ages 2 and 8 months. And he dreamed of taking them out of Hyderabad.

“He wanted to work in Australia,” where his sister-in-law and her family lived, Imran said. “They were calling him and his family there.”

But that meant Asfan would need a high score on the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), which gauges proficiency of non-native speakers.

“He wrote his IELTS. He didn’t do well,” Imran said. “He felt demotivated. He tried again.”

It didn’t work, Imran said.

Asfan Mohammed's remains are returned to India in March. - Mohammed ImranAsfan Mohammed's remains are returned to India in March. - Mohammed Imran

Asfan Mohammed’s remains are returned to India in March. – Mohammed Imran

But videos on YouTube about job opportunities in Russia gave Asfan new hope, and he contacted an employment agency, his brother said.

“He was going to work as a taxi driver or delivery boy in Russia – that process was on,” Imran said.

“Then a couple of days later the agents said there are vacancies for helper and security jobs in the Russian army. The agents assured him that this was the best job. They said he could get a Russian passport and national card within a year through which you could move around neighboring countries.”

Asfan thought that could be a stepping stone to his family’s dream life in Australia, his brother said.

Instead, his choice took him to the frigid, battle-scarred landscape of Ukraine.

Brainwashed

Asfan kept his plans secret from family and friends until it was too late to turn back, according to Imran, who said he only learned his brother was leaving three days before he set off for Russia on November 9 last year.

By that time, Asfan had paid more than $1,800 to the recruiters, who asked him not to speak to anyone, even his family, about his intention to travel.

“They had brainwashed him so much … They warned him he could be deported from Russia, from the airport,” Imran said. “I tried my level best to stop him.”

After a multi-stop route that took him through other Indian cities and the United Arab Emirates, Asfan arrived in Moscow on November 12.

A day later, he signed papers – in Russian, which he couldn’t read – committing him to the work, his brother said.

“He trusted the agents a bit too much,” Imran said.

A Ukrainian soldier holds an artillery shell as he prepares to fire a howitzer towards Russian troops near the town of Kreminna, Ukraine March 4, 2024 - Inna Varenytsia/ReutersA Ukrainian soldier holds an artillery shell as he prepares to fire a howitzer towards Russian troops near the town of Kreminna, Ukraine March 4, 2024 - Inna Varenytsia/Reuters

A Ukrainian soldier holds an artillery shell as he prepares to fire a howitzer towards Russian troops near the town of Kreminna, Ukraine March 4, 2024 – Inna Varenytsia/Reuters

Foreign fighters in Putin’s war

By some estimates, Russia has been sending thousands of foreign men to fight in Ukraine since Putin ordered the invasion.

Many of them are young men from South Asia, enticed by the prospect of steady employment and higher salaries in Russia. In Nepal, prominent opposition lawmaker and former foreign minister Bimala Rai Paudyal told parliament earlier this year that between 14,000 and 15,000 Nepalis were fighting on the front lines, citing testimony from men returning from Ukraine.

The Russian government last year announced a lucrative package for foreign fighters to join the country’s military, including a monthly salary of at least $2,000 and a fast track to Russian citizenship – but the Kremlin has not said how many foreigners it has recruited under the plan.

New Delhi has strong ties with Moscow dating back to the Cold War and has largely steered clear of condemning outright the invasion by Russia, which remains India’s biggest arms supplier.

India has also become a major purchaser of Russian energy, bolstering Moscow’s coffers by a record $37 billion of crude oil purchases last year alone and providing Russia’s sanctions hit economy with vital revenue.

Meanwhile, India, which has no law preventing its citizens from serving in a foreign state’s military, has acknowledged that a number of its nationals have been fighting for Russia in Ukraine.

In a statement in February, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said getting those Indians an early discharge from the Russian military was a “top priority.” The ministry told CNN last month it has been in continuous contact with Russian authorities to make that happen.

But for some, those efforts would come too late. A ministry spokesperson told CNN at least two Indians have died in the conflict.

In early March, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) said it had busted major human trafficking networks that were duping men into Russian military jobs, with 35 such cases identified.

“The trafficked Indian Nationals were trained in combat roles and deployed at front bases in Russia-Ukraine War Zone against their wishes,” the CBI statement said.

To the front line

Asfan didn’t tell his brother when he was going to be sent to Ukraine, Imran said, but he did get in contact on December 1, just as he was heading to the battlefield.

Asfan was seeking a way out, Imran said.

“He asked me to speak to the agents,” Imran said. “I did promise him that I’d try my best.”

It was the last time they spoke to each other.

“The military personnel were not in touch with these agents,” Imran said.

“These brokers duped the boys and put their lives in danger,” he said, referring to Asfan and other Indians sent to war.

Weeks of uncertainty, then disbelief

On January 23, Imran received a voice message from one of those Indian men deployed alongside Asfan.

The man, who said he had been injured in combat, told Imran he had found Asfan, who’d also been injured, inside a house in Ukraine a day earlier.

Imran said the man told him he couldn’t pick his brother up “because of the drones around them,” but had passed word of Asfan’s condition to a Russian medical team.

Ukrainian forces have used converted commercial drones against their Russian opponents with devastating effect on the frontlines, either by dropping grenades from above or by using them as remote controlled bombs.

Two days later, Imran said he visited his member of parliament to try to get Indian officials to help his injured brother. But pleas to the government went unanswered, he said.

The Indian Embassy in Moscow eventually replied that it was looking into the case.

On a March 6 visit to his MP’s office, Imran got the news he had dreaded.

Asfan Mohammed, right, and his brother Imran are pictured with Asfan's children before Asfan left for Russia. - Mohammed ImranAsfan Mohammed, right, and his brother Imran are pictured with Asfan's children before Asfan left for Russia. - Mohammed Imran

Asfan Mohammed, right, and his brother Imran are pictured with Asfan’s children before Asfan left for Russia. – Mohammed Imran

“We called the emergency number at the Indian Embassy (in Moscow). As soon as I mentioned Asfan’s name on the phone, they told me he’s dead. I didn’t have the strength to talk to them,” he said.

“I didn’t want to believe what they were saying.”

He still had no visual proof of Asfan’s death, but he had to pass on what he’d learned to the rest of the family.

Asfan’s wife “was unconscious for three hours,” Imran said. “She cried through the night.”

Asfan’s family has buried his body, but they are scarred by a war far away.

Imran says it pains him to look at his brother’s young children, who will never know their dad. And he says his own future feels uncertain.

“This has been on for four months, for 24 hours a day,” he said. “This has been the worst phase I’ve ever been through. There’s no personal life anymore. No friendship left. I’ve only been taking care of my family.”

And one of them, his brother, is forever gone.

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