Conned by YouTuber, forced to fight in Russia-Ukraine war: How Indian men were trapped

Brother of a Hyderabad man, who has gone incommunicado, says that he has written to almost every Indian authority for help but to no avail.

ByAjay Tomar

Published Feb 22, 2024 | 4:31 PMUpdatedFeb 23, 2024 | 11:02 PM

Imran has written at least 10 separate 'letters of request' over the past few months to the Indian authorities, including Union Minister of External Affairs and the Telangana Chief Minister for the return of his brother Salman. (Supplied)

The wife of Mohammed Salman* holds her two children in her lap in a state of despair at her home in Hyderabad.

His elder brother, Imran, displays the FIR copy and at least 10 separate “letters of request” he has written over the past few months to the Union Minister of External Affairs and the Telangana Chief Minister seeking help to rescue Salman.

Salman is one of many Indians allegedly lured by an agent-cum-social media vlogger to work as a “Russian Army security helper”. However, his family says that all of them have been forced to fight alongside the Kremlin’s troops at the Russia-Ukraine border. The two countries have been at war since 24 February 2022.

“The name of the agent who brainwashed and conned my brother, as well as others, is Faisal Khan. He used to run a YouTube channel under the name Baba Vlogs. Around July or August last year, my brother contacted him through social media when Khan promised a job opportunity of Army security or helper in Russia,” the victim’s brother recalls to South First.

Due to concern for his brother’s well-being, Imran kept the matter discreet. However, with no breakthrough coming, Salman’s wife finally lodged an FIR with the Nampally Police, on 3 February, against Faisal Khan, Sufiyan, and Pooja.

A case was registered under Sections 370 (trafficking), 374 (unlawful compulsory labour), 367 (kidnapping to subject a person to grievous hurt), 363 (punishment for kidnapping), 406 (criminal breach of trust), 420 (cheating), 120B (party to criminal conspiracy), and 34 (criminal act done by several persons out of the common intention) of the Indian Penal Code.

Imran also previously approached AIMIM Member of Parliament Asaduddin Owaisi, who in January wrote to External Affairs Minister (EAM) S Jaishankar and the Indian Embassy in Moscow.

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From Hyderabad to the Russian warfront 

The victim's wife and two children, along with his brother Imran. (Ajay Tomar/South First)

The victim’s wife and two children, along with his brother Imran. (Ajay Tomar/South First)

While Salman (30) hails from Hyderabad, two others — a 34-year-old and 23-year-old — hail from Kasganj in Uttar Pradesh, and Kupwara in Jammu & Kashmir, respectively. The three set off together for Moscow from Chennai via Sharjah (in UAE) in November 2023.

“All of them reached Russia on 12 November last year after getting in touch with Baba Vlogs’ Faisal Khan. He runs an office in Dubai, while his aides Sufiyan and Pooja operate from an office in Mumbai. The three of them, including my brother, got in touch with Faisal’s aides and told them about the ‘helper’ job,” Imran recollects the information shared by his brother.

Imran says that the alleged conmen took ₹3 lakh from each of the victims, besides added expenses of at least ₹1.05 lakh. “My brother took a personal loan and did not even inform us till the last moment,” he rues.

Browsing Khan’s channel on social media, which has over 3 lakh subscribers and 195 videos to date, South First found that he had posted a video titled “Russia 🇷🇺 Army Jobs | Helper Jobs | Easy Move Schengen” on 26 September last year, along with Sufiyan’s and Pooja’s contact numbers.

In the nearly six-minute-long video, Faisal Khan urged people to come to Russia, where they would work as government officials. “…Either you can opt for military work or go into the Army. But it is no rocket science. You people do not have to fire any weapon or go to the border. I have also confirmed this myself. A person needs at least seven to eight years of experience for military training. You won’t get to the war front with three months’ training.”

Attempting to sweeten the deal, he added, “You will also get a special card based on which you will get privileges. You can also apply for permanent residency (PR) as you would be helping the government to increase manpower…”

Apart from the promise of avoiding the battlefield, the three victims were promised a ₹50,000 salary for the first three months, which would be hiked to ₹1.95 lakh later, Imran reveals.

After landing there, the trio were allegedly made to sign an agreement of confirmation.

Family appeals for Hyderabad man 'forced' by agents' under garb of 'army helper' to fight for Russia in Ukraine

Faisal Khan on Baba Vlogs. (Screengrab)

“On 13 November, my brother and others were made to sign an agreement in Russian. When they raised suspicion, the authorities assured them that it was for the same ‘helper’ job that they were promised. Then, on 15 and 16 November, my brother informed us that they would be leaving for a military training camp where they were to be trained to operate weapons by the Russian Army,” recalls Imran.

The agent told them that handling arms was a routine part of their training. They were then packed off to the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, nearly 100 km from the Ukraine border, in January.

“When they contacted Faisal, he said that they would not go to the border to fight. But then they were taken around 500 km from Moscow and were again given military training there. Again, they questioned the agent about it, but he lied and said that the training was for three months,” Imran says.

The last time the family spoke to Salman was on 31 December last year. “He told me that the men there were threatening and forcing him at gunpoint to fight. He even told them about his health issues, but they did not care,” the victim’s distraught wife tells South First.

It was not until one of the three trapped men, who managed to escape, sent home a video — shared with South First by Imran — that action began to bring them back home. The footage vividly portrayed the desperate circumstances and fervently appealed for immediate intervention.

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Owaisi demands action

On 25 January, 2024, Asaduddin Owaisi wrote to Jaishankar and the Indian Embassy in Moscow, seeking the government’s intervention.

Nearly a month later, on 20 February, Imran and other families met the legislator, who assured all help. A day later, the Parliamentarian from Hyderabad interacted with the media regarding the issue.

A screengrab of a video shared by three Indian men — two from Kalaburagi and one from Narayanapet — trapped in Russai,  talking about the way they were tricked. (Supplied)

A screengrab of a video shared by three Indian men — two from Kalaburagi and one from Narayanapet — trapped in Russia,  talking about the way they were tricked. (Supplied)

Owaisi said, “Around 12 men were fraudulently lured for jobs to Russia as building security men and helpers, but then taken to the war front…I wrote to the EAM and the Indian Embassy. About the agents, one of them is Faisal Khan (known as Baba Vlogs), two others are Sufiyan and Pooja from Mumbai.”

Among all the victims are three from Kalaburagi (Karnataka) and one from Narayanpet district in Telangana. The rest hail from Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, Jammu, and Kashmir.

The AIMIM MP said, “The agents took advantage of the unemployed youths and took them to Russia. The Indian agents in Russia are Ramesh and Moin. I request Prime Minister Narendra Modi Ji and EAM Jaishankar Ji to speak with the Russian government and ensure that they safely rescue the 12 men. The families of these 12 men are troubled by their disappearance. Those men have also released a video of how bullets were fired at them and one of their fellowmen even died… I hope the Indian government will intervene and safely rescue them soon.”

He also demanded Faisal’s extradition to India. “If he (Faisal) is an Indian citizen, he can be extradited easily as UAE is India’s strategic partner. Same for Sufiyan and Pooja. Action should be taken against them soon. Secondly, the Indian agents in Russia should be extradited after speaking with the Russian government. The youngsters want employment and these people are exploiting them. These are civilians who have never picked up arms,” Owaisi said.

It can be noted that Salman was working as a manager in a clothing brand showroom in Hyderabad, earning between ₹30,000 to 40,000, before leaving for Russia.

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Agent pleads innocence

Mohammed Moin, a travel agent and an acquaintance of Faisal Khan of Baba Vlogs, has been providing daily updates to Imran.

South First contacted the agent, who claims he is based out of St Petersburg in Russia. He claims the three victims were initially contacted by him for recruitment. “After they came across Faisal Khan’s video, they were contacted by my aide Khushpreet. But a few days later, they got in touch with some other people we don’t know and were guided by them. They were taken to some critical region after that,” Moin says.

The agent claims that he has been demanding assistance from the Indian embassy. “One of them has escaped from the war-struck region. But he is in a panicked state and has been changing his statements about the other two. When we contacted the Russian Army office, they had no update about the men being injured or deceased,” Moin adds.

Faisal Khan's aide Sufiyan.

Faisal Khan’s aide Sufiyan. (Screengrab)

On the inability of the families to establish cellular contact with the trapped men, Moin points out that due to threat from drones, the Army has instructed the combatants to switch off their devices.

Moin adds that the lives of the men who are trapped could be in danger and that the Indian government has not intervened. He suggests that the affected families directly approach the Ministry of External Affairs.

“Like other men, these three men were initially presented with an opportunity to serve as helpers in the Army under certain conditions. The conditions involved undergoing three months of basic training. It was supposed to be followed by psychological evaluations and other assessments to determine their preference to continue as kitchen helpers or take alternative roles. However, just a month into the programme, their passports were confiscated, which compelled them into involuntary combat on behalf of Russia,” the agent claims.

Ruling out any involvement of the Russian government in the whole episode, the agent claims that people from several other countries find themselves similarly trapped in this situation.

Several reports suggest that Russia has recruited thousands of foreign mercenaries to fight for it, including 15,000 people from Nepal, after which the government has banned its citizens from travelling to Russia for work.

Feeling utter despair, Imran tells us, “My family has suffered greatly over the past months. Right now, I have no option but to trust the agents there. I have written to almost every top government authority, but there has been no response. I am hoping that the Indian government will intervene soon and repatriate my brother just like they did with eight Navy personnel in Qatar.”

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What is the MEA’s plan of action?

The grievances.

The letters of grievance that the Indian Embassy has received. (Supplied)

According to reports, the Ministry of External Affairs has chosen not to make explicit comments regarding the predicament of Indian workers in Russia.

Although the Indian Embassy is actively addressing the grievances it has received, it acknowledges that many individuals, who claim to have been coerced into labour at the border, are hesitant to return to India.

This reluctance stems from the fact that many of these individuals have invested substantial amounts through recruiters to secure opportunities overseas.

As a result, officials maintain that while they stand ready to assist Indian citizens facing difficulties, their options are constrained by the challenging circumstances arising from the financial commitments made by these workers.

(*The victim’s name has been changed and identity masked to maintain anonymity, at his family’s request)