'Animals better than Russians': Indian fighting in Ukraine tells THE WEEK

Deputy Photo Editor Bhanu Prakash Chandra travelled to battlefronts in Ukraine

ukraine-bhanu Naveen and a fellow Indian who goes by the nom de guerre Andrii | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

India may be benefiting from the war in Ukraine, because it allows the country to import oil from Russia at a lower rate. But the Indians fighting the Russians in Ukraine are not impressed.

“People in India do not understand the real situation in Ukraine because of the pro-Russia propaganda working there,” Naveen, from Haryana, told THE WEEK in Kostyantynivka, just 27km from Russian-occupied Bakhmut. Naveen and a fellow Indian who goes by the nom de guerre Andrii, are part of the International Legion of Territorial Defence of Ukraine. “I am requesting the Indian government to help Ukraine,” said Andrii. “I escaped death three or four times. I had an option to leave Ukrane in the beginning of the war, but I did not leave. Even now, I have the option, but I will not go.”

They both said that they will fight till the end of the war or their life.

Currently, there are three Indians with the International Legion, and two of them met THE WEEK's Deputy Photo Editor Bhanu Prakash Chandra in Kostyantynivka on July 19. They said they are talking to the media for the first time. Andrii, who was the first of the three Indians to join the Ukrainian army in March 2022, was just 32 but his beard was already greying. “Before the war, my beard was completely black,” he said. “War has turned it grey.”

Bhanu Prakash Chandra with a Ukrainian soldier Bhanu Prakash Chandra with a Ukrainian soldier

Andrii had covered his face with a bandana. “Main chehra nahi dikhana chahta (I don’t want to show my face),” he said. Both go by their first names, because Ukrainian soldiers are not allowed to give their surnames, as it will reveal their nativity. They said that they were proud Indians but wanted to fight for Ukraine as it was their home now. They both had come to Ukraine as students. They later fell in love with and married Ukrainian women. Andrii has children as well.

“If someone attacks your home, will you sit or fight?” said Andrii, who has been in Ukraine for 12 years. “Russians are killing people. They are targeting places, even if soldiers are not there. I know of incidents where Russian soldiers raped women in front of their husbands. They are not humans, not even animals. Animals are better than them. They have to leave Ukraine, nothing is here for them.”

According to him, Russians are firing leftover rockets from the Soviet-era. “If they come for a face-to-face fight, they will lose,” he said.

Naveen, who studied at the Kharkiv Aviation Institute, first joined the Territorial Defence Forces, which is Ukraine’s military reserve. He joined the army only this January. Naveen had to undergo a special verification process because he is a foreigner. Before his frontline posting, he was trained by French, German and Israeli military instructors for six weeks. Naveen said he was scared of war in the beginning, but his commander Alex helped him face dire situations. He said new recruits were joining the legion every day. Were there any Indians among the new recruits? “No, our people are not motivated to fight like us,” said Naveen. They said their families and authorities back home knew that they were fighting for Ukraine, but had no clue what they thought about it.

THE WEEK issue dated August 13 THE WEEK issue dated August 13

There are things that they miss about India though. Andrii, for instance, misses south Indian food―idli and dosa are his favourites. He is also a movie buff and prefers south Indian movies. He has watched K.G.F: Chapter 1 and K.G.F: Chapter 2, and is a fan of Jr NTR.

Bhanu Prakash Chandra travelled to battlefronts in Ukraine, and spent more than two weeks there. In THE WEEK issue dated August 13, which is now on stands, he recounts the spirit of the soldiers and the resilience of civilians. He saw and heard it all - air raid sirens, drone bombs, artillery firing, missile strikes, land mines, damaged buildings, ghost villages, and what not. But, as Bhanu writes, the war has destroyed many things, but it has not broken Ukraine's spirit.

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