Trying to meet Indians fighting for Ukraine turned out to be tougher than I thought. Through my research and constant communication with the International Legion of Territorial Defence of Ukraine, I had found that there were three Indian fighters here. But till the last minute, there was no confirmation that they would agree to talk to me. I got the confirmation only a day before the scheduled interview, which was slotted for only 20 minutes. I was in Kramatorsk in the Donbas region then, and the three Indians were supposed to meet me in Kostyantynivka, which is just 27km from Russia-occupied Bakhmut.
So, my translator Yehor Konovalov drove me in his red Nissan Juke to Kostyantynivka, a small frontline town with 18,000 residents. As we were passing Soviet-era vintage cars, olive-coloured military pickups and armoured personnel carriers, I realised that our car’s tyres were making a strange sound. It was probably because roads leading to frontline villages had become coarse and non-motorable owing to the movement of battle tank chain wheels. As we neared Kostyantynivka, the sound of explosions increased and the intervals between the explosions decreased. It was clear that the battle for Bakhmut was happening nearby.
As we waited near a school destroyed two days ago by a Russian missile, a pickup truck arrived and two average-bodied men alighted. They were dressed in combat gear, and held machine-guns. But where is the third one, I wondered.
I said namaste to the two soldiers. The first soldier, originally from Madhya Pradesh, shook my hand and said, “Slava Ukrainia.” He was just 32 but his beard was already greying! He said he was first among the three Indians to join the Ukrainian army in March 2022. “Before the war, my beard was completely black,” he said. “War has turned it grey.” He did not want to reveal his name, and gave me his Ukrainian name: Andrii. I asked him about the third soldier who did not show up. He said he had gone on vacation and did not want to meet me.
Andrii was not keen on showing his face on camera, and covered it with a bandana. “Main chehra nahi dikhana chahta (I don’t want to show my face),” he said. But the second Indian fighter, originally from Haryana, had no such qualms. He did not bother to hide his face and had a determined look. He just gave his first name: Naveen (I am not sure if that was his real name). Sticking to the first name is not unusual though. Ukrainian soldiers are not allowed to give their surnames, as it will reveal their nativity. Based on the surname, one could make out if the soldier is a Russian speaker or Ukrainian.
The two men spoke to me in Hindi, and told me that they had not given any interviews. I had to tell them that my Hindi was not great as I was from south India.
I took a few pictures of them against the backdrop of the ruined school. 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.
Naveen, 34, and Andrii were both visibly angry over India’s decision to buy oil from Russia. I changed the topic to their legion’s patches to calm them a bit, but to no avail. Even as we spoke, we could hear the explosions. I was startled, but Andrii and Naveen were unperturbed.
Before I could ask them any serious questions, Andrii, who has been in Ukraine for 12 years, started asking, “If someone attacks your home, will you sit or fight?” He then went on a rant against Russia. “Russians are killing people,” he said. “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.
Both Naveen and Andrii had high praise for the legion and said there was no discrimination of any sort. I had heard the same from foreigners I had met in Kyiv. Sherif, an Englishman; Aussie, the only Australian in the legion; and Nikkie from Denmark were recovering from injuries when I caught them taking a selfie with pigeons at the Maidan in Kyiv.
Suddenly, we heard a loud sound over our heads. Andrii and Naveen said it was a rocket. Soon, a low-flying Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-25 appeared behind the tree line. Andrii said they would soon get F-16 jets.
Naveen and Andrii said that people in India did not understand the real situation in Ukraine because of the pro-Russia propaganda working in India. “I am requesting the Indian government to help Ukraine,” said Andrii. “I escaped death three or four times. I had an option to leave Ukraine 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.
What was supposed to be a 20-minute interview has stretched into more than an hour-long conversation. Their experience at the warfront has made them quite confident of defending India against its neighbours in case there is war. “We have good experience now,” one of them said. “If the government accepts, we will surely fight to defend India.” They said their families and authorities back home knew that they were fighting for Ukraine, but had no clue what they thought about it.
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 NTR Junior. Naveen is not a movie buff, but likes cricket. He is not interested in IPL, and watches only international cricket.
An army pickup came to take them back to the frontline. Before it vanished, the Indians clicked a selfie with me―just three Indians at the war front in Ukraine!