Accessibility links

Breaking News

Kazakh Family Accuses Russia's Wagner Of Kidnapping Son And Sending Him To Fight In Ukraine  

A screen grab of Margulan Bekenov, a Kazakh student in Russia whose family say he has been forcibly recruited to fight in Ukraine.
A screen grab of Margulan Bekenov, a Kazakh student in Russia whose family say he has been forcibly recruited to fight in Ukraine.

Sometime around March 18, Almira Bekenova’s 23-year-old son disappeared.

After not hearing from Margulan Bekenov, a fourth-year student from Kazakhstan at Tomsk State University in western Siberia, for about a week, Bekenova received a cryptic SMS from his telephone: “I am alive and well. Can’t call.”

After weeks of dogged searching in Russia, Bekenova said she learned her son had been abducted in Tomsk by representatives of the notorious Wagner mercenary group. He was forcibly taken to a training camp in southwestern Russia, even though he never signed a contract with the ostensibly private firm, which works in close coordination with Russian security agencies.

He was, she said, later sent into the combat zone in Ukraine against his will.

Bekenova has appealed repeatedly to Russian law enforcement and the Kazakh Embassy in Russia to help get her son back home.

A Clandestine Meeting

“Through a friend who is a fellow student and through a girl who knew Margulan, she began somehow to piece together some facts, some details, and was able to put together the pieces of the puzzle,” said Magzhan Kakharmanov, Margulan’s uncle and a Kazakh military retiree.

Bekenova herself declined to be interviewed by RFE/RL and authorized Kakharmanov to speak for the family.

In Tomsk, she was told that her son had been taken by Wagner representatives and sent to a camp near the city of Krasnodar, 3,400 kilometers to the southwest. Bekenov’s family suspects Wagner’s representatives found him at a Tomsk defense-industry plant where he was working as a computer programmer.

Intent on finding her son, she set off for Krasnodar, Kakharmanov told RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities.

“She knew what kind of organization it is,” he said. “She went to there every day, wandering around, asking at every entrance. She was told categorically: ‘No one like that here. Sorry.’”

“Then, as I understand it, she found out from someone walking around nearby – she bribed him with some gift or money – that her son was inside. She showed his photograph. The man looked and said, yes, that is him and gave the number of his unit. You have to admire her resourcefulness and determination. She was able to locate her son when official complaints revealed nothing.”

On April 9, Bekenova was able to meet briefly with her son at a checkpoint in a settlement outside of Krasnodar. She refuses to say how she managed to arrange the encounter.

“He was brought there in a car in the company of his direct superior,” Kakharmanov said. “They were given five minutes to speak…. The officer was present the whole time. Almira managed to learn that he had not signed a contract. He had not changed his citizenship.”

“They had a broken, disjointed conversation in which the other man inserted his five kopecks’ worth every other word,” he continued, adding that “surprisingly” the Wagner officer turned out to also be a Kazakh from Karaganda.

Although the Wagner officer had no legal standing to hold Bekenov, his mother was “physically” prevented from taking her son back to Kazakhstan. She described her son as “exhausted” and “in bad condition.”

'We Need To Warn People'

On April 12, Bekenova learned from her sources at the camp that her son had been sent into Ukraine, Kakharmanov said.

The family has filed “dozens” of complaints with Russian law enforcement in Moscow, Tomsk, and Krasnodar without results. They complained to the military commission in Krasnodar and to the prosecutor’s office in St. Petersburg, where Wagner is officially registered.

On April 5, they received a letter from the Kazakh Foreign Ministry saying that a diplomatic note on the case had been sent to their Russian colleagues.

“This matter is under the constant attention of the embassy,” the letter stated.

A response to Margulan Bekenov's case from the Kazakh Foreign Ministry.
A response to Margulan Bekenov's case from the Kazakh Foreign Ministry.

“It is the first time in my life that I have been powerless to help my family,” Kakharmanov said. “The Foreign Ministry and the embassy have been completely impotent.”

On April 20, a video was posted on Russian social media in which a young man identified himself as Bekenov and said he was serving in Ukraine “voluntarily.”

Bekenov’s family acknowledges that the man in the video is their relative, but they say they are certain he was coerced into making the video. Almira Bekenova said he made no such statements when she spoke with him on April 9. Nonetheless, she continued to cling to assurances that Wagner representatives had made privately that her son would be allowed to go home.

Despite Bekenova’s reservations, the family decided to go public with their story.

“My sister believes them and thinks that they will give back her son more quickly without publicity,” said Dulat Bekenov, Almira’s brother and another of Margulan’s uncles. “But I think that since nothing else has worked so far, our boy must be regarded as missing.”

Dulat Bekenov added that he has little hope he will see his nephew alive again.

“We need to warn people whose children are studying in Russia,” he added. “They are in danger. At any moment they could be impressed and sent to their deaths.”

'Forced By Threats'

Wagner has attracted criticism from rights activists for its suspected involvement in war crimes, its recruitment of convicts and other vulnerable groups, and its treatment of its own troops.

The company is believed to have lost tens of thousands of fighters in recent months on the front line that runs through the Donetsk region city of Bakhmut in what Wagner’s owner, Kremlin-connected businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, himself has called a “meat grinder.”

Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin (file photo)
Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin (file photo)

The Bekenov case is not the first time Wagner has been accused of sending people into combat without their consent.

Earlier this month, six mobilized Russian soldiers from the Sakha Republic, also called Yakutia, claimed they had been transferred involuntarily to a Wagner unit and sent to fight near Bakhmut. Prigozhin personally dismissed the claims and said Wagner has never forced anyone to join.

One of the mobilized men, Stepan Nazarov, said the men had been “forced by threats” to sign new contracts with Wagner, according to a relative.

“At first he wasn’t too bothered,” the relative, Grigory Nazarov, told RFE/RL. “But then they were told directly they would be sent to the most dangerous fighting…. They were sent to Bakhmut.”

Fyodor Tumusov, a lawmaker from Yakutia in the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, confirmed on Telegram on April 18 that he had received a complaint from the families of the soldiers and had sent an official inquiry on the matter to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

“I am keeping this matter under my control,” Tumusov wrote.

Written by RFE/RL’s Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.