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Central Asians Pressed To Fight In Ukraine With Russian Troops Returning Home In Coffins

Relatives mourn the death of Fathullo Narzulloev, a Tajik convict who was killed in Ukraine.
Relatives mourn the death of Fathullo Narzulloev, a Tajik convict who was killed in Ukraine.

Dozens of families in Central Asia have received the bodies of their loved ones killed in Ukraine fighting alongside Russian forces in the year since Moscow's full-scale invasion began.

In the past month, at least four families in Kyrgyzstan were told that a relative had died fighting in Ukraine after being recruited in Russian prisons by the mercenary fighting group Wagner.

Among them was 30-year-old Erlan Ermekov, a native of the southern Osh region who was serving a nine-year sentence for rape and robbery, his family said.

In November, Ermekov signed a six-month contract with Wagner to fight in Ukraine in exchange for money, Russian citizenship, and for his criminal records to be wiped clean.

Ermekov saw it as a chance for a potential fresh start in life, his mother, Gulnara Zakirova, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.

Zakirova admits receiving money from Russia -- about $1,300 in the first month and $2,400 in the following months -- that she believes was her convict-turned-combatant son’s wages paid by Wagner.

But it didn’t last long. Ermekov was killed in the battle zone on February 6. His mother now supports a campaign to bring home all Kyrgyz convicts from Russia to serve the rest of their sentences in Kyrgyz prisons.

“I lost my only son and I don’t want other mothers to suffer what I’m going through,” she said.

Erlan Ermekov from Kyrgyzstan was killed in Ukraine after being recruited by the Wagner mercenary group at a Russian prison.
Erlan Ermekov from Kyrgyzstan was killed in Ukraine after being recruited by the Wagner mercenary group at a Russian prison.

Kyrgyz authorities say 1,077 Kyrgyz nationals are currently serving prison terms in Russia -- mostly on drug-trafficking charges.

There are thousands more from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and other Central Asian countries imprisoned in Russia, a key destination for migrant workers from those former Soviet republics.

Wagner, notorious for reportedly committing atrocities in combat zones around the world, is thought to command up to 50,000 fighters in Ukraine -- with some 80 percent of them having enlisted while in a Russian prison -- according to the U.S. National Security Council and Russian activists.

The United States on January 26 designated the private military company as a transnational criminal organization for aiding Russia's military in the Ukraine war.

Wagner has hired at least 35,000 convicts since it began a major recruitment drive in late June, according to Olga Romanova, the director of Rus Sidyashchaya, a Russian human rights organization that advocates for inmates.

She said the group particularly targets Central Asian convicts, often enlisting them against their will.

Endure Torture Or Go To War

Earlier in February, the body of 52-year-old migrant worker Fathullo Narzulloev was sent to his family in the village of Nojii Bolo on the outskirts of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.

Russian officials said he was killed in the embattled eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. Narzulloev had gone to Russia for work in June. He was arrested under unknown circumstances at the Yekaterinburg Airport.

During phone calls from prison, Narzulloev told his relatives he “was being forced to go to war,” his wife said. She last heard from him in October.

Tajik authorities say they don’t know how many Tajik nationals, including convicts, have gone to Ukraine or had died there. RFE/RL’s Tajik Service has recorded 14 cases of Tajik prisoners being killed in Ukraine in recent months.

Wagner founder and owner Yevgeny Prigozhin (file photo)
Wagner founder and owner Yevgeny Prigozhin (file photo)

Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed on February 9 that his group had ended its prisoner recruitment scheme.

According to the British Defense Ministry, the data from the Russian Federal Penal Service had already suggested a drop-off in the rate of prisoner recruitment since December.

“News of the harsh realities of the Wagner service in Ukraine has probably filtered through to inmates and reduced the number of volunteers,” the ministry said in early February.

But the families of Central Asian convicts in Russia insist that their relatives continue to face pressure -- including physical and psychological mistreatment -- at the hands of “prison administrations” forcing them to go to war.

Zakirova says she is still in touch with some 30 Kyrgyz inmates in the Yekaterinburg prison where his son was recruited by Wagner.

“The inmates say they are periodically being locked in cold rooms, in a special punishment cell. They say prison officials don’t openly tell them to go to war, but they torment them to the point that the prisoners say they would rather go to Ukraine,” Zakirova told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service.

“Some of the inmates who were there for 7-8 years say they haven’t experienced anything like this before.”

RFE/RL cannot independently verify Zakirova’s assertions. But similar accounts have been given by several others, including the father of a 26-year-old Kyrgyz national incarcerated in Sverdlovsk Province.

“The convicts are being tortured inside a so-called high security barrack; it’s very cold in there, everything is made of concrete,” the father, citing his son, who was sentenced to six years in prison for drug trafficking in 2020, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.

“My son says they had to drink their own urine after being kept there for days without food or water. He says prisoners eventually get exhausted and agree to go to war,” the father said on condition of anonymity. His son has recently been transferred to a prison in another city and the father fears he’ll be sent to Ukraine.

They Knew What War Entailed

In the Kazakh city of Qaraghandy, the bodies of at least two local men were sent from Ukraine in January. Both had willingly gone to fight alongside the invading forces, their friends said.

Yury K., a 36-year-old truck driver and the father of three children, lived a normal life on the outskirts of the coal-mining city -- until his family and friends heard suddenly that he was fighting in Bakhmut.

Yury was killed in Bakhmut in January, about two months after he had arrived from Kazakhstan.

It’s not known what had prompted him to leave everything behind and go to the raging front line of a foreign war.

Yury’s account on the Russian social media site Odnoklassniki shows he was a member of a pro-Russia group that supported the Kremlin’s brutal invasion and he had shared videos from the war zone.

Yury’s family declined to speak to RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service. But one of Yury’s former colleagues said he spoke openly about his intention to go to fight in Ukraine.

“Everyone around Yury tried to stop him, but he didn’t listen to anyone. He was determined; he was too confident about what he wanted, and even being the father of young children didn’t stop him,” the former colleague said on condition of anonymity.

Yury’s body arrived almost at the same time as the coffin of another Qaraghandy native, 30-year-old Aleksandr. It’s not known if the two men knew each other.

Aleksandr’s friends say he worked as a technician at a private company after graduating from a local college.

One of Aleksandr’s acquaintances said he knows several other men who went to Ukraine to fight with the Russians but didn’t elaborate. He said “all of them” had gone to Ukraine willingly, knowing the risks involved.

“They didn’t go to Ukraine for money; they didn’t go there because there wasn’t a place for them here. Every single one of them was aware of the risks involved in going to a war,” the man said.

Many Kazakhs believe the pro-war propaganda on Russian media -- which is fully available in Kazakhstan -- has played a significant role in shaping the opinion of many within Kazakhstan’s large Russian-speaking communities.

What The State Says

Central Asian governments have repeatedly warned their citizens against taking part in foreign military conflicts.

In Tajikistan, authorities said last week that Dushanbe was “ready” to look into any request by Tajik nationals imprisoned in Russia to be transferred to Tajik prisons.

The most vocal in trying to bring home its incarcerated citizens was Kyrgyzstan, where the Prosecutor-General’s Office said they received 174 applications last year from Kyrgyz convicts in Russia wanting to be extradited to their home country.

The prosecutors said they have returned dozens of convicts and continue to work on other cases. Kyrgyz lawmakers on February 8 discussed ways to prevent Kyrgyz inmates from being enlisted to fight in Russia’s war.

Five extradition requests by Kyrgyzstan were reviewed by Russian courts in the past two months.

All of them have been denied.

RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz, Kazakh, and Tajik Services contributed to this report.
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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

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