War in Ukraine: The Congolese in the ranks of the pro-Russian militia in Luhansk
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Since the Russian invasion began, many foreign volunteers have gone to fight in Ukraine in response to a call from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. But foreign fighters are also joining the Russian ranks to fight, although little information is available about them. The FRANCE24 Observers team has been in contact with two Congolese men who have joined the pro-Russian militia in Luhansk. One of them agreed to tell us why he signed up.
In this Instagram post from October 21, 2021, Jean-Claude Sangwa poses in military fatigues with his friends. In another post from August 2021, he says he is in Luhansk, a city in eastern Ukraine now part of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic.
'I studied Russian language, then economics, then I joined a military school'
Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sangwa told us he went to study in Russia "two and a half years ago". After the outbreak of the war, he joined the militia of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic (pro-Russian), as shown in his military passport. However, he considers himself an integral part of the Russian army. We were able to reach him on May 10 via WhatsApp.
I chose Russia because it was my dream country. And my father's too. I went to the army with my father's blessing, he sent me to Russia before he died.
In DR Congo, I studied Latin and philosophy in secondary school. When I went to Russia, I first lived in Rostov [Editor's note: in south-west Russia, 90 kilometres from the Ukrainian border], where I studied Russian for a year. Then I joined a Congolese brother in Luhansk. There I studied Russian language, then economics, then I joined a military school [before the war started].
After the war started, I joined the fighting. It was not compulsory, it was my choice.
If there is no peace in the place where you live, what are you going to do? Go to sleep and wait for it to end? That is not a man.
There are three of us Congolese [in the self-proclaimed republic of Luhansk]. There are fighters from Arab countries, from Belarus, from California. There was also a French woman, she works in the hospital.
Travel agency sends Congolese students to Luhansk
Jean-Gustave Mukadi Musasa heads up a cultural centre representing the self-proclaimed Republic of Luhansk (LNR) in DR Congo, which opened in Kolwezi on February 19, 2019. The LNR is however not recognised by the vast majority of the international community, including DR Congo.
Musasa told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that he knew the two Congolese nationals well. He is even the one who helped them to leave for Russia.
I was the one who got them to travel. They went two and a half years ago to Russia to study, but they chose to go to a military school, so they ended up there.
Musasa also runs the travel agency Hope Travel SARL. On its Facebook page, the agency says it helps Congolese people obtain tourist or student visas for Russia, Belarus and Poland.
The agency regularly publishes photos of the young people it assists, including one where Jean-Claude Sangwa can be seen in the middle:
Two Congolese fighters falsely reported dead
At the end of March, Jean-Claude Sangwa and a Congolese companion were the subjects of a pro-Ukrainian misinformation campaign claiming that they had died in combat.
An image, originally posted on Telegram on March 27, 2022, shows two military passports, stamped by the LNR military commissariat. They include the passport photos of Jean-Claude Sangwa and the other man of Congolese origin. The caption of the post reads, in Russian: "Dead mercenaries".
The images of the two military passports were quickly picked up on Twitter, where some speculated that the two fighters could be Central African mercenaries trained by the Russian private military company Wagner. This Russian company has been training soldiers in the Central African Republic since 2018 and has been accused of training Malian soldiers.
According to Sangwa, the false information spread about him is part of the media war between Ukraine and Russia.
My documents were snatched in an ambush with the Ukrainians. They took all our documents and then, when they saw my soldier's card, they published it on the internet to say that I was dead. They had a lot of documents, it wasn't just me.
More than 100 days after the start of the war in Ukraine, counting military casualties remains difficult. Moscow has not released any recent, precise figures on its military casualties.
There is no reliable data on the number of foreign pro-Russian fighters currently fighting in Ukraine, or whether there are any wounded or dead among them.