The queues formed early each morning outside the Russian embassy in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa. Drawn by rumours on social media, young men and old, many with their military records in hand, arrived with hopes of fighting for Russia in Ukraine.
What began as a trickle of volunteers swelled over two weeks to scores, two neighbourhood residents told Reuters.
Ethiopian Men Queue outside Russian Embassy: Credit: REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri
On Tuesday, reporters saw several hundred men registering with Ethiopian security guards outside the embassy. The guards recorded their names and asked for proof of military service.
There is no evidence that any Ethiopians have been sent to Ukraine, nor is it clear if any ever will be.
A man who came out of the embassy and addressed the volunteers in Russian through an interpreter said Russia had enough forces for now, but that they would be contacted when they were needed.
The Russian embassy did not respond to questions from reporters about the man's identity or whether Russia was deploying Ethiopian volunteers to Ukraine. It issued a statement later on saying that it was not recruiting fighters, and that the Ethiopians who showed up outside were well-wishers expressing "solidarity and support for the Russian Federation".
The Ethiopian foreign ministry welcomed the Russian statement for what it called "refuting the unfounded reports of recruitment for the Russian Armed Forces" but did not respond to Reuters questions. Neither did the Russian foreign ministry.
Ukraine's embassy in Addis Ababa referred questions to the Ethiopian authorities.
Ethiopia has called on all sides in the war to exercise restraint and did not vote on a UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine which Russia calls a "special military operation" to demilitarise the country.
But many in Ethiopia have voiced solidarity with Russia, which has enjoyed close relations with the Horn of Africa nation since the Soviet era.
Social media rumours of a $2,000 payment to join up and the possibility of work in Russia after the war tantalised some of the men in the queues. Many parts of Ethiopia are riven by conflict and annual inflation hovers around 30%.
"I am willing to support the Russia government and, in return, once I get out, I will get benefits," Leta Kibru said outside the embassy, where he returned on Tuesday to check on what he said was his application.
"Living in Ethiopia is becoming difficult," said the 30-year-old street vendor, who said he had retired from the Ethiopian army in 2018 and now sells clothing and mobile phones. "What I need is to live in Europe."
Leta said he had heard about a $2,000 payout from friends who had registered before him. Two others in the queues this week said they had seen posts on Facebook saying the embassy was signing up recruits.
Reuters was not able to find any posts on the subject from official sources or confirm any such offer.
The rumours followed news reports in March that Russian President Vladimir Putin had given the green light for up to 16,000 volunteers from the Middle East to be deployed alongside Russian-backed rebels to fight in Ukraine, although Reuters has not been able to confirm that any have been sent there.
"The reason I want to go to Russia is not to fight Ukraine but it is because I am not benefiting from my country," said Binyam Woldetsadik, a 40-year-old security guard who said he served in Ethiopia's 1998-2000 border war with Eritrea.
"I'd rather be a national of a different country."
By late Wednesday morning, when Binyam showed up, the number of volunteers outside the Russian embassy had dwindled to around 20. A guard told him the embassy was no longer accepting registrations, he said.
Writing by Aaron Ross; additional reporting by Alessandra Prentice in Kyiv; editing by Katharine Houreld, Alexandra Zavis and Nick Macfie