26th February 2022
By Rehan Piracha
Mohammad Zahoor, known as the richest Pakistani-origin expatriate in Ukraine, says the conflict in his adoptive homeland reminds him of the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, providing a clue to just how tense it is down there.
Zahoor is the founder and owner of the $400 million ISTIL Group, a conglomerate dealing in real estate, hotels, cinemas, plastic goods manufacturing, trading and terminal logistics, in Ukraine.
Thousands of expatriates and citizens are crossing into Hungary and Poland for safety to escape Russian bombardment on cities across Ukraine. However, many Ukrainian nationals are staying put to express their love of their motherland, Zahoor tells Voicepk.net in an interview on the phone from London where he has relocated just days before the Russian invasion on February 24.
“The spirit of ordinary Ukrainians is reminiscent of that shown by Pakistanis at the time of 1965 war with India,” says Zahoor, who grew up in Karachi as a teenager in the late 60s.
“My mother-in-law has refused to leave her home in Kyiv while my wife agreed to leave the capital only after being persuaded for the wellbeing of our twin daughters living with me here,” Zahoor says. He is married to Ukrainian singer-actress Kamaliya. The singer-actress shared a video of civilian buildings hit in the Russian bombardment in Kyiv on her Instagram account on February 26.
“She has reached a town that is still 400 kilometres away from the border with Poland,” the billionaire Pakistani expatriate says. Probably, she would cross into Poland today or tomorrow, Zahoor says. Asked about the living condition of other expatriates amid the conflict, the billionaire entrepreneur says foreigners are evacuating from the country. “My brother crossed into Hungary with his family while the Pakistani embassy which has relocated to Turnelip, a border town, is making safely evacuate students and expatriates stranded in Ukraine,” he says.
Clarifying a misconception that Russian-speaking Ukrainian are inclined towards Russia, Zahoor says the majority of Russian-speaking Ukrainians just like his wife Kamaliya don’t like their country to be a puppet of the Russian Federation.
After Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in the 90s, three generations have passed, he explains. “The younger generations have opened their eyes in Ukraine which is a democratic country unlike Russia which is still an authoritarian state with no freedom of expression,” the Pakistani expatriate says.
The billionaire investor says that after initial setbacks, the Ukrainian forces have regrouped and given stiff resistance to Russian soldiers for the control of Kyiv airport, on the outskirts of the capital. According to his information, the Russian fatalities far outnumbered those faced by the Ukrainian military. “The Russian soldiers had occupied the airport but the control was wrested away by Ukrainian forces which still hold its control now,” Zahoor says.
In his opinion, despite their bravery and courage the Ukrainian forces cannot match the military might of the Russian superpower. Ukraine is fighting with weapons and arsenal it has as no country is supplying military hardware and equipment to defend themselves in the face of Russian invasion,” he points out the odds stacked against his adoptive homeland.
Zahoor says the situation in Ukraine is worsening with every minute as the country witnesses shortages in petrol, foodstuff and medicines. “People stocked up what little foodstuff was available in stores and shops prior to the invasion,” he says.
Born in Pakistan Zahoor moved to Ukraine as a 19-year-old scholarship student, where he built up a steel business. In the 1980s Zahoor gained experience in the global steel industry, working as General Manager of a Pakistani Trading House’s Moscow office. During his leadership, its turnover increased 10 fold.
In 1991, Zahoor founded his own steel trading company, MetalsRussia (later to be changed to ISTIL), which in five years was included in the top 20 global traders of steel products, reaching an annual export volume of 2 million tons of steel. In 2008, when steel prices were at historical highs, Mohammad Zahoor decided to sell his steel business and diversify his portfolio. The total volume of ISTIL investment in Ukraine has exceeded $400 million.
Zahoor tells Voicepk.net all his businesses and factories in Ukraine are currently shut down. He is in London where his conglomerate also has an office. He hopes peace will prevail in his adoptive homeland where he has been a beacon to many Pakistanis looking for a bright future abroad amid the ethnic violence and terrorism in Pakistan.
According to his sources in the Kyiv government, negotiations were being planned in the Romanian capital city of Budapest between Ukraine and Russia to seek a compromise to the conflict.
Some other Pakistani expatriates who spoke to Voicepk.net from Ukraine, say the conflict has been a boon for illegal border crossers seeking entry into Europe. “These illegal foreigners have crossed into Hungary and Poland along with Ukrainian women and children.”
Ukraine has banned nationals aged between the ages of 18 and 50 are not allowed to leaving the country as they can be called for military service in face of the Russian invasion. The expatriates also believe that the European Union and other allies would be pumping billions of dollars into the Ukrainian economy for reconstruction once a truce is agreed with Russia.