The death of an African student in Ukraine demonstrates Russia’s recruitment into prisons |  International

The death of an African student in Ukraine demonstrates Russia’s recruitment into prisons | International

His name is Lemekhani Nathan Nyirenda. He was born in Zambia 23 years ago. Until a couple of years ago his story was that of another young African who emigrated to the North to find a life. His was to study nuclear engineering in Moscow, the Russian capital. And he did it thanks to a scholarship and good relations established between Zambia and Russia in the days of the Soviet Union. Nyirenda traveled with a scholarship in 2019 to the Physical Engineering Institute of Moscow. On November 14, the Zambian government reported the death of the young man on the war front in Ukraine. In one fell swoop, from study to combat in the ranks of the Russian army in the Ukrainian region of Donbas. Nyirenda’s family still does not know for sure how this surreal journey that ended Lemekhani’s life was traced. But his story shows that Russia has recruited soldiers from among the prisoners in prisons. He, imprisoned for alleged drug possession, was enlisted in the army by the Wagner mercenary group.

It was the Zambian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, under the command of Stanley Kakubo, which, leaving many questions in the air, first reported the death of the student. In a note published on a social network profile on November 14, the Kakubo department reported that the Government of Vladimir Putin had notified five days before that Nyirenda had died “on the battlefront of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.” . That, in the first place. Subsequently, the Ministry clarified that this was the date of the Kremlin’s notification, not that of the death.

The ambassador of the African country stationed in the Russian capital, Patrick Sinyinza, made some inquiries and found out that the young compatriot had died in the conflict on September 22, a month and a half before Moscow informed Lusaka of his death. The government of Hakainde Hichilema, president of Zambia, and that of Putin maintain good relations. The two countries, in this growing context of Russia-Africa harmony, have strengthened their ties, precisely, in matters of defense and nuclear energy.

According to the story offered to the British BBC by Muzangalu Nyirenda, the young Zambian’s sister, he worked as a part-time messenger. In April 2020, the nuclear engineering student was arrested for drug possession while making one of his deliveries. His sister believes that he did not know what he was carrying in his packages. A court sentenced him to nine years and six months in prison at the Tver penitentiary, some 180 kilometers northwest of Moscow. On August 31, about two weeks before he died, Nyirenda called the family and informed them that he was no longer in prison, but that he could not reveal his whereabouts.

Three days before he died in eastern Ukraine, a video was released in which Yevgeni Prigozhin, nicknamed Putin’s chef for their business of catering and head of the Russian mercenary group Wagner, offered freedom to a group of inmates in exchange for their services in the offensive in Ukraine. Last Tuesday, Prigozhin, at the request of a media outlet, revealed on a social network that Wagner had recruited Lemekhani Nyirenda in Tver. The Russian businessman, an ally of Putin, said that he asked the young Zambian why he wanted to participate in the war if in a couple of years he could get out of prison and return to his country. “The possibility of dying is quite high. Remember this, ”he told her, according to the version offered by Prigozhin himself. “You Russians,” Nyirenda replied, always according to Wagner’s boss’s account, “helped us Africans to gain independence for many years. When it was difficult for us, you reached out to us and you continue to do so now.

A man in camouflage clothing walks out of the Wagner group center in St. Petersburg on November 4.
A man in camouflage clothing walks out of the Wagner group center in St. Petersburg on November 4. IGOR RUSSAK (REUTERS)

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The Putin’s chef thus confirmed one of the family’s hypotheses, the recruitment of the deceased by Wagner, currently present in the operations of the Russian army in the battle for control of Bakhmut, a small town in the west of the Donetsk province, vital for the total conquest of the Donbas region. Prigozhin also confirmed an open secret: Moscow has fattened its military units in Ukraine with prisoners in an attempt to retake the initiative in the east.

EL PAÍS has contacted Muzangalu Nyirenda. The family maintains prudence regarding what could happen to the young man after he was released from prison and became part of the Russian platoon on the Ukrainian front. The Zambian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, according to the communication of November 14, has requested information from Moscow about “the circumstances” that led Nyirenda to serve a prison sentence in Tver to be “recruited to fight in Ukraine and subsequently lose his life.” ”.

Almost a month after this request, the Zambian university professor Ian Banda, representative of the boy’s family, assures in an exchange of messages that they still do not know not only the details of his death, but also the repatriation of the body. Nyirenda was transferred in the first instance from Ukrainian territory to the Russian city of Rostov, a few kilometers from the border.

Muzangalu Nyirenda still does not have an official version of the circumstances of his brother’s death. He doesn’t know how he died or when his remains will be repatriated.

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