Ukraine-Russia war: Zambian family of slain student demands answers
- Author, Pumza Fihlani
- role, Journalist, BBC News
- reports from Johannesburg
The death of a 23-year-old Zambian student who was recruited to fight for Russia in Ukraine has left her family devastated, her older sister told the BBC.
It’s not just his death, but the unanswered questions surrounding the young man’s sudden death in a foreign land.
Lemekhani Nyirenda was serving a drug-related prison sentence in Russia, but he was released and sent to the front line in Ukraine.
“We want to know how he was drafted without his family being informed? Was he forced?” asked Muzangalu Nyirenda.
The family felt “robbed” by his brother’s death, he said.
Zambia’s Foreign Minister Stanley Kakubo announced on Monday that Mr Nyirenda, who studied at the Moscow Institute of Engineering Physics, had served nine years in prison for a drug-related offence.
He said Mr Nyirenda was killed on the front line in September, but Russian authorities had only just informed Zambia of the death.
Mr Kakubo said Zambia had demanded answers about the student’s death and why he was sent to Ukraine.
Most Zambians are shocked by the news, but also disappointed that the government has not shared more information to explain the circumstances that led to the student being sent to Ukraine.
According to Ms. Nyirenda, her brother traveled to Russia in 2019 to study nuclear engineering under government sponsorship.
“There’s a lot we don’t know. Why didn’t the Zambian government know he was sent to war to fight?” his older sister told the BBC.
“The people who took him to war looked down on us as a family, we were nothing to them. They used him,” he added.
Arrest for drug trafficking
According to his sister, Mr Nyirenda was working as a part-time courier when he was arrested in 2020 with a package containing drugs.
“We believe he didn’t know what was inside the package he delivered, he told us he didn’t know. He was receiving text messages for pickups and instructions on where to deliver them,” he said.
“Once he was stopped and searched by the police and they found drugs in a parcel. He explained that he worked for an online courier and was unaware of the parcels, but he was arrested,” Ms Nyirenda said.
His family always hoped that he would return home safely.
But while serving his sentence in a medium-security prison, his family said, he was recruited by the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary group that recruits prisoners to fight for Russia in Ukraine in exchange for their freedom. .
In September, leaked footage showed Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group, following the rules of engagement, such as not leaving Ukrainian women or having sex, and then giving them five minutes to decide whether they wanted to join the prisoners.
Although he tells the prisoners that he will get them out of the prison alive, he cannot promise that he will bring them back alive.
They stole my brother
Born to Edwin and Florence Nyirenda, academic professionals, Lemekhani was the youngest of four children.
Even in prison, he found a way to communicate with his relatives in Zambia.
His parents last heard from him on August 31, during a mysterious phone call that left them worried.
“He told my parents, ‘I’m not in prison anymore, my whereabouts are confidential’. My parents were worried, when we shared it, we all were. We knew he was a prisoner in a foreign country. No rights, we were worried about what was going on, but he he couldn’t talk any more and my parents didn’t question him any more,” Ms Nyirenda said.
The family reported the strange call to Zambian authorities and were assured of an investigation into his fate, but months later news of the young man’s death emerged.
His sister tearfully said, “He was young, they stole his life. He has a twin brother, they stole half of my brother.”
“Lemekhani had many plans. He was studying so he could come back and pamper my mother. He had plans to help rebuild Zambia. We were robbed,” he said.
“There are no conclusions, only questions. We want him to come home so we can let him rest in peace. We want him to find people who love him, but we deserve answers.” Ms Nyirenda added.
Zambian officials said his body was flown to the southern Russian border city of Rostov to be returned to Lusaka, where his family will bury him.
Further inquiries from the BBC to the Zambian Ministry of Foreign Affairs went unanswered.
Zambia, like many other African countries, is neutral in the Russia-Ukraine war, but says it condemns all forms of war.