'Was he coerced?': Family of Zambian student killed in Ukraine war want answers

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  • The sister of the Zambian student who died while fighting for Russia in Ukraine says the family needs to know how he ended up in the war.
  • Lemekhani Nyirenda went to Russia in 2019 to study but was arrested in 2020 and convicted of a drug-related offence.
  • His family suspects he was recruited by the Wagner Group in exchange for his freedom.

A 23-year-old Zambian student who died in Ukraine while fighting for Russia could have been recruited by Russian mercenary army the Wagner Group, his sister told BBC in an interview on Wednesday.

Lemekhani Nyirenda's family suspects that he was recruited by the Wagner Group in exchange for his freedom after he was sentenced for a drug-related crime.

It emerged in the interview that Nyirenda went to Russia in 2019 on a government-to-government scholarship to study at the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute. He was arrested in 2020 while working on a part-time basis for an online courier company after police found him in possession of a package that contained drugs. His family believes he had no idea that the parcel contained drugs.

His sister, Muzang'alu, told the BBC that his family knew he was no longer in prison and added that they were told that his location was "confidential". However, they had no idea he was fighting for Russia in Ukraine.

"He told my parents: 'I am no longer in prison but where I am is confidential'. My parents were worried. We all were when he shared this. We knew he was a prisoner in a foreign country where he had no rights. We were worried about what was going on but he could not share more and my parents didn't probe him further," she told the BBC.

READ | Russian missile barrage targets energy facilities as fighting rages in Ukraine's east

The Wagner Group is owned by Yevgeny V Prigozhin - a convicted thief and long-time associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin - and it is fighting to take control of Bakhmut - a city in eastern Ukraine. It operates outside regular army command.

It's known for its recruitment of prisoners by offering to write off their prison sentences after the war.

The sister told the BBC that the family wanted to know whether Nyirenda had joined the Wagner Group by choice.

"We want to know how he was conscripted without his family being notified. Was he coerced?" she asked.

She added:

There is no closure - only questions. We want him home so we can lay him to rest in peace. We want him back with the people who love him, but we deserve answers.

The matter is being handled at a diplomatic level, a family source told News24.

Zambia, Lesotho, Malawi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are the southern African countries that have openly condemned Russia's offensive in Ukraine at the United Nations General Assembly.

Zambian Foreign Affairs Minister Stanley Kakubo demanded answers from Russia on the situation with Nyirenda on Monday.

Nyirenda has a twin brother in China and they are the last in a family of four children. Their parents, Edwin and Florence Nyirenda, are academics.

The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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