The tragic fate of Lemekhani Nyirenda

Wagner acknowledges the death of a Zambian student recruited in Russian prison

© Ihor Tkachov / AFP / Belga

Clothing of a fallen Russian soldier in the Kharkov region.

A young man from Zambia died at the war front in Ukraine in September. His family is left with questions. Lemekhani Nyirenda was a student in Moscow serving a prison sentence in Russia. He was one of the detainees recruited by the Wagner Group.

This article was translated by Kompreno, with support from DeepL. The original article was published on November 23th 2022 and updatet on december 12th.

Lemekhani Nyirenda was a 23-year-old young man from Zambia. He had been studying nuclear engineering at the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute (MEPHI) since 2019. He was able to do so thanks to a scholarship from the Zambian government, as the African country has a long history bilateral cooperation with Russia.

While studying in Moscow, Nyirenda moonlighted part-time as a courier. But one night in 2020, he was stopped by the police. When they checked his cargo, drugs were found in one of the packages he was carrying at the time. It earned him a 9.5-year prison sentence, which he served in Tver prison, north of Moscow. According to his family, he never knew what he was transporting.

Wagner

And then Nyirenda died on September 22 on the front line in Ukraine. His family is convinced that the young man died after being recruited by the Wagner Group, the private militia led by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin.

When images of Prigozhin addressing detainees in the courtyard of a Russian prison circulated in news broadcasts and on social media in September, Wagner’s recruitment campaign had already been running for a while. Nyirenda could therefore have been conscripted by the group some time earlier.

The Wagner Group officially has nothing to do with Russian political and military authorities, but in practice it works closely together. Prigozhin belongs to Putin’s circle of friends.

In the images that circulated, his message to the prisoners is clear. ‘You have been convicted, but I offer a remission of the sentence. In exchange, you are expected to join the fight in Ukraine for six months. You will never retreat or surrender, and those who desert will be given the bullet. After six months, you will be free, if you survive. After these six months, whoever wants to can stay with Wagner, the rest can go home. You have five minutes to think it over.’

The Zambian government was only informed by Russia of the loss of their compatriot on November 9th. They announced the news six days later, through Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Minister Stanley Kakubo.

What happened?

Nyirenda was last in contact with his parents on August 31. That phone call worried his family. ‘He told my parents that he was no longer in prison, but his location was confidential’, his sister Muzang’alu Nyirenda told BBC. ‘We were all worried. We knew he was stuck in a country where he had no rights and were very worried. We asked him what was going on, but he could not tell us more.’

The Zambian government wants to know how a citizen serving a prison sentence in Moscow ended up on the front line in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, his remains were transferred to the Russian border town of Rostov and he can in principle be repatriated to Zambia. This is very important to the family. ‘We want him to come home. We want to lay him to rest with the people who loved him. But we also deserve answers’, his sister said in the same interview.

The family wanted to know what exactly happened. How was Nyirenda sent to the front? And most importantly, by whom? Was pressure somehow put on him? Was he coerced?

The Zambian government, which, like many other African countries, had taken a neutral position on the war in Ukraine, also called for clear answers about Nyirenda’s death. It wants to know how a Zambian citizen serving a prison sentence in Moscow ended up on the front line in Ukraine.

Update december 12th: On November 29th, Wagner’s number one Yevgeni Prigozhin acknowledged that his group had recruited Mr. Nyirenda, and added that the young Zambian had died as a hero. His body was flown home on December 11th.

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