Russia returns Zambian student Lemekhani Nyirenda to Lusaka

By Kestér Kenn Klomegâh

Russia has finally returned the body of Zambian student Lemekhani Nyirenda, who was recruited and killed at the war front in Ukraine, to Lusaka, Zambia according to various media reports.

Lemekhani Nyirenda died in September but Russian officials only informed Zambian authorities last month. The 23-year-old, a student at the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute, had been serving nine years in prison for a drug offence.

According to the Zambian government, he was given an amnesty in exchange for fighting for Russia in Ukraine, according to the Zambian government.

Foreign Minister Stanley Kakubo said that after asking for an explanation about how Nyirenda had ended up in Ukraine, “we were informed that Russia allows for prisoners to be provided an opportunity for pardon in exchange for participation in the special military operation” which is how Russia refers to its war in Ukraine.

Kakubo said the information had come from his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. The student was sent to the frontline by the Russian mercenary group Wagner, which has been recruiting prisoners.

Zambian Minister Kakubo is still calling on Russian authorities to provide further details regarding the recruitment of Nyirenda and how he ended up fighting in Ukraine.

Nyirenda, sponsored to study nuclear engineering at the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute, had been working as a part-time courier when an unknown person handed him a package containing drugs, his father Edwin Nyirenda told the Reuters news agency.

This led to his conviction on unspecified crimes in April 2020 and a sentence of nine years at Tyer medium security facility on the outskirts of the Russian capital. The family was not told who conscripted his son from prison and, the father added, only “received a message from a man we do not know in Russia who told us that there was a will, which our son left, and we should travel to Russia”.

The youth was killed on September 22 after being sent to the “battlefront of the conflict,” the Minister told media outlets. The ministry learned of his death on November 9.

The group’s head Yevgeny Prigozhin said last month in a Telegram statement that the student had voluntarily joined up before dying “a hero”. In September, leaked footage showed Prigozhin outlining the rules of fighting, such as no deserting or sexual contact with Ukrainian women, and then giving the prisoners five minutes to decide if they want to sign up.

The body will be given to the family for burial after a post-mortem has been completed, family spokesperson Dr. Ian Banda said in a statement. “The overarching thing for the family now is closure. Once everything has been concluded, they want to be able to bury him in line with our African traditions, to convene a vigil and mourn… to bury him in a dignified manner,” he told the BBC.

He said the family was “relieved” to have Nyirenda’s body returned to Zambia. Nyirenda’s body arrived in the capital Lusaka on Sunday and has been handed over to pathologists for examination.

His older sister Muzang’alu Nyirenda told the BBC in an earlier interview that the family wanted answers – saying they had been “robbed of a life with him”.

Nyirenda was working as a part-time courier when he was arrested in 2020 with a parcel containing drugs, his sister said. “We believe he didn’t know what was in the package he delivered, he told us he didn’t. He would get text messages for pick-ups and instructions on where to deliver them,” she said.

“On one occasion he was stopped by the police and searched and they found drugs in the package. He explained he was working for an online courier and didn’t know about the parcels but he was arrested,” Ms Nyirenda said.

The family, however, always remained hopeful that he would return home safely. Zambia has taken a neutral position on the Russia-Ukraine war, like many other African countries, but says it condemns any form of war.

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