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Ukraine war: Lemekhani Nyirenda was recruited by Russia’s mercenary group Wagner

The body of a Zambian student who was killed in Ukraine fighting for Russia has been returned to his home country. 

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.

He was sent to the frontline by the Wagner mercenary group which was recruiting prisoners. 

In September, leaked footage showed Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the mercenary group, 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.

Ominously, he told the prisoners he would get them out of jail alive but said he could not promise to bring them back alive.

Nyirenda’s body arrived in the capital Lusaka on Sunday and has been handed over to pathologists for examination. 

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 family told the BBC that they want someone to be held accountable for his death – saying they have been “robbed of a life with him.”

The drugs arrest

Nyirenda was working as a part-time courier when he was arrested in 2020 with a parcel containing drugs, his older sister Muzang’alu Nyirenda told the BBC last month.

“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.