Lemekhani Nathan Nyirenda made a phone call to his family at their home in Zambia on 31 August.
That was the last time they heard from him.
There was something strange about the call. He said that he had been released from prison in Russia, just two years after a nine-year prison term. He did not say how he got out, nor did he tell his family where he was.
His family was concerned and informed the Zambian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Three weeks later, on September 22, Nyirenda was killed on the front lines of Russia’s war in Ukraine. She was 23 years old. Her family was only informed on Sunday, November 13. They still haven’t been told how she died, nor how she ended up fighting alongside Russian soldiers.
“As a family, we have decided not to release any statements to the media or offer interviews until we receive our son, bury him and then we can talk,” said family spokesman Ian Nzali Banda.
“For now, we just want some time to come to terms with what happened. pepani mai [bear with us].”
a bright future
At Hillcrest Technical High School in Livingstone, a public school reserved for the best students in the country, Nyirenda’s friends knew him as calm and intelligent. He got straight A’s and, graduating in 2018, secured a government scholarship to study nuclear engineering at Moscow’s Institute of Engineering Physics.
“He was very smart. His dream was to become one of the best engineers in Zambia,” said his classmate Alice Chibulu. “He must have been very scared, alone in a foreign country and being sent to war. May God comfort the family.”
To supplement his income in Moscow, Nyirenda started working as a motorcycle delivery man. Then things went wrong.
In April 2020, he was delivering a package for a customer when Russian police stopped him. They opened the package, which contained drugs. Nyirenda was subsequently charged with drug possession and sentenced to nine years in prison, which he was serving in a medium-security prison on the outskirts of Moscow.
Nyirenda’s family was in regular contact with him, until that strange phone call in August. They believe that he was unjustly imprisoned, that he did not know the contents of the package. It is not clear whether Nyirenda had access to adequate legal representation.
Russia invaded Ukraine in February this year, on the orders of President Vladimir Putin. But the ranks of Russia’s regular army have been decimated by fierce Ukrainian resistance, forcing the government to issue the partial mobilization of 300,000 army reservists in September.
To secure more soldiers, army recruiters attacked the prisons, offering freedom to those who agreed to fight. Mercenary companies like the notorious Wagner Group have been deployed to help soldiers on the front lines, and have also scouted prisons for recruits.
“If they serve six months, they are free,” Yevgeny Prigozhin, the director of the Wagner Group, was filmed telling a group of prisoners earlier this year. But he warned: “If you come to Ukraine and decide it’s not for you, we will execute you.”
At least one inmate who accepted Wagner’s deal was later gruesomely executed after saying he would rather fight for Ukraine.
It is not known if Nyirenda was offered such a deal, but her family is suspicious. Last week, Lemekhani’s older sister, Muzang’alu Nyirenda, told reporters that the family wanted to know how Russia managed to recruit her brother into her army. She wondered if she was “coerced”.
Dickson Jere, a prominent Zambian human rights lawyer, said on social media: “How did the Russian government pick an untrained prisoner and send him to the front without the knowledge of his home country? A prisoner does not lose his rights and cannot be forced to fight in a war”.
Zambian Foreign Minister Stanley Kakubo said in a statement: “The Zambian government has requested the Russian authorities to provide urgent information on the circumstances in which a Zambian citizen, serving a prison sentence in Moscow , could have been recruited to fight in the Ukraine and subsequently lost his life.”
The Russian embassy in Lusaka did not respond to a request for comment.
Ukraine’s ambassador to South Africa, Liubov Abravitova, said: “We call on the African Union and all African states to demand that Russia stop putting pressure on its citizens. No one, including Africans, should die for Putin’s sick imperial ambitions.”
Abravitova said she was not aware of any other examples of African prisoners in Russia ending up on the front lines of the conflict.
According to a close relative, Nyirenda’s parents, Edwin and Florence Nyirenda, will travel to Russia to identify the remains, amid concerns that the body has suffered serious damage.
This story was jointly reported by The continent and the Lusaka-based Makanday Center for Investigative Journalism.