The family of Lemekhani Nyirenda is demanding answers from the Russian government over how the engineering student left prison around August this year, and got deployed to the battle front, where he was killed fighting against the Ukrainian army.
The 23-year-old Moscow Engineering Physics Institute student had been jailed for drug offences in 2020 while he worked part-time in a courier company.
He had joined the university for a degree course in nuclear engineering on a Zambia-Russia scholarship scheme in 2019, before finding himself on the wrong side of the law and getting sentenced to serve nine years in prison.
This was not to be as he was reportedly released around August and sent to the frontline. He had called parents Edwin and Florence Nyirenda on August 31 on an anonymous phone where he assured them he was safe, his sister Muzang’alu Nyirenda told BBC Africa.
“He told my parents: ‘I am no longer in prison but where I am is confidential’,” she told the broadcaster.
“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.”
“We knew he was a prisoner in a foreign country where he had no rights”
While his parents, both university dons in Zambia, say they do not know who conscripted him it has been established that their son was killed in September. They learned of his death on November 9, as did the rest of the public in the former Northern Rhodesia.
“The ministry is saddened to inform the nation that, on November 9 2022, it was notified of the demise of Mr Nyirenda, at the battlefront of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine,” Zambia’s Stanley Kakubo, minister of Foreign Affairs & International Cooperation, said in a statement.
“In view of this sad development, the Zambian government has requested the Russian authorities to urgently provide information on the circumstances under which a Zambian citizen, serving a prison sentence in Moscow, could have been recruited to fight in Ukraine and subsequently lose his life,” the minister added.
Despite the demand from both the family and the government, no explanation has come forth from the Russians, with the Foreign Ministry on November 15 saying that it was working to obtain more details.
It is thought that the Nyirenda junior was released from prison and deployed to the frontline in exchange for freedom which would have seen his remainder of the prison sentence commuted.
Despite evidence to the contrary, Russia has denied recruiting and deploying prisoners to fight in the war in exchange for freedom.
The Zambian’s death is the first time it’s becoming apparent that even student convicts, irrespective of their origin or circumstances, have not been spared the conscription, raising the possibility that others may have been enlisted into the war effort.
The student’s body meanwhile, has been moved to the southern border town of Rostov ahead of transportation to Lusaka where his family will bury him, sources quoting Zambian officials indicate.
Russia has a long-standing higher education partnership with African countries dating back to the cold war era, when the country extended scholarships to hundreds of students in its support for agitation for freedom from colonial rule by Africans.
The country has this year upped its efforts to recruit African students to its universities citing low fees, opportunity for part-time work and use of English and French as languages of instruction, where some 27,000 African students are enrolled, a minimum of 700 of them being Zambians.