Lemekhani Nathan Nyirenda made a phone call to his family, who were at home in Zambia, on 31 August. That was their last time they heard from him.

Something was strange about the call. He said that he had been released from prison in Russia, just two years into a nine-year prison term. He would not say how he got out, or tell his family where he was.

His family were concerned, and informed Zambia’s ministry of foreign affairs.

Three weeks later, on 22 September, Nyirenda was killed on the frontline of Russia’s war in Ukraine. He was 23-years-old. His family was only informed last Sunday, 13 November. They still have not been informed of how he died, or how he ended up fighting alongside Russian soldiers.

“As a family, we have decided not to issue any media statements or offer interviews until we receive our son, bury him and then, we might be able to talk. For now, we just want some time to come to terms with what has happened. Pepani mai [bear with us],” said family spokesperson Ian Nzali Banda on Thursday evening.

A bright future

At the Hillcrest Technical Secondary School in Livingstone – a government school reserved for the best students in the country – Nyirenda’s friends knew him as quiet and smart. He got top marks, and on graduating in 2018 he secured himself a government scholarship to study nuclear engineering at the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute.

“He was very intelligent. His dream was to become one of the best engineers in Zambia. He must have been very scared, all alone in a foreign country and being sent out to war. Very sad, May God comfort the family,” said classmate Alice Chibulu.

Nathan (left) with his father at Hilcrest

To supplement his income in Moscow, Nyirenda started working as a motorcycle delivery driver. Then things went wrong.

In April 2020, he was delivering a package for a client when he was stopped by Russian police. They opened the package, which contained drugs. Nyirenda was subsequently charged with drug possession and sentenced to nine years in jail, which he was serving at a medium security prison on the outskirts of Moscow.

Nyirenda’s family were in touch with him regularly, until that strange call in August. They believe that he was wrongly imprisoned – that he did not know the contents of the package. It is not clear whether Nyirenda had access to adequate legal representation.

Casualty of war

Russia invaded Ukraine in February this year, on the orders of President Vladimir Putin. The invasion has not been going well. The ranks of Russia’s regular army have been decimated by fierce Ukrainian resistance, forcing the government to issue partial mobilisation of 300,000 army reservists in September.

To secure more soldiers, army recruiters have been targeting prisons – offering freedom to prisoners who agree to fight, including convicted murderers. Private mercenary firms, such as the notorious Wagner Group, have been deployed to assist the soldiers on the frontlines, and they too have been targeting prisons for recruits.

“If you serve six months, you are free,” Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner Group, was filmed telling a group of prisoners earlier this year. But he warned: “If you arrive in Ukraine and decide it's not for you, we will execute you.” At least one prisoner who accepted the Wagner deal was subsequently executed in grisly fashion after saying that he would rather fight for Ukraine.

It is not known whether Nyirenda was offered such a deal, but his family have their suspicions. On Wednesday, Lemekhani’s older sister Muzang’alu Nyirenda told journalists that the family wanted to know how Russia managed to recruit her brother into their army. She wondered if he was “coerced”.

Dickson Jere, a prominent Zambian human rights lawyer, commented on social media: “How did the Russian government pick an untrained convict and send him to the frontline without the knowledge of his home country? A prisoner does not lose his rights and cannot be forced to fight in a war.”

Questions remain

In a statement, Zambia’s minister of foreign affairs Stanley Kakubo said: “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 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 press-ganging their nationals. No one, including Africans, should die for Putin’s sick imperial ambitions.”

Abravitova said that she was not aware of any other examples of African prisoners in Russia ending up on the frontlines of the conflict.

According to a close family member, Nyirenda’s parents, Edwin and Florence Nyirenda, will travel to Russia to identify the remains, amid concerns that the body has been badly damaged.

Additional reporting by Linda Soko Tembo

This story was reported jointly by The Continent and MakanDay Centre for Investigative Journalism