Lemekani Nyirenda, the 23-year-old Zambian student who died fighting for Russia at the Ukraine battlefront in the ongoing war, was recruited by the infamous private military company Wagner Group, the Zambian Government has confirmed.

Nyirenda’s body arrived in the country on Sunday, 11 December 2022. While at the airport waiting for the body to arrive Chembo Mbula, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, confirmed to MakanDay that the costs for flying Nyirenda’s body to Zambia were borne by Wagner Group, a private company that recruited him.

He said the Wagner Group worked hand in hand with the Russian Government to transport the body.

In November this year, the head of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, admitted recruiting Nyirenda from prison, claiming the young man willingly agreed to go and fight against Ukraine.

Wagner is a notorious private military company that has been described as a network of mercenaries, or a de-facto private army of the Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The group operates outside Russian law as private military contractors are prohibited in that country.

Nyirenda was a second year nuclear engineering student at Moscow Engineering Physics Institute (MEPhI) before his imprisonment in April 2020.

He was serving a nine-year prison sentence at Tyer Medium Security Prison on the outskirts of Moscow for an offence of drug possession when he was recruited to fight in the Russian war with Ukraine, without the knowledge of his family in Zambia.

On 16 November, Nyirenda’s elder sister, Muzang’alu Nyirenda, told journalists who visited her home that the family wanted to know how Russia managed to recruit her brother into their army without notifying them or the Zambian government. She wanted to know if he was “coerced.”

She said before Lemekani’s death, the family regularly contacted him and that the last time they spoke to him was on the evening of 31 August 2022, when he told them he was no longer in prison. She said he refused to tell the family how he got out of prison or about his whereabouts.

Lemekani's mother in black (centre) being consoled by other mourners at KK International airport

She also said the strange call they received from Lemekhani prompted them to report the matter to the government, who assured them of an investigation. But three weeks later, on 22 September, Lemekhani died and the family was informed of his death only on November 13 – six weeks later.

Last month, a report by Ukrainian Non-Governmental Organisation, The Center for the Analytical Studies and Countering Hybrid Threats revealed that armed forces of Ukraine have killed more than 500 Russian prisoners recruited by Wagner private military contractors.

The NGO claims to have verified more than 200 letters signed by Andrey Troshev, one of the heads of the Wagner Group, with condolences to the families of those recruited by Wagner in Russian colonies.

A posthumous medal "For bravery" is attached to the letters, and the documents themselves are numbered, which makes it possible to draw conclusions about their number.

Based on the document numbering, the NGO concludes that in less than a month (from 18 September to 13 October) Troshev sent at least 224 letters of condolences. The Report states that at least 458 prisoners hired by Yevgeny Prigozhin died in Ukraine by mid-October.

On 09th December, Foreign Affairs Minister Stanley Kakubo, told parliament that the government had requested full details of the circumstances surrounding Nyirenda’s recruitment and subsequent death.

Kakubo, made no reference to the Wagner Group, but disclosed that he had received confirmation during a phone conversation with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Viktorovich Lavrov, on 24th November, that Nyirenda was given conditional amnesty from his nine-d half-year jail sentence.

He further disclosed that in a note verbale - an unsigned diplomatic note written in the third person, the Russian Embassy in Lusaka indicated that their country had a law that allowed prisoners to receive pardon in exchange for their participation in military activities.

In Nyirenda’s case, that meant fighting for Russia at the battlefront in Ukraine. He was killed on 22 September 2022, and the news of his death was reported to the Zambian Government on 9t November.

It has taken nearly three months after his death for the body to be brought back home in Lusaka. It was accompanied by Zambia's Ambassador to the Russian Federation Shadreck Luwita, and no Russian representation.

Funeral proceedings have further been delayed by the office of the state forensic pathologist that is to conduct the requisite medical investigations in “accordance and conformity with the laws of Zambia”. Family spokesperson, Dr Ian Nzala Banda, told journalists at the airport that Nyirenda would only be buried after the process.

He said Nyirenda’s body was received by the family and was immediately transported to the University Teaching Hospital (UTH), for the state pathologists to commence their investigations.

Before he was imprisoned, Nyirenda was on government sponsorship studying nuclear engineering in Russia since 2019.