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Hundreds of Nepalese men moved to Russia to join in its fight against Ukraine

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Since the war in Ukraine began almost two years ago, hundreds of men have moved from Nepal to Russia to join its army. They were drawn by a promise to live in Russia, where incomes are much higher. Instead of living in Russia, some feel they're being sent to die for Russia. Reporter Shalu Yadav went to Nepal.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

SHALU YADAV, BYLINE: Marching towards the frontline of a foreign conflict, a group of young Nepali men cheer each other with a war cry in their native language.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

YADAV: But the excitement soon turns to horror, as one of the injured soldiers in occupied Ukrainian territory tells me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) I was sent to the front line twice, and it's really scary out there. It's a horrific war. I lost so many of my friends in front of my eyes. I couldn't help them, even as they kept crying for help.

YADAV: The fear in this Nepalese fighter's voice is palpable, and he doesn't want to reveal his identity for fear of reprisal by the Russian army. He tells me that Nepali men are being sent to the front line to effectively die.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) The system is such that after being trained for about 15 days, foreigners like us who joined the Russian army are sent to the front line to fight. Local army men are not sent up there. We were accompanied by a few former convicts.

YADAV: He and his friends decided to go to Russia last year, after they heard President Vladimir Putin had offered to fast track citizenship for foreigners who serve a year in the Russian army. But what the offer did not include, he says, was equal treatment and dignity.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Though interpreter) I feel that the Russian government doesn't value the lives of foreign soldiers at all. For one Nepali that dies in the war, they can raise another 10. Poverty is pushing people from different countries to join the Russian army, and they're hiring as many as they can.

YADAV: He's lucky to have survived the war so far. Back home in Nepal, many families have not heard from their sons and husbands for months. An hour's drive from the tourist town of Pokhara in central Nepal, we arrive in Syangja district to meet the family of Pritam Kharki. They received a letter from the Nepali embassy in Moscow last month which confirmed their worst fear.

PRITAM KHARKI: (Non-English language spoken).

YADAV: This is the last voice message Reema Kharki received from her husband, Pritam, in November last year. He told her that things were risky on the front line, but he's not there, so it's all good. "In a year's time, we will have citizenship and you can move here with me," Pritam reassured Reema. He died a few hours later.

REEMA KHARKI: (Non-English language spoken).

YADAV: Reema is hurt not only because she lost her husband, but also because Pritam hid the fact that he was on the frontline of the Russia-Ukraine war.

KHARKI: (Through interpreter) I didn't know much about the situation in Russia. He never told me stories of war, never told me about the hardships he faced there. He used to say he's safe there.

YADAV: A seasoned soldier, 40-year-old Pritam had served in the Nepali army for 16 years before he went to Afghanistan to work as a security guard in 2020. When he returned home three years later, Nepal was in the midst of an economic crisis as inflation surged and tourism plunged. There was no opportunity for him, so he paid a local agent in Kathmandu to get him to Russia.

INDIRA KUMARI: (Non-English language spoken).

YADAV: Distraught, his mother Indra Kumari says her son only told the family that he was going to renew his visa for Afghanistan.

KUMARI: (Through interpreter) He called us after landing in Russia to say he's there for a new job. If we had known the reality, we would have begged or done everything in our power to rescue him from there.

YADAV: The family blames local recruiters for duping Pritam, and he was not the only one who fell into the trap. Police say many joinees were told by the recruiters that they would be hired only as helpers and not fighters in the Russian army.

BHUPENDRA KHATRI: Most of them they paid 7,000, $8,000, being based on their bargaining power. Some of them they paid $12,000.

YADAV: Bhupendra Khatri is the senior superintendent of police in Kathmandu. His team arrested 17 recruiters last month and accused them of extortion of money and illegally sending people to Russia via Dubai and India.

KHATRI: This is a very risky job, and it's very dangerous. They didn't know that reality, you know, what is going on on the field. Most of the people - they died, you know, by bombarding, you know, guns, swords. This is the reality, you know.

YADAV: Nepal says at least 400 of its citizens are fighting for Russia. Speaking to NPR, foreign minister Narayan Saud appealed to Moscow to let his countrymen go home.

NARAYAN SAUD: We don't have any treaty with Russia and we don't want to fight the war on behalf of Russia. We believe in peace, and we believe in UN charter also. So we have requested them to release our poor people.

YADAV: NPR also contacted the Russian Embassy in Kathmandu for a response to Nepal's request and other allegations made by joinees and their families, but we didn't get an answer.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

YADAV: "Please help me. I'm trapped here," the Nepalese fighter pleads as he's petrified at the possibility of being sent to the front line again, a realization in the end that life is too precious to be put on the line for money.

For NPR News, I'm Shalu Yadav in Nepal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Shalu Yadav