Nepalis play Russian roulette in distant war

As more Nepalis are killed in action, returnees and families are outraged at traffickers and the government

When Maya BK’s husband Somesh asked for Rs500,000 so that he could apply for a job in Russia, she was taken aback. He was already working in Qatar, why did he need another job?

“Opportunities like this won’t knock again,” he explained to her on the phone. Russia was Europe and he would get a higher salary, and perhaps even citizenship.

A month later the family’s dreams are dashed. A colleague of Somesh BK called from Russia with news that he had been killed in action on the Ukraine front, one of as many as 39 Nepali mercenaries so far thought to have died in the conflict, according to activist Kirtu Bhandari. Six others are prisoners of war with the Ukrainians.

Maya is in Kathmandu with her four-year-old son to provide a DNA sample so her husband’s body in Russia can be matched. Somesh BK is among 15 names on a new list of Nepali KIA provided by the Russians.

Nepalis in the Russian military NT
Somesh BK, his wife and son in Nepal (left), and with the Russian Army in Ukraine.

Although Nepal discouraged nationals from going to Russia in July last year to prevent enlistment, unscrupulous recruiters tempted serving and retired security officials with high salaries, military training and promises of citizenship after six months.  

TikToks posted by Nepalis already in Russian Army training centres clad in smart uniforms and wielding modern weapons is also attracting many, but the clips do not tell of the death and suffering on the frontlines.  

“Nepalis have nothing to do with the war between Russia and Ukraine, but our young men are being lured with attractive salaries to join the Russian Army. They have no idea about how fierce the battle is,” says Rabi Lawoti, who paid Rs800,000 to a middleman for a visa and ticket to Moscow via New Delhi last year, but deserted and returned. He estimates there are about 2,000 Nepalis in the Russian Army. 

After coming back to Kathmandu, Lawoti tracked down his recruiter, took him to a hotel room where he demanded his money back at knifepoint. The agent agreed to pay back half of the Rs500,000.

“The real bosses in this business live in Moscow, the ones in Kathmandu, Delhi or Dubai are small fish,” claims Lawoti. “My local recruiter only got Rs10,000 for linking me to the international agent in a tea shop in Kathmandu. But I paid most of the money to the kingpins in Moscow.”

Lawoti doesn’t want to reveal their names for fear it will put Nepalis in Russia at risk. But he is frustrated over the Nepal government’s inaction.

Nepal Police arrested 12 agents engaged in the trafficking of Nepalis to the Russian Army in January, but they were later freed.

Read also: Kin of Nepalis in Russian Army seek astrologers, Sujata Dhungana

Nepalis in the Russian military NT

“This is undeniably a case of fraud but we have not received complaints from the victims or their families so far,” says Om Rana who heads the Human Trafficking Investigation Bureau in Kathmandu. “Since no one had filed any complaints, we had to let go of those we arrested.” 

Sub-section (1) of Section 4 of the Human Trafficking and Transportation (Control) Act 2007 has no provision related to the trafficking of Nepalis to Russia. Nepal Police has therefore filed an amendment to Section 4 so it can make arrests and charge illegal recruiters. 

Most traffickers make a double profit on the Nepalis they recruit on behalf of the Russian Army. Lawoti paid Rs800,000 to be taken to Moscow, and the same recruiter demanded Rs300,000 to bring him back. It is not known if the Russian Army also pays recruiters a fee. 

Nepalis tell harrowing tales of Ukrainian drones dropping bombs on trenches, wounded soldiers being left to die, and the Russian Army using human wave attacks in the battles for Bakhmut and Avdiivka. Nepalis caught deserting are tortured and sometimes shot. Returnees complain of freezing weather, lack of food and poor morale.

Suman Rai deserted the Russian Army after finding out that he had been misled by recruiters. He is now in Kathmandu, and says traffickers are still enlisting Nepalis in Dubai and taking them to Moscow. 

“They identify themselves as non-resident Nepalis, medical students or businessmen,” says Rai who also paid Rs300,000 to the agent who took him there to bring him back. A bilingual Nepali helped him take a taxi 300km from the Donbas region to Moscow for his flight home.

Read also: Nepalis in the Russian Army want to quit, Bhadra Sharma

Nepalis in the Russian military NT
Suman Rai

Min Dahal’s brother joined the Russian Army last year, and told us he knows of an agent who goes by the name ‘Sachin’ who says he is a doctor, and was in Kathmandu four months ago. 

To find out the fate of his brother, Dahal called the agent on WhatsApp pretending to be an aspiring recruit. He was asked to pay Rs500,000 to be taken to Moscow. “I tried calling him again, but he smelled something fishy, and left the country,” Dahal said.

Roji Pun, a mother of two infants, is in Kathmandu and has joined the campaign pressuring the government to act. A friend of her husband in Russia messaged to inform her that her husband had been killed, but she is waiting to get his DNA sample so she can get confirmation and perform his last rites. 

Superintendent of Police Bhupendra Khatri, who led the raid against the recruiters arrested earlier this year, also says his hands were tied because of the lack of laws and the fact that victims have not filed complaints. 

Many families of Nepalis in the Russian Army have not heard from them, and fear the worst. Some are injured and in hospitals, while others are in custody for trying to desert and make furtive calls on WhatsApp to their families.  

They are not allowed to use phones on the frontlines. An eyewitness who returned said a fellow-Nepali who was taking a video was shot by the Russians. 

Others in training camps have been posting videos on TikTok of singing and dancing in uniforms. Although it is now banned, many Nepalis use a VPN to access the platform which, by all accounts, has been the main medium through which recruiters are reaching young Nepali men. 

Rabi Lawoti had always dreamt of joining the British or Indian Armies like his forebears, and regarded the military as an honorable occupation. He first found out about the Russian Army after seeing his friend Suman Rai on TikTok, who was wearing smart camouflage fatigues in Russia. Even better, the TikTok video said that after the war recruits could settle in Russia and live in Europe with their families. 

Read also: Nepali soldier captured in Ukraine, Nepali Times

Nepalis in the Russian military NT
Rabi Lawoti

Suman Rai now regrets posting those videos and misleading so many fellow Nepalis. He told us, “In those initial days in the training camp, it was fun, and posting on TikTok was part of the excitement. But reality set in as we got to know about the war and being forced to the frontlines.” 

Purna Bahadur Gurung was a bus driver in Dhading and found out that there were jobs for Nepalis in the Russian Army through TikTok. The videos promised a huge salary. He called the agent,  paid the fee and flew off. His wife Lilu heard from a Nepali that Gurung was killed in January. 

“My husband died in someone else’s war, a war that took everything from me," she says. “I hope the government will help bring his body back. I have nowhere to go, I have knocked on all doors.” 

TikTok and WhatsApp are also how anxious families of Nepalis still in Russia get updated about their wellbeing. 

“We only share happy moments on TikTok,” a Nepali soldier told us this week from the frontlines. “We do not want to worry our families back in Nepal. But every moment here is filled with horror. We are just trying to stay alive.” 

Nepalis in the Russian military NT
Unidentified Nepali soldiers in a trench.

The soldier’s wife Simran Thapa has appealed for his safe return and has reached out to Foreign Minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha, saying “My husband is waiting for his return but he hasn’t been able to.”

As the pressure grows from families to bring their young men home, both Russia and Nepal have only hollow gestures. Finance Minister Barsaman Pun had a photo-op with Russian Ambassador Aleksei Novikov on Wednesday, who maintained that most Nepalis had gone to Russia voluntarily and did not want to return to Nepal.

Nepal does not have any kind of recruitment agreement with Russia like it does with India or UK, but for the moment unemployment and the desire to leave is making many Nepali men vulnerable to human traffickers.

Nepalis say they knew about the government’s ban on travel to Russia, but admit it was their only choice. However, they say they were misled by recruiters about salaries, conditions and benefits, and had to pay hefty fees. 

“My husband is a 48-year-old returnee from Afghanistan and he tried going elsewhere but nothing worked out. A ride-sharing job can only provide so much, especially when our child needs to be educated,” says Gita Magar. “He had no choice but to give Russia a try” 

Most families say that it is the government’s responsibility to bring them home, as it couldn't give them a good life in Nepal.  
Gita Magar often gets WhatsApp calls from her husband in the Russian Army, and he tells her not to worry. 

Cradling her baby, she tells us, “My husband is ready for any  punishment for the mistake he made joining the Russian Army, but now I just want him back home."

Read also: From frying pan into fire for Nepalis in Russian Army, Dirgha Raj Upadhyay

Some names have been changed. 

Families of Lahure on the Ukraine Front

So far, 39 Nepalis serving in the Russian Army are known to have been killed. Families of 27 have conducted the final rites based on the confirmation from friends and the government. Fifteen of them are in Kathmandu to submit DNA samples to confirm the identity of their dead kin.

Roji Pun, Myagdi

Family of Nepali soldiers in Russian military NT
Roji Pun

“I won’t be online for the next three weeks,” was the last message Roji Pun received from her husband in the Russian Army last June. Six months later, he was still out of touch. On 19 February, his colleague reported that he had been killed in action on the Ukraine front.

Roji’s husband left in search for a better life not knowing the real conditions in Russia, leaving behind two young children. He borrowed Rs800,000 to pay recruiters for the Russian job, and the family is now saddled in debt, unable to pay back the money.

“My four-year-old still tries to call his father on WhatsApp,” says Roji who has been living in a hotel room in Kathmandu for two months, trying to pressure the government to at least help bring her husband’s body back and claim the compensation promised by the Russians.

Gita Gharti Magar, Piuthan

Family of Nepali soldiers in Russian military NT
Gita Gharti Magar

Bhim Bahadur Gharti Magar was in contact with his wife Gita for one month after he reached Moscow. Then for the last five months, nothing. A Pathao driver in Kathmandu, Bhim Bahadur was in a deep financial crisis and had tried to migrate unsuccessfully. When a local agent approached him about the Russian Army job that promised a handsome salary, he promptly applied. Gita now lives in a rented room in Kirtipur with her eight-year-old son. She has not been able to pay back the loan Bhim took to pay the recruiter. 

“Every night, I wait for his calls but not knowing about how he is breaking me every day,” she says.

Maya BK, Piuthan

Family of Nepali soldiers in Russian military NT
Maya BK

Somesh BK, a migrant worker in Qatar pressured his wife to send him Rs500,000  to pay an agent to be enlisted in the Russian Army. Initially, Maya refused, but later put her jewelry among other precious items as collateral to take out a loan. In total, Somesh paid Rs750,000 to the recruiter as fee, visa and ticket. Somesh left for Russia from Dubai.

A month ago, one of his injured colleagues reached out to Maya and told her by phone that her husband had been killed in battle.
“I felt like I had fallen off a cliff, and even now we do not have his body,” says Maya who is in Kathmandu to provide a DNA sample.

Read also: 531 Nepalis in Russian Army, Suman Nepali

Shobha Rai, Gorkha

Family of Nepali soldiers in Russian military NT
Shobha Rai

A former Nepal Army soldier, Madan Kumal surprised his family when he suddenly posted a TikTok video of himself in Russian Army camo fatigues six months ago. He looked happy, but soon he was sent to the frontlines. He managed to escape by paying Rs300,000 to a recruiter, but was arrested by the police in Moscow and detained for 35 days.

“We were hopeful for his return but now we are worried that he will be sent back to the battlefield,” says Shobha Rai, Madan’s sister-in-law.

Min Raj Dahal, Dhading

Family of Nepali soldiers in Russian military NT
Min Raj Dahal

Min Raj was waiting to join his older brother in Russia who had been posting proud pictures from a Russian Army training camp. His brother was formerly with the Nepal Army and was working as a security guard in Dubai.

“I’m waiting for my turn to get killed, we were all lured here with false promises,” his fearful brother tells him in WhatsApp calls. The local agent had told the brothers they were being recruited for a volunteer army. Min wants to take his brother’s place and have him back home. But that is not an option.

Jasodhan Rai, Morang

Family of Nepali soldiers in Russian military NT
Jasodhan Rai

Jasodhan Rai is in Kathmandu to pressure the government to rescue his brother who enlisted for the Russian Army through an agent. “Deep financial crisis in the home was the reason,” says Jasodhan, who is also a former migrant worker.

Jasodhan also wanted to join his brother when he saw TikTok posts and saw fancy photos of uniforms and guns. But once his brother was taken to the front, the family realised all was not well. His brother had gone missing for a month, is now in touch but wants to return.

Read also: 10 Nepalis from one town fighting in Ukraine, Sujata Dhungana

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