Nepalis in the Russian Army want to quitThey call home from the battlefront to say they were not trained, and have not got the salaries promised
Nepalis desperate to make a better living have historically served in foreign armies, but rarely do they fight on opposing sides as is happening in the Russia-Ukraine war.
Nepali soldiers who defected to the British side in 1815 during the Anglo-Nepal War did fight against their own country. The history of recruitment into the British and Indian armies is more than two centuries old, and to this day Nepalis serve in the Indian Army which is often engaged in border skirmishes with two friendly neighbours, Pakistan and China.
Given the tradition of Gurkha recruitment, it was perhaps natural that Nepalis would find themselves on both sides of the frontlines in eastern Ukraine.
For many of the Nepalis studying and working in Ukraine, the country was a stopover in their quest to get to Western Europe. Russia’s invasion in February 2022 offered a chance to do just that, as the borders with Poland and Slovakia were opened for refugees fleeing the war.
But some Nepalis remained, and a handful joined the Ukrainian Army as the country mobilised men between 18-60. Within two weeks of the conflict, a video circulated on social media of a Nepali man claiming to be defending against the Russian invasion because Ukraine had given him food, shelter, and work.
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Another 63-year-old Nepali father also decided to stay to fight because he did not want to leave his conscripted Ukrainian son behind.
Kiev created the International Legion of Territorial Defence of Ukraine, a military unit of foreign fighters in its reserve forces. Thousands of volunteers from across the world signed up.
As the war grinds on with heavy casualties, both armies are short of fighters.
In May videos of Nepalis in camouflage fatigues in Russian training camps began to circulate on social media. Other clips of Nepalis in the Russian Army followed, with many in the comment section asking what the salary was like and how they could also enlist.
Since then, hundreds of Nepalis based in Russia for study and employment have joined the Russian Army and some have been posted on the Ukraine front.
Read also: Trapped in Ukraine
Meanwhile, back in Nepal other youngsters are leaving for Russia on student and tourist visas to join the Russian military. Most have no prior combat training.
Ramesh, a 30-something health graduate, got married two years ago. Unable to get a job in Nepal, he went to Russia hoping to find better prospects.
He learnt Russian and found employment in a factory. But the employers were late with his salary, so he quit and did odd jobs until he discovered he could earn up to Rs400,000 a month by enlisting in the Russian Army.
His ancestors had served in the Nepal and Indian armies, but Ramesh had no experience. Still, the salary was too attractive, so he joined up.
“My brother has always been too thin, and has broken his right arm twice, and before this had never shown any inclination to be a soldier,” says Ramesh’s sister Sita.
Ramesh’s weak build did not seem to matter, and the Russian Army was desperate for fighting men. On 15 May, he signed the contract to serve in the Russian Army. On 7 July, Sita got a message that he was undergoing training in a forest somewhere.
Ramesh’s family have not heard from him since, although they heard rumours he was wounded and in hospital. His friend in Russia has also not been able to contact Ramesh either, and only knows that he was taken to the Ukraine front in Bakhmut.
Many other Nepali conscripts are said to be in Bakhmut along with other foreigner mercenaries, and some have been able to speak to their families back home.
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The relatives say the Nepali soldiers described brutal battles with many dead and injured, and they were warned by Russian commanders not to contact anyone because they were in the ‘Red Zone’.
Families of Nepalis in the Russian Army told us they were sent to the frontlines without adequate training, and were only getting one-fourth of the promised salary. Many of them have realised that the realities of war are much different and want to return home.
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“What we want most is to be able to get in touch with family members over there, and for all Nepalis who joined the Russian military to be brought back safely,” says Ramesh’s sister Sita. “Nepalis must not be allowed to leave to join the Russian army from now.”
Some of the Nepalis have been given Russian passports after President Vladimir Putin signed a decree in May to make it easier for foreign citizens who have served one year in the military to obtain naturalised Russian citizenship.
“Six out of the eight people I lived with in my hostel joined the Russian Army, and I wanted to join too, but could not because I had to undergo surgery on my hand, ” says a student from Sarlahi who recently returned from Russia.
“When I hear my friends on the frontlines weeping on the phone as they describe missiles raining down on them I am glad I did not join them,” he says.
Even so, there are hundreds of other young men in Nepal who are attracted by the promise of high salaries to go to Russia or Ukraine to be recruited.
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Young Nepalis have been flying to Moscow on student visas, and those previously based in the Gulf have left for Russia on tourist visas. Russia has relaxed visa procedures to allow foreign fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Congo and other countries to join its military.
Foreign recruits were told they would undergo a three-month training before being sent into combat, but reports suggest that many of them, including Nepalis, are being taken directly to the frontlines within a month of signing up.
“Everyone is terrified, but there is no way to come back because that would be tantamount to desertion,” says a Nepali student in Russia whose husband joined her in Moscow and eventually enlisted in the Russian Army. He had made several unsuccessful attempts in Nepal to join the Indian and British armies.
But now, her husband also wants to quit and go home. “The only way to stop this situation from becoming more serious, is for the Nepal government to take action,” she adds.
Having been in constant touch with recruits in the Russian army, the Nepali student compiled a list of 18 other Nepalis like her husband. They have contacted the Nepali Embassy in Moscow to facilitate their return.
Read also: India’s trial by fire for soldiers from Nepal, Anita Shrestha
But embassy staff say the Russian authorities are slow to respond, and have advised the Nepalis to fulfil their contracts and go home after their year is up.
In Nepal, worried relatives have come to Kathmandu from across the country to meet Foreign Minister N P Saud and urge him to use diplomatic channels to bring their family members back home.
Saud reportedly told them the ministry had approached the Russian government, but that rescuing their family members from the Ukraine front “would be difficult.”
The Nepal government originally described videos of Nepalis in the Russian military as ‘fake’, but after pressure from relatives the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement asking Nepalis not to join the militaries of any nation except the ones that Nepal has an agreement with. The statement did not mention Russia.
Nepal has agreements with India, UK, Brunei, Singapore, Oman for its nationals to serve their security forces, but Nepalis are also in the Ukrainian, Romanian, and French militaries. Retired Nepali soldiers have also been recruited by other nations to work in active war zones.
There are more Nepalis fighting for Russia than Ukraine, but no one has an exact count. The only proof are individual posts on social media, and calls from the frontlines to fellow Nepalis in Russia or to families back home in Nepal.
Read also: Recruitment of Nepalis into Indian Army paused, Jibraj Chalise and Durga Rana Magar
Most Nepalis who are on the trenches of eastern Ukraine are not too bothered about which side in the war is right. It is mostly about earning enough to provide for families back home by whatever means necessary.
In 2004, 12 Nepali migrant workers who were promised work in Jordan but tricked into going to Iraq were kidnapped and executed by an Iraqi insurgent group. In June 2016, 14 Nepali security personnel working for the Canadian Embassy were killed in a Taliban suicide bombing attack while their envoy was en route to the embassy in Kabul.
These tragedies are still fresh in Nepal’s collective memory, and the possibility of history repeating itself in another war zone has added to the desperation of families who worry about their relatives trapped in the Donbas.
Ramesh’s sister Sita says: “People like my brother have made a mistake, but all we ask is for the government to bring them back home safely. ”
Despite its policy of neutrality, Nepal has sided with the majority of nations to condemn Russia’s occupation of Ukraine. The question now is: how will the fact that its nationals are fighting in Ukraine affect Nepal's foreign policy position and standing on the global stage.
Read also: In the Line of Fire, Editorial
Identities have been altered to protect interviewees.