‘I want to go home’: Nepalis fighting for Russia in Ukraine describe atrocities | The war between Russia and Ukraine

Kathmandu, Nepal – On a frigid morning in early January, somewhere near the city of Tokmak in the Zaporizhzhya region of Ukraine, Bimal Bhandari* began a perilous journey to escape the Russian army he was serving with. The 32-year-old Nepalese national was with another national who was also fighting for and against the Kremlin in Ukraine.

The two men knew that escaping the Russians would be a dangerous mission, but they concluded that the risk was worth it, when compared to their chances of survival as soldiers in Moscow’s brutal war.

Bhandari was in contact with a Nepalese agent in Russia through one of his relatives. The agent and another smuggler promised that they could design an escape plan: for $3,000 each, the two Nepalese soldiers would be let out. Three days after Bhandari and his friend shared their location, a Hindi-speaking man came with a driver and a vehicle at the crack of dawn, picked them up and dropped them off at an unknown location that the traffickers claimed was near the Russian-Ukrainian border.

The Hindi-speaking man told them that their handlers would be waiting to help them once they crossed to the “other side.” So, Bhandari and a friend tromped through knee-deep snow in minus 19 degrees Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) for 17 kilometers (11 miles) in about seven hours. Hungry and cold at the end of that trip, they contacted traffickers again — only to be told to wait 40 minutes for someone to pick them up.

It was three hours before the car arrived. There were no rescuers inside. Instead, she had a Russian border patrol team handcuff them and take them into the car. They were imprisoned for a day, and their passports were confiscated before Bhandari was taken to a health facility, where they were suffering from hypothermia.

“It was our only chance to escape this brutal war and we failed,” he told Al Jazeera from his hospital bed. “I don’t want to recover. Once I get better, I will be pushed to the front line.”

It is a fear that grips dozens, if not hundreds, of Nepalese families. While the government of Nepal does not have accurate numbers of the country’s citizens fighting as mercenaries for Russia, some analysts believe the number may reach a thousand. At least 12 Nepalis were killed in the fighting, and five others were captured by Ukraine.

The government of Nepal is conducting diplomatic negotiations with Russia to return its citizens and the bodies of the dead, and the patience of the families of the civilians who turned into mercenaries has begun. On Tuesday, families demonstrated outside the Russian embassy in Kathmandu, demanding the repatriation of their relatives and the repatriation of their bodies. Stop new hires Providing compensation to those killed in fighting.

This is a far cry from the hope and promise of life in Europe, which initially attracted many recruits to Moscow’s side.

Atit Chhetri, 25, is a Nepali mercenary hired by Russia to fight Ukraine.  He is among hundreds of desperate Nepalis, who have made the risky decision to serve a foreign power in search of a good salary, benefits and Russian citizenship.  (Courtesy: Atit Chetril)
Atit Chhetri, 25, is a Nepali mercenary hired by Russia to fight Ukraine. He is among hundreds of desperate Nepalis serving a foreign power in search of a good salary and Russian citizenship (Photo courtesy of Ait Chhetri)

“Good breakthrough”

Atit Chhetri, 25, from Surkhet in western Nepal, dreamed of life in Europe. He had his eyes on Portugal. But he had no way to the continent — until last October when he saw a TikTok video about Nepalis being recruited into the Russian army and posted a letter of inquiry.

Within a few minutes, he received a direct message from an agent with contact details. The agent asked for $9,000 and promised a salary of about $3,000 a month, plus benefits and bonuses, and later Russian citizenship for him and his family.

For Chhetri, who was unemployed, this seemed like a ticket to a better life. Before the show. Four days later, he obtained a Russian tourist visa and a ticket to Moscow via Dubai that was booked for October 21, 2023.

This was Chhetri’s first trip to a foreign land. “The agent asked me to contact him if I had problems with immigration. The immigration authority stopped me for a while, but let me go immediately after I contacted my agent.”

Bhandari, who was offered a similar offer, traveled to Russia on October 19. He had lived in Kuwait for six years before that, but was never able to save enough to lift his family out of poverty. What he earned went to pay interest on the loans he took out to reach Kuwait.

Frustrated, he returned to Nepal and was working as a dump truck driver when the opportunity arose to fight for Russia. “My family’s economic situation is miserable, so I thought this would be a good achievement,” Bhandari said.

He also contacted the traffickers via TikTok. They were running a travel agency in front of the Russian Embassy in Kathmandu. On his way to Moscow via Dubai, Bhandari said he met nearly 30 Nepalis waiting to board a plane to join the Russian army — some of whom were traveling from Kathmandu, while others were Nepali migrant workers already in the Middle East.

When he landed in Moscow, he was also received by a local Nepali agent. “The Kathmandu agent asked me to give him $1,200 when I arrived. He took me to the toilet at the airport, and I gave him the money,” Bhandari said. He was then taken to a recruitment camp where he signed a one-year contract to fight as a soldier.

Like Bhandari, 36-year-old Bharat Shah could not resist the offer. In Nepal, he worked as a traffic policeman before leaving for Dubai, where he earned 2,400 dirhams ($650) per month. So when agents offered him $3,000 a month to fight for Russia, he agreed.

I told him several times not to go to Russia. “He said it was a great opportunity to earn more money and settle there with his family,” his father, Kul Bahadur Shah, told Al Jazeera by phone from Kailali in western Nepal.

At first, this “opportunity” seemed to pay off. Shah returned 250,000 Nepalese rupees (about $1,900) after traveling to Russia.

But he was killed in battle on November 26. At home, his wife now has to take care of their four-year-old son and two-month-old daughter alone, whom he has never seen.

Three Nepalese men, ready to go to the battlefield in Russian-occupied Ukraine.  (Courtesy: Atit Chhetri)
Nepalese mercenaries in a camp in Russian-occupied Ukraine (Photo by Ait Chhetri)

“We were like their shield”

Recruits say they received almost no training before being sent into combat. While the traffickers assured these civilians that they received a full three-month training program, they received less than a month of combat training in the Rostov region in southwestern Russia on the border with Ukraine. “I only saw a gun from a distance, and I had never carried it before,” Chhetri told Al Jazeera.

Another soldier, 34-year-old Ratna Karki*, was wounded in the battle and is currently in hospital. According to Karki, officers in his unit are often sent Nepalese, Tajik and Afghan fighters To the front line. “The Russians ordered us from behind. We were like their shield,” he told Al Jazeera by phone.

Before Bhandari was deployed to his battalion, he was thought to be part of a reserve force for the Russians because he did not have any war skills. “They (Russian commanders) forced us to go and inspect enemy territory, which is very scary,” Bhandari said. “I killed a lot, otherwise they would kill me,” he said.

“We have to be on alert. It can be any time during the day or night. When they order, we have to go to the battlefield,” Chhetri said. “Some days, we have to spend the whole night in a basement.”

Unlike Bhandari, who was arrested while trying to escape, Ram Chandra Shrestha was lucky enough to escape.

Shrestha, a former soldier in the Nepalese Army, and three of his friends paid human traffickers $2,000 each to get out of Ukraine and cross the border into Russia. He then arrived in Moscow and traveled to Kathmandu via New Delhi in December. “Many have tried to escape, but they have failed,” he added. “Now the Russians have also tightened their vigilance, and thus it has become very difficult to escape,” Shrestha told Al Jazeera.

Nepalese Foreign Minister Narayan Prakash Saud speaks to The Associated Press during an interview in his office in Kathmandu, Nepal, Thursday, January 25, 2024. Nepal has asked Russia to return hundreds of Nepali citizens who were recruited to fight against Ukraine. The Nepalese foreign minister announced Thursday that the bodies of those killed were being returned. In conflict.  (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha)
Nepal has asked Russia to return hundreds of Nepalese citizens who were recruited to fight against Ukraine and return the bodies of those killed in the conflict, Foreign Minister Narayan Prakash Saud confirmed in an interview in Kathmandu, Nepal on Thursday. January 25, 2024 (Niranjan Shrestha/AP Photo)

‘horror’

After three months of war, Bhandari had not received his wages once, while Chhetri received less than half of what he was promised.

The Nepalese fighters and their families are urging their government to intervene so that the recruits can return to their country.

“We are in regular contact with the Russian government and have asked them for a list of names of Nepalese recruits to repatriate and send their bodies soon,” he added. Amrit Bahadur Rai, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Al Jazeera. “We also asked them to provide compensation to the families of the deceased.” However, the Russian government has not publicly responded to any of the requests. The Russian embassy in Kathmandu was not available for comment.

Kul Bahadur Shah has given up on receiving his son’s body, but he is still waiting for compensation. He told Al Jazeera: “His friends said we will receive compensation of at least $45,000, and his widow and children will also receive a residence permit, education, and government benefits from Russia.”

Bhandari said that in Ukraine, he doesn’t care about money anymore. “I want to go home,” he said. “When I talk to my family, I say I’m safe, so they don’t worry.

“But it’s terrifying. I could die at any time.”

*Some names have been changed to protect the identities of individuals concerned for their safety.

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