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A small country far from Ukraine is sending hundreds to war, on both sides

Several months ago, Sandip Thapaliya, an out-of-work lab technician, called his sister in Kathmandu, Nepal, to share some exciting news.

“I’ve joined the Russian army!” he exclaimed over the phone from Moscow. It had been impossible for him to find a decent job back home in Nepal, he said, so this was his best option. Soon he would be deployed to Ukraine.

His younger sister Shanta could not believe it.

“Are you mad? Have you been bitten by a rabid dog?” she yelled. “Don’t you know thousands of people are dying over there? For them, you are like an insect.”

He begged her not to worry — he was just signing up as a medic, after all — and promised to stay in touch.

For a few weeks, he did, sharing the contract he signed for about 75,000 rubles (about $750) a month, photographs of himself in crisp camouflage, and even some videos that showed him marching around a Russian military base.

But less than a month later, he left a short voice message: “They’re taking us to the jungle. Call you when I’m back.”

Then, silence.

His story, of desperation for work at home leading to the life of a contract soldier thousands of miles away, is remarkably familiar in Nepal, where hundreds of young men have taken sides in the Ukraine war — both sides.

According to Nepali government officials, documents shared with The New York Times and interviews with family members and a soldier serving in Ukraine, the bulk of them are fighting for Russia.

But a smaller group has joined the Foreign Legion on the side of Ukraine, according to legion members. This raises the possibility that young men from a poor Himalayan nation with no stake in the war could be pitted against one another in the trenches of Ukraine, an unsettling prospect raising alarm back home.

“If this situation continues, Nepalis will kill each other in the Russia-Ukraine war,” said Rajendra Bajgain, a member of the governing coalition in Nepal’s Parliament. “I feel guilty seeing all this before my eyes. It’s criminal.”

Landlocked, with a growing population and rising unemployment, Nepal is one of Asia’s most impoverished countries. It also has a long history of exporting young men to other people’s wars.

More than 200 years ago, the British enlisted Nepali Gurkha soldiers to help them put down rebellions and take over India. Gurkhas went on to fight for the British in both world wars and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Ukraine war has put Nepal in a tight spot. It has tried to stay neutral, refusing to join economic sanctions against Moscow. But unlike India, Nepal has taken a stand at the United Nations against Russia’s violent expansionism.

Nepali officials are urging young men to stay away from the war. Bajgain said that the government should tell the Russian army to stop recruiting Nepali citizens but that the government doesn’t have “the guts” to do it.

Nepal’s struggle to respond has left the families involved in deep distress. “I told my brother to escape,” Shanta said. “But he was trapped.”

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Sandip, 30, was looking for a job. He had been working as a tech at a COVID-19 lab but was laid off as cases dropped. At the same time, he fell in love and got married.

Last fall, as inflation soared in Nepal and tourism plunged, he hatched a scheme: He would get a student visa to Russia, work there for a couple of years, then make his way to Western Europe. He really wanted to live in Spain.

His wife helped pay $8,000 to an outfit in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, that made the arrangements — flights, visa and enrollment at a Russian language school — and last October, he landed in Moscow. But things did not go according to plan.

He had a hard job at a metal factory, then in a flower shop, then shoveling snow, and his immigration clearance was running out.

But in May, something changed. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that foreigners who serve a year in the Russian military would be fast-tracked for full citizenship.

For Russia, it was a way to replenish the ranks after absorbing staggering losses. For migrants such as Sandip, it was an apparently irresistible opportunity, even though, in the words of his sister, “He’s skinny, weak and never showed any interest in military things, ever.”

The same day Putin signed the measure, Sandip signed a contract with Russia’s Defense Ministry. It obligated him to participate in “activities to maintain or restore international peace.”

Several other Nepalis and family members with knowledge of the program said the recruits were only briefly trained. Photographs show them in a gym somewhere in Russia, working with drones and handling Kalashnikovs under the gaze of Russian trainers.

Young men from India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Congo and a constellation of other countries joined the program, the Nepalis said. Less than a month later, they were deployed to Ukraine.

(The Cuban government recently said it was trying to “neutralize” a human-trafficking ring that was sending Cubans to Russia to fight in Ukraine.)

About this time, a Nepali soldier named Tamrakar, whose family would identify him only by his first name for fear of Russia denying him medical care, was badly wounded in Bakhmut, the site of the bloodiest fighting in the war. He, too, was fighting for Russia. A missile hit his trench, shattering his hand and charring his legs. He was taken to a hospital in Moscow where “nurses feed him with a spoon,” said his father, a factory worker in Nepal’s southern plains.

His father said he knew little about geopolitics but felt that Russia was bullying Ukraine — something he could relate to, coming from Nepal, a sliver-sized country squeezed between two giants: India and China.

“I don’t know who Putin is or his intentions,” he said. “But he shattered our dream.”

Another Nepali who joined the Russians said he respected Putin’s “bold personality” and wanted to fight against what he called “a Western monopoly.”

The soldier, who asked to be identified only by his call sign, Rai, said he had first tried to join the British army. When that failed, he signed up with Russia. The pay is better than fighting for the Ukrainians, and, he said, “I like Putin.”

Advocates for young people in Nepal cite widespread unemployment as the main reason for Russia’s recruiting success.

“Out of 500,000 youths coming onto the job market every year, only 80,000 or 100,000 get hired in Nepal,” said Binoj Basnyat, a retired Nepali general now working as a researcher with Rangsit University in Thailand. “Where would the rest go?”

In June, Sandip was sent to Bakhmut. His sister, a pharmacist in Kathmandu, became so consumed with anxiety, she tried to stay up at night to avoid having nightmares.

After Shanta stopped hearing from him, she messaged relatives, friends, Nepalis working in Russia, Nepali diplomats — anyone she could think of — for help.

She became obsessed with Ukraine news, scrolling on her phone for updates on Bakhmut, which the Russians captured in May after sacrificing wave after wave of men.

Shanta even marched into the Foreign and Home ministries, clutching a plastic envelope of documents and pictures and demanding answers. She got none. But then, in late August, her efforts finally bore fruit.

A Russian officer sent a relative a message: “Your brother was buried on 14 July at 12:50 at Navo-Talisty’s cemetery, Ivanovo, Russia. I hope that I have helped you. My condolences.”

That was it.

“I felt like my entire world was collapsing,” Shanta said.

Nepali officials later confirmed his death, which has left Shanta hopeless.

Her family is Hindu and believes the soul can be released from the body only by cremation. She wants to travel to the Russian cemetery, 200 miles from Moscow, and bring home her brother’s remains. But Nepali officials in Moscow told her the Russian army would not allow this.

She is determined, however, saying that her life has now been reduced to a goal that a year ago she could never have imagined for herself: to bring back a piece of bone from her brother — whom she loved so much — so his soul can move on.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

(Published 21 October 2023, 17:20 IST)

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