Russia recruiting thousands of Nepali men to fight Ukraine war

World

Around 2,000 Nepali men have been recruited by Russia to fight in its war against Ukraine, Sky News understands.

Driven by poverty, many of the Nepali mercenaries are now desperate to return.

Ganesh, 35, is one of the few recruits lucky enough to have made it home. He spent four and a half months fighting in Donetsk and he says Nepalis were “treated like dogs”.

“It was very frightening. It wasn’t man to man, bullet to bullet. We were attacked by drones and it was terrifying,” he said.

We spoke to him in Kathmandu as he prayed at a temple, relieved but traumatised by his experience on the frontline.

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Ganesh only escaped the Russian military on his third attempt

He says soldiers were taken to Avangard training centre, a military academy outside of Moscow, where they were for two weeks.

Ganesh served 10 years in the Indian army, but many others alongside him were young and inexperienced. He describes some as never having held a gun before.

‘Thrown into conflict with little support’

After training, he says there was a sharp shift in the way foreign mercenaries were treated: they were suddenly thrown into conflict with very little support.

“For the first two weeks of training, life was good. But once we were sent to Ukraine, we didn’t have enough food and were beaten by the Russians. It was really bad.”

Nepali men, Ganesh claims, were cannon fodder in their war. “The original Russian soldiers were behind us. On the frontline it was mercenaries.”

He describes a clear pecking order with Russian criminals, Nepalis and Indians ahead of Kremlin troops.

Ganesh saw three Nepali men killed on the battlefield, but has heard of many, many more casualties.

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‘Once we were sent to Ukraine, we didn’t have enough food and were beaten by the Russians’

Soldiers told Russia was ‘full of opportunities’

He says he was struggling to find work and when he went to an agent to see if he could work in Luxembourg, the agent suggested he should go to Russia instead because it was “full of opportunities”.

Ganesh then had to take out a loan and pay him one million Nepali Rupees (nearly £6,000) to travel from Moscow via Dubai on a tourist visa.

The average monthly Nepali salary is the equivalent of less than £150. But he was told by the agent he could earn about £1,675 a month if he joined the Kremlin’s campaign.

Once in Russia he then had to pay another agent nearly £800 just to be taken to the training camp.

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Ganesh said they were attacked by drones

The figure of 2,000 men recruited into the Russian army is based on the testimony of returning soldiers, as well as Russian immigration data. It has also been cross-referenced with estimates provided by campaigners supporting the families of those still serving or dead.

Many Nepalis have described being given student or tourist visas to get to Russia and the Nepali government is so concerned, that it has taken action.

Nepal has asked for soldiers to be repatriated

It was already illegal for Nepalis to fight for foreign militaries, including Russia’s. But in January this year, the government banned its citizens from travelling to Russia or Ukraine for work and has asked Moscow to repatriate all Nepalis who were recruited.

Superintendent Nawaraj Adhikari told Sky News the police are cracking down on agents – the men who help sort the documents required to cross into Russia and illegally fight its war.

“Police have already arrested 22 suspects,” he said. “It’s a big, serious problem.”

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Superintendent Nawaraj Adhikari

The relatives of more than 150 Nepali mercenaries have filed requests appealing to the consular department after losing contact with their relatives. And yet, men desperate to escape poverty, continue to make the perilous journey to the battlefield.

‘It’s not like it looks on TikTok’

Many say they were wooed by watching TikTok videos of happy-looking recruits training in Russia. But Ganesh is urging anyone considering it not to sign up.

“I would tell them not to go. On TikTok you see them with fancy uniforms with fancy guns. But it’s nothing like that.”

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TikTok videos showing Nepali men in the Russian army

Getting out of the war is proving treacherous. Ganesh said he tried to flee with six other Nepali men, but was caught and badly beaten by Russian soldiers.

He tried a second time to use an agent. “There was a Nepali guy, I contacted him and he said to send me 200,000 rubles (£1,700).

“I did that, then ran away from the barracks and looked around for the taxi he was meant to send but it wasn’t there. Then he went out of contact.”

Ganesh said many of his fellow Nepalis had tried the same. “I have seen 10 to 15 Nepalis who were wandering around, out of their minds, cheated by agents.”

He eventually fled again on foot, sleeping in old buildings, spending a week in the forest before finally surrendering to the Russian police in Donetsk.

“I realised I could not cross the border and that I wouldn’t survive if I stayed here. I gave myself up and went to the police. I was detained for one-and-a-half months and then they sent me back to Nepal.”

Kritu Bhandari, a Kathmandu-based politician and social campaigner, has become the leader of a group of family members of Nepali mercenaries who are calling for their return from Russia.

She says in recent weeks about 700 families have asked her for help in bringing their relatives home. She says she is also aware of 260 mercenaries who are out of contact with their loved ones.

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Kathmandu

The Nepali government told Sky News 246 of its citizens are fighting for the Russian army currently and that at least 21 have been killed. But lawmakers and human rights’ campaigners in Nepal say those official estimates vastly underestimate the real numbers.

According to the Nepali Foreign Ministry, Russian authorities have reportedly agreed to provide compensation to the victims’ families and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has assured his Nepali counterpart that he will address their concerns.

But Moscow has said nothing yet about stopping the recruitment of Nepalis or repatriating the dead. Sky News asked the Russian Ministry of Defence and the embassy in Nepal to comment on Ganesh’s allegations, and to provide the number of Nepali mercenaries in its armed forces. Neither have yet responded.

What is clear is that Nepal is caught in a conflict it has no stake in, driven by many who were trying to escape poverty.

They now look increasingly exposed with no guarantees of a safe return.

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