A small country far from Ukraine is sending hundreds of people to war, on both sides | ET REALITY


Several months ago, Sandip Thapaliya, an unemployed lab technician, called his sister in Kathmandu to share some interesting news.

“I joined the Russian army!” he exclaimed over the phone from Moscow. He said he had been unable to find a decent job in Nepal, so this was his best option. He would soon be sent to Ukraine.

Her younger sister Shanta couldn’t believe it.

“Are you crazy? Have you been bitten by a mad dog?” she shouted. “Don’t you know that thousands of people are dying there? To them you are like an insect.”

He begged her not to worry (after all, he was simply registering as a doctor) and promised to keep in touch.

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

But less than a month later, he left a brief voice message: “They are taking us to the jungle. “I’ll call you when I get back.”

Then, silence.

His story, of desperation to find work at home that led to the life of a contract soldier thousands of miles away, is remarkably familiar in Nepal, where hundreds of young people have taken sides in the Ukrainian 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, most of them are fighting for Russia.

But a smaller group has joined the Foreign Legion on the Ukrainian side, according to legion members. This raises the possibility that young people from a poor Himalayan nation who have no interest in the war could turn on each other in the trenches of Ukraine, a disturbing prospect that is causing alarm at home.

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

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

More than 200 years ago, the British recruited Nepalese Gurkha soldiers to help them put down rebellions and take over India. The Gurkhas fought for the British in both world wars and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The war in Ukraine has put Nepal in a difficult situation. It has tried to remain neutral, refusing to join economic sanctions against Moscow. But unlike India, Nepal has taken a stance at the United Nations against the violent expansionism of Russia.

Nepalese officials are urging young people to stay away from the war. Bajgain says the government should tell the Russian military to stop recruiting Nepalese citizens, but that the government does not have “the guts” to do so.

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

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Sandip, 30, was looking for work. He had been working as a technician in a Covid laboratory, but was laid off when cases decreased. At the same time he fell in love and got married.

Last fall, as inflation was soaring in Nepal and tourism was plummeting, he hatched a plan: He would get a student visa to Russia, work there for a couple of years, and then head to Western Europe. He really wanted to live in Spain.

His wife helped pay $8,000 to a company in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, which made the arrangements (flights, visa and registration at a Russian language school) and last October he landed in Moscow. But things didn’t go as planned.

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

But in May something changed. The President of Russia, Vladimir V. Putin, announced that foreigners who serve one year in the Russian army would be accelerated to obtain full citizenship.

For Russia, it was a way to replenish ranks after absorbing staggering losses. For immigrants like Sandip, it was a seemingly irresistible opportunity, although, in the words of his sister, “he is skinny, weak and never showed any interest in military things.”

The same day Putin signed the measure, Sandip signed a contract with the Russian Defense Ministry. He forced him to participate in “activities to maintain or restore international peace.”

Sandip joined the Russian army this year and earned about $750 a month.

Several other Nepalis and family members with knowledge of the program said the recruits received only brief training. The photographs show them in a gym somewhere in Russia, working with drones and wielding Kalashnikovs under the gaze of Russian trainers.

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

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

Around that time, a Nepalese soldier named Tamrakar, whose family would identify him only by his first name for fear that Russia would deny him medical care, was seriously wounded in Bakhmut, the site of the bloodiest fighting of the war. He also fought for Russia. A missile hit his trench, breaking his hand and burning his legs. He was taken to a hospital in Moscow where “nurses feed him with a spoon,” said his father, a factory worker in the southern plains of Nepal.

His father said he knew little about geopolitics, but felt Russia was bullying Ukraine, something he could relate to, coming from Nepal, a tiny country caught between two giants, India and China.

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

Another Nepalese who joined the Russians said he respected Putin’s “bold personality” and wanted to fight 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 with Moscow. The pay is better than fighting for Ukrainians and, he said, “I like Putin.”

Youth advocates in Nepal cite widespread unemployment as the main reason for Russia’s recruiting success.

“Of the 500,000 young people who enter the labor market each year, only 80,000 or 100,000 are hired in Nepal,” said Binoj Basnyat, a retired Nepalese general who now works as a researcher at Rangsit University in Thailand. “Where would the rest go?”

In June, Sandip was sent to Bakhmut. Her sister, a pharmacist in Kathmandu, was so consumed by anxiety that she tried to stay awake at night to avoid having nightmares.

After Shanta stopped hearing from him, she sent messages to family, friends, Nepalis working in Russia, Nepali diplomats (anyone she could think of) asking for help.

He became obsessed with the news from Ukraine. scrolling through his phone for updates on Bakhmut, which the Russians captured in May after slaughtering wave after wave of men.

Shanta even walked into the Foreign and Home Ministries, clutching a plastic envelope with documents and photographs, and demanding answers. She didn’t get any. But then, at the end of August, her efforts finally paid off.

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

That was it.

“I felt like my whole world was falling apart,” Shanta said.

Nepalese officials later confirmed his death, leaving Shanta hopeless.

His family is Hindu and believes that the soul can only be freed from the body through cremation. He wants to travel to the Russian cemetery, 200 miles from Moscow, and bring home the remains of his brother. But Nepalese officials in Moscow told him that the Russian military would not allow it.

However, she is determined and affirms that her life has been reduced to a goal that a year ago she would never have imagined: recovering a piece of bone from her brother, whom she loved so much, so that her soul can move on.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting from London.

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