Ramchandra Khadka stood in front of a shrine in the heart of Kathmandu, Nepal, praying for his countrymen fighting for Russia in Moscow’s conflict with Ukraine.
As the ceremonial bells rang and the wonderful aroma of incense filled the air, he lit candles and presented flowers to a god. All he wants is for his Nepalese buddies to survive the horrible conflict.
The 37-year-old just returned to Nepal following injuries sustained on the front lines in Ukraine. He told CNN that he had seen awful things and regretted his decision to join the Kremlin’s army as a foreign mercenary.
Russia’s war in Ukraine is not Khadka’s first battle. He was one of Nepal’s Maoist rebels who fought a deadly battle with government forces for ten years, beginning in the mid-1990s. He then travelled to Afghanistan after being hired by a private military contractor to assist NATO forces there. He believed he had seen it all in his lifetime: bloodshed, death, and sorrow. However, 17 years after the Maoist struggle ended and with no employment prospects in Nepal, he chose to move to Russia and join the country’s military for money.
“I did not join the Russian military for pleasure. There were no work opportunities for me in Nepal. But, in retrospect, that was not the best idea. We didn’t know we’d be taken to the front lines so quickly or how bad the situation would be,” Khadka added.
He came to Moscow in September of last year. He claimed that after only two weeks of training, he was dispatched to the front lines in Bakhmut, a town in eastern Ukraine that saw some of the most intense fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces, armed with a gun and rudimentary equipment.
Khadka was deployed to Bakhmut twice, spending a total of one month there. During his second tour, a bullet injured him in the hip.
After being rescued and transported a few hundred metres away from the front lines, he was struck by shrapnel from a cluster bomb.
He is one of up to 15,000 Nepali men who have joined the Russian military, according to several reports. Last year, the Russian government unveiled a lucrative package for foreign fighters to join the country’s military.
The package includes a salary of at least $2,000 per month and a streamlined process to obtain a Russian passport. According to an index created by global citizenship and residence advisory firm Henley & Partners, Nepal’s passport is one of the worst in the world for global mobility, ranking below North Korea, and the Himalayan nation is among the world’s poorest, with a per capita GDP of $1,336 in 2022, according to World Bank data.
The Nepali government claims that over 200 of its countrymen are fighting for the Russian army and that at least 13 Nepalis have been killed in the conflict zone. However, parliamentarians and rights activists in Nepal claim that official figures grossly underestimate the true numbers.
Bimala Rai Paudyal, a prominent opposition Nepali lawmaker and former foreign minister, told the upper house of the country’s parliament on Thursday that between 14,000 and 15,000 Nepalis are fighting on the front lines, citing testimony from men returning from the war zone, and urged Russian authorities to provide the figures.
“The Russian government must have the data on how many foreign fighters have joined the Russian army and how many Nepalis are fighting for Russia,” she went on to say.
According to Nepal’s foreign ministry, Ukraine presently holds four Nepali fighters as prisoners of war (POWs).
The Russian foreign ministry has not responded to CNN’s inquiries about the number of Nepalese enlisted by the Russian army and how many have died thus far.
Kritu Bhandari, a Kathmandu-based politician and social activist, has taken the lead in organising a group of family members of Nepali men fighting in Russia. She claims that in recent weeks, over 2,000 families have sought her assistance in contacting their lost loved ones or returning those who are still in communication to the small South Asian nation.