Hundreds of people attended a memorial service in Lusaka on Tuesday for a Zambian student who died fighting for Russia in Ukraine as Tanzania confirmed the death of another student who was also recruited in a Russian jail.
Family members broke down as they filed past the coffin of Lemekani Nyirenda at Lusaka Baptist Church, where the 23-year-old was a regular worshipper before moving to Russia to study nuclear engineering. Nyirenda was recruited by Russia's mercenary Wagner Group last year while serving a nine-and-a-half year jail term for a drug offence and sent to fight in Ukraine.
His death in September sparked a diplomatic spat, with Zambia demanding an urgent explanation from the Kremlin. Meanwhile, Tanzania on Tuesday confirmed that another student, Nemes Tarimo, had been killed after also being recruited in jail by Wagner.
"When Tarimo was serving jail, he was given an opportunity to join the Russian army group called Wagner for payment and the promise that he would be freed after the war," Tanzanian Foreign Minister Stergomena Tax said.
"Tarimo agreed, and he was taken to Ukraine where he was killed on October 24."
In recent months, men have been recruited from Russian prisons to fight on the front lines in Ukraine with the promise of reduced sentences and attractive fees. Tarimo, who had been studying in Russia since 2020, was arrested in March 2022 and sentenced to a seven-year jail term for undisclosed reasons.
"It's illegal for a Tanzanian national to join any foreign army," added the Foreign minister.
On Tuesday, Nyirenda's father paid tribute to his son, saying he was a hard worker who helped set up a beehive business for the family. Edwin Nyirenda told mourners his son had sought a part-time job and "started working as a courier" after posting an advertisement online when he got into trouble.
The two were last in touch at the end of August when Nyirenda told his father he would return home after going to fight in Ukraine. Nyirenda's body was repatriated in December and will be laid to rest in a private ceremony in Rufunsa, east of Lusaka, on Wednesday.
Funerals were delayed after some family members raised concerns that the remains might not belong to the student. But doubts were dispelled by a DNA test, said family spokesman Ian Banda.
"There may be some parts missing but by and large, we have the remains of Lemekhani," Banda told journalists after the service.