This article by Jibraj Chalise was originally published in Nepali Times, and an edited version has been republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.
During the Dasain festival in November 2023, Sarala Thapa went to her parents’ home in the Kapilvastu district in Western Nepal. It would be a celebration without her brother Rupak, who had gone to Russia.
But the occasion turned tragic when three people showed up at their doorstep in Banganga Municipality to tell them that Rupak had been killed in action on the Ukraine front, some 9,000 kilometers away.
Since then, the family has been unable to process that Rupak is gone. The 24-year-old had gone to Russia two years ago on a student visa and, like dozens of Nepalis, had joined the Russian Army, lured by the promise of a handsome salary and eventual Russian citizenship.
“My brother called four months ago to say that we might not hear from him during his six-month training period and that he would call us once training was over,” says Sarala. “It has not been six months yet.”
Ward Chair (local government head of a ward) Sanju Saru Magar had received a phone call from Kathmandu about Rupak having been killed during the conflict in Ukraine. The caller asked them to convey the information to Rupak’s family but was unable to say if Rupak’s body could be brought back.
Ward council member Rajkumar Tharu was among those who went to Rupak’s house in early November to notify his family of his death. It was their second attempt to deliver the news to the family. Ward member Tharu, who is also neighbours with the Karki family, says that Rupak's father, Man Bahadur and mother, Laxmi, were unable to accept that their child had been killed.
“They were still sure that their son would call them once he had finished training,” says Tharu. “They also found it difficult to believe because we could provide them with no other detail surrounding his death.”
Ward president Magar says that the person who called to break the news identified themself as a Russian Embassy official, but upon checking on True Caller, they found the number to have been of a foreign employment company. Meanwhile, the unconfirmed news of Rupak’s death spread like wildfire in the district in Nepal that is the birthplace of the Buddha.
“We tried multiple times to reach the number again, but we could not get back in touch,” says Magar. “We had to notify his family with what little information we had.”
On December 4, 2023, Nepal's Foreign Ministry officially published the names of six Nepalis who had been killed while serving in the Russian Army. Rupak Karki’s name was second on the list.
Others who have died include Sandip Thapaliya of Gorkha, Dewan Rai of Pokhara, Pritam Karki of Syangja, Raj Kumar Roka of Dolakha, and Ganga Raj Moktan of Ilam.
Following confirmation from the Foreign Ministry, Lumbini provincial assembly member Bishnu Panthi along with other elected officials as well as the local police, reached Rupak Karki's house on the next morning to officially notify his family of his passing.
But the government officials were only able to tell the family that Rupak had been killed in action in the Russia-Ukraine war, not when or how he had died, says Rupak’s uncle Gautam Karki.
“There is still a lot of shock and confusion here,” says Gautam. “Rupak’s parents are unable to believe that their only son has died without seeing his body.”
Rupak’s father rears chickens, while his mother is an office assistant at a local microfinance company. The couple’s older daughter, Sarala, is married.
Rupak himself had been learning Korean to try to find work in South Korea. But he along with his neighbour Yuvaraj Poudel, decided to go to Russia in early 2022 after learning that it was easier to acquire a student visa and find work there. The two reached Russia through a Kathmandu-based foreign employment agency in May 2022.
A year later, Rupak entered into a Special Military Operations (SMO) agreement with the Russian Ministry of Defense to serve in the Russian Army. Yuvaraj Poudel, who went to Russia with Rupak, was also recruited and is in regular contact with his family.
The Russian website Book of Memories of Ivanovo states that Rupak Karki was killed on June 30 on the Ukraine front while participating in the ‘special military operation’. The website includes photographs of a grave with his name in Cyrillic and a photograph in the city of Novo-Talitsy in the Ivanovo Oblast, a Russian administrative region 324 kilometers northeast of Moscow.
Another Russian news website, Cursiv, citing a book of remembrance from the Ivanovo region, states that Sandip Thapaliya and another person whose nationality has not been disclosed were buried in the same region along with Rupak Karki.
Sandip Thapaliya was said to have been killed in the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in July, and his body was thought to have been buried near the frontline. According to the memorial, Sandip was killed on 28 June during a ‘combat mission’.
Photographs appear to show names and dates of birth on the tombs of Rupak and Sandip, with wreaths placed atop their graves.
An unnamed Nepali prisoner of war in Ukrainian military captivity has sent a tearful video to his family asking them to bring him home. In the video, he said there are “other” Nepali prisoners also in Ukraine.
Nepal’s Foreign Ministry revealed in November 2023 that a Nepali recruit in the Russian Army, Bibek Khatri of Bardia, was also a prisoner of war in Ukraine and that the government was using diplomatic channels to bring him back.
On December 5, Nepal Police took ten foreign employment recruiters into custody for allegedly sending Nepalis to Russia on visitor visas for recruitment into the Russian military. Reports said the agencies had sent at least 200 Nepalis to Russia, promising huge salaries and Russian citizenship.