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Sri Lankan families appeal for return of ex-soldiers caught in Ukraine conflict

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Sri Lankan ex-soldiers, who joined military efforts in Ukraine amidst Russia’s invasion, find themselves trapped and desperate to return home. In the wake of the economic collapse in 2022, many sought employment opportunities abroad, including combat roles in Ukraine. The families of these veterans are now imploring the government to take swift action to bring them back.

Colombo’s parliament has launched an inquiry to locate approximately 2,000 former soldiers who are reported to have enlisted in both Ukrainian and Russian forces. “What we ask is to help bring back our husbands,” stated Renuka Karunaratne, whose husband was misled by an agent into joining Russian forces.

Many veterans were lured by promises of lucrative salaries and land in Russia, only to find the reality starkly different. Karunaratne recounted paying a substantial amount to secure the job, only to be left in a dire situation. “We have sold everything we owned, including jewellery,” she said.

The Sri Lankan government reports that around a dozen nationals are currently imprisoned in Ukraine. Efforts are underway to negotiate their release, with officials planning to visit Moscow for discussions. “If Sri Lankans are in a dangerous situation, it is the duty of the government to ensure they are safely returned,” stated Foreign Minister Tharaka Balasuriya.

The economic crisis in Sri Lanka led to severe shortages and ultimately a default on external debt, pushing many to seek better opportunities abroad. For some, this meant enlisting as soldiers in Ukraine, tempted by adverts promising substantial salaries.

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Nilmini Chandima Dissanayake shared how her husband, a retired commando, was driven by financial hardship to accept a job in Russia. “He had retired, he did some odd jobs, but found it was not enough,” she said. She has not heard from him since his distress call in May.

The recruitment of Sri Lankans has sparked diplomatic tensions, particularly as Colombo maintains a neutral stance in the conflict. The Sri Lankan government has called for an end to further recruitment and the safe return of its citizens.

At least 22 Sri Lankans have managed to escape and return home. Among them is Anil Madusanka, who was injured by shrapnel in Ukraine and eventually repatriated with the help of the Sri Lankan embassy in Moscow. Reflecting on his ordeal, he said, “I am lucky to have escaped.”

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