Russia’s Shadow Army Accused in Mysterious Teen Abductions
Philip Obaji Jr. – February 2, 2023
KENZOU, Cameroon—It was the middle of the night when armed men from the local wing of Russia’s Wagner Group, commonly referred to as “Black Russians,” allegedly arrived at Ali’s home.
“They looked straight into my eyes and said, ‘If you don’t come back to us, you and your family will be killed,’” Ali, who had spent close to a year working closely with the Wagner Group, told The Daily Beast. “They left without saying anything else.”
Ali’s wife, his three adolescent daughters and three adult brothers were allegedly at their three-bedroom home in the outskirts of Berbérati—a city in the southwest of the Central African Republic (CAR)—when the men arrived armed with machine guns. “As they stepped out of the house, one of them looked at me and said ‘Tell your husband to do what is right or else all of you will suffer,’” Fatou*, Ali’s wife, told The Daily Beast.
Minutes later, the armed men allegedly stormed the nearby home of Hassan* and issued him a similar warning, but with a more severe punishment for allegedly masterminding the exit of several Black Russians from the Wagner Group.
“They said if I don’t return to the [Black Russians] group they’ll seize me and my family and torture us for days before they eventually kill us,” Hassan, a former Black Russian who was living in a two-bedroom home with his mother and two teenage sons when the armed men arrived, told The Daily Beast. “They believe I have been the one encouraging other members to leave the group because I was among the first to quit.”
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The Wagner Group, which showed up in the war-torn Central African Republic around 2018, has relied heavily on local recruits since last year, after hundreds of its Russian mercenaries were pulled from Central Africa and sent to Ukraine to fight Vladimir Putin’s war. But poor welfare for Black Russians—and fear that they could be deployed to fight overseas without compensation or insurance—has forced many to abandon the group.
The threats to their families weren’t enough to force Ali and Hassan back to the group. Both men subsequently stayed away from their homes to avoid being captured and killed—the kind of punishment the Wagner Group is known to hand out to fighters who disobey orders or desert the organization.
“We didn’t take their threat of harming our families seriously because that is not how they [Wagner mercenaries and local recruits] are known to act,” said Ali, who—along with Hassan—had to squat in a faraway unfinished building, where construction work had long been abandoned, to hide from their former colleagues. “Throughout the time we worked with them, no one targeted anyone’s family. When you commit an offense, you face the consequences on your own.”
Ali and Hassan would later realize that they misjudged the group they had been part of—and that their refusal to rejoin the Black Russians could prove costly.
According to Hassan’s family, the same men who visited the previous week returned to his home and seized his two sons, who are 15 and 13 years old, vowing not to release them until their father returns to the Wagner unit to face discipline. Hassan and his mother, who was the only one at home with the boys when they were taken away, fled to Cameroon the following day as they feared their lives were in danger.
“They dragged my grandsons from the house and threw them into a [pickup] truck and then drove them away,” Hassan’s mother Bintou* told The Daily Beast in the Cameroonian border town of Kenzou, where she and her son live in a single-room mud house. “We don’t even know whether he is dead or alive.”
On the same day Hassan’s sons were seized, Ali’s three younger brothers, who are 27, 24, and 23 years old, left home in the morning to attend a music festival at a playground just outside Berbérati. But they never returned home and no one has seen them since then, according to family members who believe the Wagner Group is responsible for their disappearances.
“It must be the same people who came to our home to threaten us that kidnapped them,” said Ali, who also fled Berbérati to Kenzou along with his wife and daughters. “They want me to meet face to face with them, that’s why they are holding my brothers.”
Three years ago, Ali and Hassan joined the Union for Peace (UPC), a Central African rebel group fighting for control of the Ouaka central province, located at the border between the mainly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south. Their involvement with the UPC, whose leader Ali Darassa was sanctioned over a year ago by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) “for serious human rights abuses”, lasted only a few months. It was cut short by an enticing offer from Wagner Group, run by Putin’s close friend and ally Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Ali and Hassan were among hundreds of UPC rebels who surrendered to the CAR military in December 2021 after both men said they were promised a chance to work with the Wagner Group and earn a monthly pay of about $1,000.
But when Wagner stopped paying some Black Russians after a few months, and many local recruits mysteriously disappeared towards the end of 2022, both Ali and Hassan decided to leave the group and move away from their base in the capital Bangui to Berbérati.
“The main reason some of us left the [Black Russians] group is because we feared they could send us to war in Ukraine without giving us the chance to inform our families,” said Ali, who has been in touch with some of his colleagues deployed to Ukraine in the early months of Russia’s invasion and allegedly abandoned thereafter. “If we die on the battlefield, no one would know anything about it.”
Ali and Hassan believe the Wagner Group’s decision to not reveal the whereabouts of Black Russians deployed to Ukraine’s Donbas region is based on financial reasoning.
“They don’t want to pay the death benefit they promised they will pay to families of fighters who died while in active service,” said Hassan. “If families don’t know their sons are fighting in Ukraine, they won’t also know when they are killed in combat and can’t demand death benefit as a result.”
For years, and especially since a brutal civil war broke out in CAR in 2013, the Cameroonian border town of Kenzou has welcomed thousands of refugees fleeing the conflict in their country. Now, the commercial town has a new type of guests: ex-Wagner recruits running away from imminent attacks from their former employers.
“We know for sure that there are former CAR rebels now living in this town with us,” Vincent Olembe, a local chief in Kenzou, told The Daily Beast. “Luckily, they’ve assured us that they aren’t here for trouble but were forced from their country because their lives were in danger.”
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The CAR government and Prigozhin did not respond to a series of requests for comment on the allegations made by Ali and Hassan. The Daily Beast sent emails to the spokesperson of the CAR government and to Concord Management, a company majority-owned by Prigozhin, but did not receive a reply.
In Kenzou, Ali and Hassan are confident that their family members wouldn’t be hurt by the Wagner Group or those working closely with them. They believe the Russians will use them as leverage.
“If they [the seized family members] were women, I would have been worried,” said Hassan, who—like Ali—turns 40 this year. “But from the way I know them to operate, anyone who is arrested or captured is offered a chance to join the Black Russians and be forgiven or punished if he refuses.”
One day, said Hassan, “I’ll reunite with my boys.”
*The names of these sources have been changed for fear of retribution.