The international airport in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, is a grim, dusty little installation in a country all but destroyed by generations of tyranny and war. Nothing about it is welcoming to the traveler, and for years after the latest gruesome round of fighting began in 2014 it was mobbed by tens of thousands of people fleeing the carnage. They camped on the red earth beside the runway. Some lived in makeshift tents, many huddled under the wings and in the bare-stripped fuselages of derelict aircraft. Eventually they were driven away, but the detritus of their misery remains.
For three Russian journalists landing at Bangui a couple of hours after dawn on Saturday, July 28, the scene was a reminder that they had just come to one of the least developed countries in the world, and one of the most dangerous.
Three days later, they would be dead.
Were they the random victims of a robbery on a perilous back road they decided to travel at night? That is what the Russian government would have us believe. Or were they set up for assassination? Perhaps stalked even before they arrived at the Bangui airport? That is the opinion of their colleagues, and the weight of evidence collected thus far by the people who gave the journalists their assignment pulls in that direction.
A definitive answer remains elusive, but in the weeks since the killing, working with African, Russian, United Nations and other sources, The Daily Beast has been piecing together a detailed picture of the final days of well-known investigative reporter Orkhan Dzhemal, 51, filmmaker Alexander Rastorguyev, 47, and cameraman Kirill Radchenko, 33.
The Russian journalists’ assignment was sponsored by the Investigations Management Center of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, who was jailed for almost a decade after challenging Putin’s authority and now lives in exile in London. The aim was to produce a documentary film—working title “Russia’s Mercenaries”—exposing the activities of the Russian government, the Russian military, Russian oligarchs, and Russian contractors in the Central African Republic and beyond.
The report would take a deep dive into the murky relationships between Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin and the billionaires in Putin’s orbit. Often it is hard to say where government activities end and “private” activities begin, with both elements jealously protecting the obscurity in which they operate.
Americans have had a glimpse of this murk through the indictments handed down by the Mueller probe. What has been revealed so far about interference in the U.S. elections traces aggressive social-media propaganda and disinformation to a “troll factory,” the Internet Research Agency, underwritten by the billionaire Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin. He often is called “Putin’s Chef” because of the lucrative contracts handed out to his catering company. Another Mueller indictment documents in exhaustive detail the role of a dozen officers in the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU who allegedly hacked into the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016.
Both Prigozhin and the GRU are central to our story of the murders in the Central African Republic.
“Putin’s Chef” denies that he is the man behind a secretive and, under Russian law, illegal organization of private military contractors called the Wagner Group, but the allegations are persistent, the denials are pro forma, and its existence is an open secret. In 2016, the Russian broadcaster RBC published a detailed report on Wagner in the context of the global private military contractor, or PMC, industry. The group has recruited many of its mercenaries from the GRU, and its founder, Dmitry Utkin (nickname: “Wagner”), is a veteran of the GRU’s elite Spetsnaz special-operations forces. RBC reported that the group operates under the supervision of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces.
The group first gained international notoriety in Syria, where another organization called Patriot is operating as well. More recently, the role of Wagner has become increasingly conspicuous in the Central African Republic.
Kiril Avramov at the University of Texas Intelligence Studies Project, in an article co-authored with journalist Ruslan Trad on The Defense Post, describes the dynamic between the Kremlin and the oligarchs organizing these mercenary groups: “The Prigozhins of our time” get major contracts and other financial benefits “in exchange for political loyalty and helpful backing of state-sponsored adventurism abroad.” They provide agents for “plausibly deniable” activities through private military contracting companies that can keep down the official body counts and costs of Russian involvement in Syria, Ukraine, or, in this case, the Central African Republic.
On the ground, for the benefit of their Russian employers the mercenaries can then “raid, seize, and exploit” natural resources, as Avramov and Trad put it. (Some 200 Wagner mercenaries reportedly got themselves killed last February trying to take oil fields in Syria controlled by U.S.-allied forces. The Americans used jets, choppers, and AC-130 gunships to respond, and with devastating effect.) In the Central African Republic, the mineral riches include uranium, gold, and diamonds, and the Wagner mercs already have closed in on them. One of the primary destinations for the murdered Russian journalists was a gold mine near the town of Bambari.
Pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov explains Russia’s reason for sending private forces to Africa as a practical matter: “This is how we gradually become competitive, since neither Russia’s finances nor technology can compete with Europe and America. We choose the security field, where we are strong—our forces have proved that in Syria.”
Markov draws a ready comparison between Wagner and Blackwater, the most famous, or infamous, of the American private military contractors. “Our private contractors backed up by our state in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America provide security to business and military structures, not forgetting about our business interests. In Africa, it is gold, diamonds, and uranium,” Markov said. “Today Wagner’s managers debate whether to keep the existence of the forces secret. It seems they came to the conclusion that the less people know about their soldiers, the safer the contingent stays.”
But the longer Wagner stays secret—and illegal in the soldiers’ home country—the more journalists will report stories about its operations and losses. “Our film from CAR was about Russians breaking the law, because recruitment is banned by law in Russia,” Sergei Kanev, a journalist with the Investigations Management Center, told The Daily Beast.
Such were the issues the murdered team had set out to document and expose when their Royal Air Maroc flight landed at Bangui airport at about 7:25 the morning of July 28.
Dzhemal and his colleagues must have had a long night. According to published flight schedules, they would have left Casablanca, Morocco, at around 9:30 p.m., landed at Douala, Cameroon, at about 2:50 a.m., then gotten the flight to Bangui just after first light.
They thought they had a trustworthy fixer, who was supposed to have rented them a house. But that hadn’t worked out. The fixer, whom they knew long-distance as “Martin,” was busy on Saturday. He told them he would meet them in the town of Bambari. But they would have to get there by themselves.
We will hear more of the fixer and the curious way the Russian journalists got his name in the first place.
Since nobody was there to meet them at the airport, the journalists took a taxi to the two-floor National Hotel on Avenue de France near Bangui’s central market. It looks like a provincial motel from the 1960s. Air-conditioning is limited to one suite, but they settled in. Nobody would expect anything different in a country as poor and disorganized as CAR, and the journalists were all veterans of difficult stories.
Orkhan Dzhemal started his reporting career in the early 1990s. He wrote about conflicts, crises, Islamic radical movements, Somali pirates, and Syrian jihadis. He admitted to his friends that he liked to risk his life and that he loved covering wars. The public recognized him as one of Russia’s most fearless combat reporters.
No one else had as many contacts among guerrillas and snipers on the front lines, as well as the emirs of Northern Caucasus Islamic underground. Dzhemal was in touch with several. He was a Muslim believer, very knowledgeable about modern trends of Islam and Salafi jihadism.
Dzhemal’s manner was soft-spoken, almost academic, unthreatening, and he won people over on the battlefields of Chechnya, Afghanistan, Georgia, and Syria. He was badly wounded covering the war in Libya for the Izvestia newspaper in 2011, and it was said his persuasive optimism convinced the doctors not to amputate his leg, but he walked with a cane even as he covered the war in Ukraine and wrote about Muslims joining the so-called Islamic State.
Alexander Rastorguyev, or Sasha as his friends and family called him, was one of Russia’s most talented documentary filmmakers. He rarely turned his camera off, it seemed, and might film the same person for months. It wouldn’t be surprising if Rastorguyev’s camera was on when the crew drove into the ambush on their last night alive, but we don’t know. The camera has disappeared.
Kirill Radchenko was in love with filmmaking as well, which is what brought him and Rastorguyev together earlier this year in Chechnya. They made a film called Electing Russia about the choices people were given as Putin ran for his latest term.
By Saturday afternoon in Bangui, the journalists had begun to sort out logistics. They had hired a driver, a middle-age Central African man with a blue Toyota Hilux 4x4 pickup truck. The African press identified him as Bienvenu Nduvokama, hired after a conversation in a local café. Dzhemal wrote to a friend that he thought the driver was “a difficult case.”
There is reason to believe that Dzhemal was under surveillance well before he left Russia. His friend and colleague Nadezhda Kevorkova told The Daily Beast that Dzhemal’s phone had been hacked in Moscow a few weeks earlier. “He was under secret service surveillance before his trip, while he was researching his film,” she said. His death “was not a robbery, it was an assassination,” she insisted. “I am convinced that assassins fulfilled an order from Moscow for liquidation of three independent journalists who were digging out Putin’s secrets—it must have been more convenient to kill them in Africa.”
On that Sunday morning in Bangui, according to an unconfirmed report on Radio Ndeke Luka, the country’s leading station, the filmmakers had their first run-in with authorities. Traders in front of the hotel supposedly told a policeman the crew was filming them without permission, and the driver translated as the policeman demanded a $120 “fine” paid on the spot.
Later in the day, the driver took them to Berengo Palace, about 65 kilometers southwest of Bangui. In the 1970s, it was home to the megalomaniacal “Emperor” Jean-Bedel Bokassa. Before French paratroopers toppled him in 1979, he was said to surround himself in his bedroom with piles of diamonds and gold, but after his overthrow looters carried away everything, right down to the wiring. In 2015, the dilapidated complex was a squatters’ camp for former Seleka rebels waiting to be integrated into the government army. And Russian instructors began to train government forces there last January.
How many of those instructors are active-duty Russian soldiers and how many are mercenaries is unclear. In October last year, CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and asked Russia to deliver weapons for three of CAR’s battalions. Moscow requested approval from the United Nations and received a green light to sell arms to the units.
By March, African soldiers armed with Russian weapons and dressed in Russia-made uniforms were marching at a military parade.
On July 27, the day before the journalists landed in Bangui, the United Nations released a 131-page report about Russia’s involvement in CAR. It said that at least 170 Russian instructors trained Central African Armed Forces (FACA) and Presidential Guard in Berengo and at half a dozen other sites around the country.
But Dzhemal’s team thought there was more to the Russian presence than that. Dzhemal’s editor at the Investigations Management Center, Andrei Konyakhin, told The Daily Beast the film crew had managed to collect material about dozens of Russian contractors operating in CAR: “During the last few months we’ve been in talks with the U.N. representatives about Russian contract soldiers, who we believe worked on contracts with Putin’s friend Yevgeny Prigozhin; some Russians are making contacts with opposition forces, others provide security at CAR’s gold and uranium mines, training local military and police.”
According to Russian news reports, a Russian citizen named Valery Zakharov works as national security adviser for the CAR government. Bangui-based freelance journalist Louis Kottoy told The Daily Beast that Zakharov “appears to be the link between Russia and the CAR government on the one hand, and between Russia and the rebels on the other hand.”
“Our reporters worked fast: soon after they arrived in Bangui,” Konyakhin told The Daily Beast. “They went to their first location for the documentary, a military base [Berengo] where we believed Wagner contractors worked." But they didn’t make it. “A black guard meeting them outside the base spoke Russian. He said they were not allowed to work without an official permit from CAR’s ministry of defense.”
The journalists returned to the capital.
On the last day of their lives, Dzhemal, Rastorguyev, and Radchenko pulled out of Bangui at about one in the afternoon. Still traveling with the same driver in the blue Toyota Hilux they reached the town of Sibut, an important crossroads, a couple of hours later. They’d been told there were Russian instructors training government troops there.
Kirill Radchenko, the cameraman, was keeping in touch with his friend Yekaterina Nazarova in Moscow over the encrypted Telegram app on a channel shared by just the two of them. The last message she got from him was at 1:19 p.m. Moscow time, which would have been 11:19 a.m. in CAR, well before the team arrived in Sibut, and very likely before it left Bangui.
What happened at the Sibut military base is not clear. If the journalists presented themselves at the gate, that would have notified the CAR military and any Russian instructors to their presence.
Original plans had called for Dzhemal’s team to head for the town of Bambari to the east. The fixer called “Martin” was supposed to be there, and it was near a major gold mine where Wagner forces were believed to be in charge of security. But the journalists decided instead they would head north toward Dékoa, which was somewhat closer. A few weeks earlier, the government had announced it was re-enforcing the garrison there as well as in Sibut, which would suggest the likely deployment of Russian advisers.
An early AFP report on Aug. 1 quoted an unnamed source from MINUSCA, the U.N. peacekeeping force in CAR, who said the journalists left for Dékoa at about 5:45 p.m., even though they were advised that the road could be dangerous at night. If that is the case, then after 20 minutes it was dark.
The local CAR publication Palmarès Centrafrique claimed that it managed to interview the driver. The version of his story it then passed on to the Russian publication Novaya Gazeta was full of improbable details, including the suggestion the Russian journalists had guns, which implies they might have gotten into a shootout.
According to this account, the team did not arrive in Sibut until about 6 p.m., which is sunset. The driver claimed in the Palmarès interview that soldiers told the journalists not to head up the road to Dékoa after dark, but they insisted. At one point they stopped and talked in Russian with somebody, then put on protective gear including helmets, and brought out firearms. (Where they had gotten them, if they had them, is a mystery.)
Initial Russian and CAR government reports said the journalists were accosted by a group of nine or 10 men speaking Arabic who ambushed them to rob them, then killed them about 23 kilometers (14.3 miles) north of Sibut. The driver supposedly told Palmarès that he was led away from the scene, bound and gagged, and did not see the murders. But then he somehow escaped and notified the authorities. The bodies were recovered the next morning.
The Palmarès editor offered to sell the full transcript of the interview with the driver to Novaya Gazeta. When he was pressed by the editors for more solid information and confirmation of some of the allegations, according to Novaya Gazeta, he changed the robbery story and told them the journalists had come to CAR on an “espionage mission” and they were killed by other Russians.
It should be noted that Palmarès Centrafrique fills its columns with articles about the positive role Moscow is playing in CAR. The lead headline on Monday: “Central Africa: Russia at the Heart of Humanitarian Action.”
Given past unrest and general lawlessness in CAR, it’s easy to imagine that driving at night is risky business, and the official Russian and CAR government versions play that up in their accounts. But independent investigators and journalists have not been able to talk to the driver, and there are major problems with the official versions.
Those who know the road to Dékoa find tall tales about the dangers there highly improbable.
Lewis Mudge, the Human Rights Watch senior researcher for Central Africa, who has worked in CAR for the last 10 years and has traveled the route the journalists took many times, tells The Daily Beast, “The road from Sibut to Dékoa is safe. There's been very little criminal activity on that road. I can’t think of any in the last few years… Driving at night is dangerous in the Central African Republic. However, 20-some odd kilometers north of Sibut is still considered safe.”
Mudge doubts the credibility of the official versions supposedly based on the driver’s testimony. “They are saying that the driver said that the killers were some large gang of criminals. I find that to be very perplexing because I don’t really understand how a gang of criminals could descend so far south of zones where they are active, commit one act of robbery, and then leave… Descending so far south, attacking one vehicle, not seen by the local population, and sort of disappearing is not a common phenomenon that we see in that zone.”
“When I heard this news,” Mudge told The Daily Beast, “the very first thing I said was ‘Where were they killed?’ When I heard that it was just north of Sibut I thought that doesn’t make any sense because that shouldn’t normally be happening there. Either we don’t know all the information or these guys were incredibly unlucky.”
Another problem with the story of a theft is the question of what was stolen: the video equipment and, it appears, the passports of the victims. Backpacks and cans of gasoline—a valuable commodity in those parts—were left untouched. If the driver’s account is to be believed, their guns were left behind as well. Sure, thieves in war-torn CAR always leave behind captured guns.
Private investigators hired by Khodorkovsky have added another twist to the story, as noted by Russian journalist Roman Popkov in an interview with The Independent. There may have been another car carrying three armed men who looked European, along with two locals. That car allegedly passed a checkpoint en route to the site of the ambush shortly before the journalists’ car passed through. (The driver’s account says he followed another car because he didn’t know the way.) About an hour later, those at the checkpoint noted the first car returning in the opposite direction, according to The Independent.
The interim report commissioned by Khodorkovsky dismisses the likelihood of a robbery, but remains open to the possibility that the journalists were killed by militants associated with the Seleka rebels, or by government forces. But that hardly exculpates Russian mercenaries, who work with both sides.
Friends of Dzhemal, for their part, think that if the “robbery” took place as the driver is supposed to have recounted it, Dzhemal would have talked his way out of trouble. He seemed to have no trouble communicating with the attackers, although the driver could not understand what they were saying—the driver who said he was not at the scene, but was bound and gagged, when the journalists were murdered.
The killers shot Dzhemal in the chest, targeting his heart, and then when he fell down shot twice more at his back. The others were killed in a similar fashion.
What is a “fixer?” For journalists on an assignment as strangers in strange lands, he or she is a vital contact: the person who handles logistics, who deals with translation, who gets permissions for travel and access to installations, who has extensive local contacts and can arrange interviews.
In search of just such a person as they were planning their trip in June Dzehmal and his team cast a wide net. They got in touch with a man named Kirill Romanovsky, who had been recommended by a contact in Syria as someone who had good connections in the Central African Republic, and they asked him who he might recommend.
There was, however, a major problem: Romanovsky worked for the FAN news agency, owned by none other than “Putin’s Chef,” Prigozhin.
“FAN is not a professional journalistic group,” says Timur Olevsky, a correspondent for Current Time/Radio Free Europe. “It is registered in the same building as Prigozhin’s ‘troll factory’ in St Petersburg.”
The June meeting with Romanovsky did not begin well. “What are you worth, you liberal losers?” he demanded. “Do you want to go to the war?”
The journalists told Romanovsky their straightforward idea: “We want to make a film about your boss.”
Romanovsky, surprisingly—or suspiciously—said he liked the idea of the film, in spite of his employer. And Romanovsky immediately said he had just the right fixer for the crew: this man named “Martin” whom he had known for more than a decade and who had worked with the United Nations.
Soon after the meeting, the crew started cooperating with Martin long-distance. Yet once they were on the ground, it appears he was always where they were not.
Investigations into the murders of three brave Russian journalists are continuing. Among the organizations vowing to find the “truth”: Prigozhin’s FAN news agency.