As he cries out for help, they taunt him in Russian, drowning out his agonized screams with laughter. In the background of the video, which was uploaded online, a nationalist Russian military song, “I am Russian special forces,” plays.
The victim in this harrowing amateur video is Mohamad, a 31-year-old Syrian construction worker and father of four young children, who disappeared on his way home from a job in neighboring Lebanon in March 2017.
Mohamad’s final words were those of the Shahada, a declaration of his Muslim faith.
The men who killed and decapitated Mohamad scrawled graffiti in Cyrillic on his lifeless chest. It said “for VDV and reconnaissance,” a reference to the Russian airborne forces.
The Kremlin denies any connections to Wagner and insists that private military companies are illegal in Russia. Prigozhin has previously denied being connected to Wagner. Neither he nor anyone from his companies would talk to CNN in recent years despite multiple attempts seeking comment, including for this report.
“These people risk their lives and by and large this is also a contribution in fighting terrorism … but this is not the Russian state, not the Russian army,” said President Vladimir Putin in 2019.
Russian forces have been operating in Syria since 2015, and there is substantial evidence to show that Wagner’s presence in the country is connected to the Russian military deployment.
Abdullah, a refugee who fled Syria in 2017, has never spoken publicly about his brother’s killing before. He broke his silence in an exclusive interview with CNN, he says, to draw international attention to the tragedy that devastated his family.
To protect family members still living in regime-controlled areas of Syria, Abdullah requested that CNN conceal his full identity and the location of the interview.
“My brother is gone, he will never come back,” Abdullah said. “I want the world to hear about my brother’s case, so these criminals are held accountable.”
Final phone calls to family
In one of Mohamad’s last phone calls, in April 2017, he told Abdullah he had been detained by the regime as he crossed back into Syria, after working in Lebanon for about eight months. He said he had been taken to Damascus and forced to join the military, but that he planned to desert.
Ten days later, Mohamad called to say he was being sent to Homs the next day and that he would escape at night.
It was his last call to his family.
“He said, ‘Give my best to my father and my mother, ask them to forgive me, I am going to do something, I am going to leave, I don’t know if I will be able to get back to you or not,'” Abdullah recalled.
He said his brother had asked him to “take care of my wife,” adding: “I am entrusting you with my family.”
“It was that kind of talk, it was as if he knew something was going to happen to him,” Abdullah explained.
Mohamad never met his youngest daughter.
With the Syrian civil war raging, and poor internet and phone connections in their remote village, it was hard for Mohamad’s family to find out what had happened to him.
It wasn’t until a video showing his torture emerged online months later that his loved ones discovered the true horror that had befallen him.
“One day a guy from our town sent me a video clip, he said: ‘Watch the video, it could be your brother.’ Of course, I recognized my brother — from his clothes, his voice, his appearance,” Abdullah said, his voice pained. “He was being tortured by soldiers, they were not Syrian, we did not understand what they were saying.”
Abdullah told other family members about what he had seen in the video, but did not share it with them, fearing what it would do to their elderly parents.
“When I saw that first video, I still had hope he was still alive,” he said. “He was being…