By Maria Stromova and Maria Tsvetkova
NIZHNEKAMSK, Russia/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Olga Markelova’s ex-husband was killed two years ago on a clandestine mission in Syria for the Russian state.
Now she wants the Kremlin to take responsibility for him and scores of other fighters who died in its service.
“It does not make any sense now to conceal that they were in Syria on combat assignments,” said Markelova, for whom transparency is pivotal to securing financial compensation.
Her ex-husband Dmitry and thousands of other contractors have fought secretly in Syria coordinating with Russia’s regular forces, say dozens of people familiar with the deployments.
“I would like to call on the authorities to admit our husbands were servicemen,” said Markelova in the tidy but sparse one-bedroom apartment she shares with 9-year-old daughter Kseniya, in a town 900 km (550 miles) east of Moscow.
Since 2015, Russia’s military has supported its ally President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war.
Regular forces have been buttressed by the private contractors, according to the fighters, their relatives and friends, and officials in their home towns.
The contractors have borne the brunt of some of the bloodiest fighting, the sources say. Russian officials, however, deny sending them, saying only some civilians may have traveled to Syria on their own initiative.
Markelova, a 35-year-old school teacher who speaks with animation about the case but wells up when her eyes fall on photos of her ex-husband, is a rare case of a relative speaking out. Multiple others told Reuters they were warned by the firm hiring the contractors to keep quiet.
Markelova decided to go public because she and her daughter were unable to access state benefits they would be entitled to as dependents of someone killed in combat.
Her case shows how the clandestine campaign in Syria is creating unintended consequences back home, and how some of those affected are determined to break the silence.
Last year, veteran organizations urged the government to acknowledge deployment of contractors in Syria and sought an investigation by the International Criminal Court.
LAST CALL HOME
Markelova described to Reuters how her ex-husband, a former sergeant in the Russian military, was often away on assignments. Fed up, she pleaded with him to spend time at home but eventually gave up hope and filed for divorce.
He asked her to forgive him, promising to give up military life and settle down, his ex-wife said. But it never happened, and the couple divorced before he died.
Two years ago, Markelov left for Syria as a private contractor with an organization known as the Wagner group and was killed by a mine days after arrival, his friends told her.
A copy of his death certificate, issued by the Russian consulate in Syria and seen by Reuters, states he died on Jan. 29, 2017 from shrapnel and bullet wounds.
“Last time he called me was on Jan. 21, 2017. He told me he will be out of reach for the next three weeks… And that when he gets back he will call and come home, that he missed his daughter very much,” recalled Markelova, wiping away tears.
“That was it. He never called again.”
After learning of his death, Markelova embarked on a journey through Russian bureaucracy to claim payments she believed she and her daughter were entitled to.
When a Russian serviceman dies in combat, his family receives a one-time compensation of 3,000,000 rubles ($44,700) and monthly payments of 14,000 rubles ($209), according to federal law 306, which came into force in 2011.
Both the compensation and the monthly payments are split between family members, and since 2013 the government slightly increased the sums every year.
Families of contractors are treated in a different way. One of the relatives receives an informal pay-off from their recruiters, which can reach around $100,000 depending on the role of the dead fighter. But their families receive no other benefits, according to several relatives of people killed in Syria fighting for Wagner group.
Markelov’s ex-wife said she had not been eligible for the Wagner group compensation because of their divorce. Instead, an adult blood relative of her former husband received the money.
Officials argue Markelova does not qualify for state compensation because her ex-husband was not in official service when killed.
“KIDS LEFT WITHOUT HELP”
According to her calculations, if Markelov was acknowledged as a serviceman killed in combat, she and Kseniya would receive up to 10,000 rubles ($149) per month in extra cash.
That would significantly boost her income, which she said is barely enough to raise her daughter.
Markelova said she earns around 16,000 rubles a month ($239) as a teacher, and a monthly stipend from the state of 8,232 rubles ($123) as mother of a child who lost a bread-winner. That benefit is unrelated to her ex-husband’s military status at the time of his death.
He had previously served in Russia’s North Caucasus with Russian Interior Ministry forces. She asked the Interior Ministry to acknowledge he died in combat but, she said, that was refused because she lacked documents proving her ex-husband was in Syria on an official mission.
“We get responses from everywhere that they were civilians,” Markelova said, referring to him and other contractors.
An Interior Ministry official, who asked not to be identified, confirmed the ministry declined Markelova’s application in accordance with law 306 on benefits to families of servicemen.
“If there were legal grounds to help, we would do it with pleasure,” the official told Reuters.
An official with the social welfare service in Markelova’s home district, who handled her case, confirmed to Reuters she had petitioned for the benefit but this was rejected.
“He was not a serviceman, but a private person, at the time of his death,” the official said of Markelov. She added that Markelova’s daughter receives some privileges as a child of a deceased veteran from his time in the North Caucasus.
Markelova asked one of her ex-husband’s friends, also a private contractor who fought in Syria, to see if recruiters can provide documents needed to unlock the entitlement.
The recruiters refused, she said.
Reuters was unable to contact the Wagner group or the recruiters who acted for the group.
Markelova said if the issue is not resolved, she planned to take her case, and those of other bereaved relatives, to the Kremlin. “Our kids were left without help,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Mikhail Antonov; Writing by Maria Tsvetkova; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)