Before he was killed by a sniper in Syria, Ivan Slyshkin wrote a loving message to his fiancee on social media: "We will see each other soon — and I will hold you as tight as I possibly can."
But the 23-year-old's name won't be found in the Russian Defence Ministry's official casualties in the fight against Islamic State.
That's because the young man who left his hometown of Ozyorsk in the Ural Mountains was one of thousands of Russians deployed to Syria by a shadowy, private military contractor known as Wagner, which the Government won't talk about.
Slyshkin's gravestone shows him holding a machine gun, and was inundated by flowers at his funeral where his friends told local media he joined Wagner to pay for his wedding.
"He was in Wagner's group," his friend Andrei Zotov told AP, adding that Slyshkin was killed on the Al-Shayer oilfield north of Palmyra.
"There are many good guys there. He volunteered to join the company," Zotov said. "Like many Russian fighters, he wanted to solve his money issues."
SHADOWY SECRET FORCE
Slyshkin's death adds to the increasing spotlight on a secretive mercenary force that is coming into focus thanks to dogged investigative reporting from St Petersburg-based website Fontanka, the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) and AP.
While the Russian Government has denied its existence, friends and families of those killed are also beginning to speak out. Estimates on the size of the Wagner force range from 3000 to as many as 25,000, paid to serve as "shock troops" in Syria.
The girlfriend of one man killed recently claimed that fighters were told they would be paid around $4000 per month and be given missions that "would make anyone's hair stand on end". She said conditions rarely met what was promised and families were paid out between $22,000 and $52,000 for deaths depending on rank
While private contractors have been used by countries like the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan for years, Russian law forbids the hiring of mercenaries or working as one. Wagner's operations are believed to replicate a similar model of a "patchwork" of forces used in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
The fighters have played a crucial role in helping to turn the tide of the Syrian civil war in the favour of Russian ally and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The secretive deployment also helps keep the official death toll low ahead of Putin's election campaign next year.
"The Russian people are not very enthused by the idea of an empire that would involve their boys coming home in body bags. There's clearly a lack enthusiasm for this conflict," said Mark Galeotti, senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.
"By having this military company Wagner, they can have a force they can actually deploy ... but when people die, it doesn't have to be announced," Galeotti said.
The Russian Defence Ministry has said 41 of its troops have died in Syria. But according to Fontanka, another 73 private contractors have been killed there.
The news organisation has obtained what it described as Wagner's spreadsheets and recruitment forms that indicate thousands of Russians have fought in Syria. Of about 3000 Wagner employees deployed to Syria over the years, the single largest contingent at a given time has been about 1500, said Fontanka reporter Denis Korotkov. Since 2015, at least 73 of them have died, he said.
The CIT put the number of private contractor deaths at 101. Both outlets say those are conservative estimates.
"The most important proof is people, dead and alive, who have said they are mercenaries and their relatives say there are mercenaries," said CIT founder Ruslan Leviev.
"How would hundreds of people all over the country collude and come up with the same story?"
Activists with CIT made a name for the group by combing social media and other records for Russia's involvement in Ukraine and are doing the same for Syria. Both Fontanka and CIT published photos from what they called a Wagner training base in the Krasnodar region of southern Russia. Some of the facilities look identical to those seen in official Defense Ministry photos of a military base in Molkino, in the same area.
Secret agreements and generous compensation have previously prevented families from speaking out, however deaths have made news in other ways.
In October, the Islamic State group released video of two Russian captives it said had been fighting in Syria, and one of them identified himself as Roman Zabolotny and said the other was Grigory Tsurkanu.
The Defence Ministry denied they were Russian servicemen and media reports said they were working for Wagner. Their fate at the hands of the extremists is unknown.
LINKS TO THE VERY TOP
The Wagner group was founded by retired Lieutenant Colonel Dmitry Utkin, who came under US sanctions in June after the Treasury Department said the company had recruited former soldiers to join the separatists fighting in Ukraine. Utkin was photographed a year ago at a Kremlin banquet thrown by Putin to honour military veterans.
Also under US sanctions is Yevgeny Prigozhin, the St Petersburg entrepreneur dubbed "Putin's chef" by Russian media because of his restaurants and catering businesses that once hosted the Kremlin leader's dinners with foreign dignitaries. In the more than 10 years since establishing a relationship with Putin, his business expanded to other services for the military.
Earlier this year, an anti-corruption foundation run by opposition leader Alexei Navalny detailed how Prigozhin's firms have come to dominate Defence Ministry contracts. The US State Department put Prigozhin on its sanctions list in 2016 related to the Ukrainian conflict, citing his "extensive business dealings" with the Defence Ministry.
Among the firms linked to Prigozhin is Evro Polis, a Moscow-registered company that Fontanka reported has become a front for Wagner's operations in Syria.
In 2016 Evro Polis listed the sale of food products as its core activities, according to the Spark Interfax database. But this year, it listed mining, oil and gas production, and opened an office in the Syrian capital of Damascus. The AP obtained a copy of a 47-page contract between Evro Polis and Syria's state-owned General Petroleum Corp which said the Russian company would receive 25 per cent of the proceeds from oil and gas production at fields its contractors capture and secure from Islamic State militants.
While the five-year contract could not be authenticated, Fontanka reported the same deal in June. "The link between Evro Polis and Prigozhin is significant and is not in doubt," said Fontanka's Korotkov.
"We believe that this firm is just a cover for the private company Wagner, and it could be an attempt to legalise this group, possibly for a commercial use later on."
Both Evro Polis and Prigozhin's Concorde Management and Consulting were unavailable for comment, and the Defence Ministry did not reply to AP's request for comment.
Syria's Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources declined comment when asked about the Evro Polis deal. Asked about the contract, the Russian Energy Ministry told Fontanka it cannot divulge "commercial secrets" and declined comment to the AP.
As the Russian campaign in Syria draws to a close, the private contractors will probably stay, analysts say.
Wagner is "likely to cement its footing because we saw that there were not only military goals to pursue ... but there is a commercial motive," Leviev said. "Someone needs to guard the oilfields."
— Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed.