Ukraine: Kidnapped Journalist Speaks Out

“I heard screams, heard others being interrogated. They were simply tortured.”

Ukraine: Kidnapped Journalist Speaks Out

“I heard screams, heard others being interrogated. They were simply tortured.”

Oleh Baturin was kidnapped on March 12 and subjected to eight days of physical and psychological pressure before being released.
Oleh Baturin was kidnapped on March 12 and subjected to eight days of physical and psychological pressure before being released. © Photo courtesy of O. Baturin
Monday, 28 March, 2022


Institute for War & Peace Reporting

Russian forces are increasingly targeting media workers in Ukraine, intimidating, threatening and kidnapping independent journalists in areas under their control.

One of the first to be abducted was Oleh Baturin, staff correspondent of the Kherson newspaper Novyi Den in Nova Kakhovka, a city of 35,000 people. He was kidnapped on March 12 and subjected to eight days of physical and psychological pressure before being released.

IWPR Ukraine editor Andrii Ianitskyi spoke to Baturin about his experience and life under Russian occupation in Kherson.

IWPR: What happened on March 12 when you were kidnapped?

Oleh Baturin: An activist I know called me from an unknown phone number and offered to meet in the evening at the bus station. As I learned later, at that time he had already been abducted by Russians. I came to the station, and there I was surrounded by armed soldiers. They demanded I give them my documents and phone, but I did not take them with me. They handcuffed me and threw me on the floor in the van. One of them kicked me in the back.

They brought me to the city council, where they interrogated me. I was beaten. They took me to another building, to the police. There I was handcuffed to a generator and left until the morning of March 13 in a cold room. The handcuffs were very tight, so my hands were swollen. And in the morning they took me somewhere else and I thought they were going to kill me.

But they drove so long that I realized that at least now they would not kill me. They brought me to another building. Later I learned that it was the Kherson regional administration.

What happened in Kherson?

The first day I was not given water or food, I was not allowed to go to the toilet. In Kherson, conditions were already better. The interrogations were without physical pressure - the pressure was only psychological.

What were you asked about?

No specific claims were made against me. But they understood perfectly well that I am a journalist. They said, ‘So, journalist, stop writing already!’ Russians also were interested in the organisers of street rallies against the occupation. They did not understand that people could go to the square simply of their own free will.

And I heard screams, heard others being interrogated. Probably Ukrainian veterans. I would not like to hear this again. They were simply tortured.

After the interrogations, they took my fingerprints, warned me that I was in their sights, and released me - they even took me to Nova Kakhovka. I was in captivity for eight days.

Why were you detained, do you have any explanation?

I think this was revenge for my critical materials on the subjects of my publications on local government, about the petty thugs who gained this power, about corruption.

What surprised you about the Russians?

I heard them ask, ‘When did the Great Patriotic War [WWII] begin? Why don't you celebrate Victory Day on May 9?’ [the day after the Nazi defeat]. And they were told that we celebrate and many people take to the streets in Kherson on May 9. They could not get their heads round it [that Ukrainians were not Nazi supporters]. It was a breakdown of the pattern for them.

They were also very surprised by the protests. After the interrogation, I heard noise from the street. It turned out that a huge pro-Ukrainian rally was going on. And these soldiers said to each other that they did not understand what the people were protesting. ‘We came to save them, and they are holding rallies here.’

But this does not mean that they have changed their minds about occupying Ukrainian territories. They said that they would capture Mykolayiv, Odesa and "deal" with all those who disagreed.

When did the occupying forces appear in your city?

On March 8, the Russians were already visiting a local Ukrainian activist, and for the next three days they set up checkpoints on major highways. They began to visit settlements, talk to local authorities and [try to] persuade them to take their side.

Gradually, the Russians began to occupy positions throughout the Kherson region. A huge number of soldiers began to take up positions in schools and kindergartens. In particular, a military base was built in the town of Zelenyi Pod. They occupied all the villages along the Dnieper, and took over the vacant houses.

How have the lifes of ordinary people changed with the arrival of the Russians?

Ukrainian cable television was immediately switched to Russian television, and shortly afterwards terrestrial television was also switched. Then the raids began. The other day they "nightmared" Kakhovka: they stopped cars and checked people's documents. People said that military equipment was moving through the villages.

How do the Russians behave? Looting was recorded near Kyiv, and cases of killings of civilians and rapes were also reported.

I was also told about robberies. People go to the market to sell meat, and the Russians stop them and they take the meat away. Or they go into the yard of a private house, see a pig and immediately kill it for dinner. They stole fire engines, school buses, ambulances and took away private cars. In one case, they couldn't start the car, so they simply shot it with a machine gun.

How can this attitude towards the locals be explained? Do the Russians have no food?

No, cars with food to them come from the Crimea steadily. Rather, they "nightmare" the local population because they were not greeted with flowers.

Is there enough food and medicine for people?

The situation with food is more or less sufficient, we have warehouses and stocks. But the situation with drugs is catastrophic. No antibiotics, no flu medicines.

Russian propaganda says they are handing out food and medicine to locals. Is this true?

Food kits were distributed through collaborators, but I don't know what they give out. None of my acquaintances took this food.

Are there still independent journalists in the Kherson region?

There are some journalists, but many online sites have been closed down or suspended. Some appear only on social networks. The influence of so-called citizen journalists, ie ordinary people who get [coverage with] a smartphone with a camera at key moments has grown.

Do foreign journalists, such as the BBC, work in the region?

There is still Novaya Gazeta in Kherson, some independent media outlets, but I have not seen television. However, there are many Russian propagandists, they are shooting a "picture" for the Russian audience.

Ukrainians in Kherson are protesting against the occupiers, although they are armed with tanks and machine guns. Are they not afraid?

They are afraid, of course, especially at first people were afraid. But immediately after the first action, the feeling of fear disappeared. People began to go out so as not to be afraid. They see that they are not alone, that many disagree with the occupation, so they go out.

But the Russians are acting more and more aggressively; people have already been shot and wounded. People are being detained.

I don't think it will affect them. They seized the land but did not capture the brains of the people. Kherson residents make their pro-Ukrainian feelings clear.

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