During the occupation of Nova Kakhovka in Kherson region, Russians kidnapped the 70-year-old editor-in-chief of the news website Oleksandr Hunko and recorded a propaganda video with him, in which the man is allegedly confident that everything will change for the better with Russia.
Investigative journalists from Slidstvo.Info spoke to the editor-in-chief of the Nova Kakhovka City website, Oleksandr Hunko, about his abduction by the Russian occupiers and attempts to force him to cooperate. The video has English subtitles.
“THEY CAME FOR ME”
The Russian army occupied Nova Kakhovka in Kherson region from the first days of the full-scale invasion. The occupiers tried to persuade the town’s opinion leaders to cooperate in various ways.
The editor-in-chief of the Nova Kakhovka City website, Oleksandr Hunko, has been working in journalism for 35 years. Before February 24, 2022, he used to write about the life of the city and follow the decisions of the Nova Kakhovka City Council. Together with his colleagues, he conducted journalistic investigations and exposed corruption schemes of local authorities.
“We have always been in opposition to the authorities. Just as it should be in journalism… Well, when the war started, in the early days we were quite active in covering what was happening, especially in the Kherson region. We continued to work as we had been before,” Oleksandr Gunko recalls.
Oleksandr says that he was warned about the danger from the occupiers because he wrote the truth about what Russia was doing in the city.
“My friends told me, ‘Petrovych, don’t write like that, because they will come for you’. I told them I was not afraid. Why should I be afraid? We are on our own land, let them be afraid. Well, in the end, they came for me,” says Hunko.
“IF YOU DON’T TALK, I’LL KILL YOU”
Oleksandr Hunko was at home when five armed Russian soldiers burst into his apartment – with assault rifles, body armour and even a shield.
“He (the occupier – ed.) shouted: ‘Come out here, quickly! And I was so terrified that I didn’t know what to do. I looked at my feet, and I was wearing slippers… I was thinking whether to go or not. And he shouted: “Come out as you are,” Hunko recalls.
The man came out, and two occupants immediately grabbed him: they locked his hands behind his back, put him in the entrance by the window, and entered the apartment and began to search.
“They took my laptop, my smartphones, looked through my flash drives and said they were arresting me. One of the soldiers who was standing next to me, he was an FSB officer, was not in the same uniform as the National Guard, I immediately noticed that he had a different uniform,” says Oleksandr Hunko.
After that, Oleksandr was taken to the local police station.
“They just pushed me into a corner, and then their policeman asked, ‘Where are you going? He grabbed me by the back of the neck, dragged me to the second floor and to the last office… He took me there and handcuffed me to a radiator by the window and sat me on a chair… I stayed there for three days,” the journalist says.
Oleksandr says that he was visited and interrogated by the FSB.
“On the first day, three officers with machine guns in uniforms and balaclavas came in. They started beating me, first hitting me on the head with their fist from above, then several times in the face, right and left, several blows to the nose. And with the edge of his palm on my neck. He said: “If you don’t talk, I’ll come back in 10 minutes and I’ll finish you off,” says Hunko.
The next day, the occupiers offered Oleksandr cooperation.
“They told me they wanted to publish a newspaper and offered me to become an editor. I said that I was already old, a pensioner, and my health was bad. I immediately started to deny it. I was afraid they would blackmail me with my daughter,” says Hunko.
“WE HAVE BEEN ‘WORKING’ ON HIM SINCE DAY ONE”
Three Russian officers and a policeman entered the room where Hunko was being held. They said that they would take the journalist home, but in return he had to give an interview to a Russian TV channel.
“I had to give an interview to their correspondent from a Moscow channel. And to apologise for calling them occupiers and orcs in my publications. And promise to cooperate with the city administration,” says Oleksandr.
Oleksandr Hunko says that from the very first day, the Russians had lists of activists they used to kidnap people.
“There was a policeman, and this one who brought me, gave him my press card and said: “Register it”. Well, the policeman looked at the prescart and said: “Oh, we’ve been ‘working’ on it since day one”. So I understood that they already had lists of activists and pro-Ukrainian citizens since day one. It was all prepared by some collaborators,” says Hunko.
The man recalls that he was taken home and sat at a table to film a story for Russian propaganda: “A cameraman and a journalist sat down in front of me, and behind them were two officers with machine guns and uniforms. And the third one, the one who beat me on the first day, was standing in the corridor, behind me.”
After the occupiers filmed the video, the man’s press card as a member of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine was taken away. Hunko says that he was banned from practicing journalism and even allowed to leave the occupation.
“With the arrival of Russia, I think that something will change for the better… Our president (Volodymyr Zelenskyy – ed.) is very far from reality,” says Oleksandr Hunko in a propaganda video.
Currently, Oleksandr Hunko has left the occupied city and continues to work remotely, reporting on what is happening in Nova Kakhovka. The man says he cannot leave journalism: “This is my whole life, I can say that I have been in journalism for half of my life (out of 70 years – 35 years). I can’t live without it anymore”.