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Reporter's Notebook: After A 'Death' And 'Resurrection' In Kyiv, Confusion And A Desire For Answers

Arkady Babchenko (right) reacts as he arrives in the offices of ATR TV, where his colleagues laid flowers by a portrait of him in his memory, in Kyiv on May 31.

KYIV -- The news arrived with a soft ping that hit like a ton of bricks: "Arkady was just killed."

Dozens of members of a Facebook Messenger group for journalists in Ukraine and Russia understood at once it was exiled Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko.

As details trickled out, all the signs -- the death threats, his fierce criticism of the Kremlin and high profile, even a photo seemingly showing him face down in a pool of blood with bullet wounds in his back -- pointed to yet another targeted killing of the kind journalists in Kyiv and Moscow have come to fear and, sadly, anticipate.

The mourning, anger, and finger-pointing that has followed other high-profile killings of journalists in recent years ensued immediately. Flowers and photographs memorializing the victim were placed at the scene of the crime. Evening vigils were planned. Obituaries were written, travel arrangements made, and money collected for a funeral.

Meanwhile, accusations flew back and forth across the Ukrainian-Russian border, which has come to symbolize the front line of both an ideological conflict and a hot war.

Then 20 hours later, Babchenko appeared -- very much alive -- at a press conference organized by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU). It was all part of an elaborate hoax to save his life, he announced. He and the SBU claimed that staging the ruse was the only way to nab a criminal group connected to Russia's security services planning a real assassination plot.

Arkady Babchenko (center) stands with Prosecutor-General Yuriy Lutsenko (right) and SBU chief Vasyl Hrytsak at a press briefing in Kyiv on May 29.
Arkady Babchenko (center) stands with Prosecutor-General Yuriy Lutsenko (right) and SBU chief Vasyl Hrytsak at a press briefing in Kyiv on May 29.

Journalists breathed a collective sigh of relief.

But they were also deeply confused. Everything and nothing about this "murder" of a journalist in Eastern Europe was typical.

'He Was So Happy In Kyiv'

It had been an emotional and physical whirlwind from news of the killing to Babchenko's "resurrection."

The initial news of the killing had prompted private messages of shock and grief among the FB Messenger group at the violent death of someone they all knew.

"It's a nightmare," one wrote.

It was bound to happen to one of them sooner or later, another commented.

"He was so happy in Kyiv," wrote another.

One suggested that others move to the relative safety of the United States.

Several posted photos of Babchenko taken during gatherings or reporting trips they'd made together.

Two Russian journalists vowed to get on the earliest possible flights to Kyiv.

"Let's remember him with a big pint of beer in his hand, smiling to us," a colleague suggested. "They will not terrify us."

'Let's Organize ASAP'

With the pig's blood that had been pooled beneath Babchenko as part of the SBU's covert operation still wet, journalists were already expressing concern that the official investigation would dead-end like others before it.

"We know we need to recover evidence as early as possible and on [the] biggest scale," Katya Gorchinskaya, chief executive officer of the independent Hromadske TV channel (and a former RFE/RL journalist) said of her decision to mobilize around 20 journalist acquaintances, including this journalist.

Gorchinskaya argued the need for the group to collect its own evidence to solve the crime: "Time is of the essence. The sooner you are able to recover video and get witnesses to talk, the better."

The group used a digital map of the area around Babchenko's apartment building taken from Google Maps to color-code quadrants and assign them to individuals and small groups to scour for clues. Each reported their progress in real time to the 20-strong Babchenko URGENT group.

Neighbors were interviewed. Security-camera footage was taken from commercial and residential buildings and sent to a central database for later examination. A public appeal was made to taxi drivers with dashcams who may have been working in the area to send their footage to the group.

The mistrust of an official probe even after the political earthquake that swept a rampantly corrupt administration from power four years ago stems in part from the brazen assassination of Belarusian-born journalist Pavel Sheremet, a Russian citizen who had settled in Kyiv. As the second anniversary of his death by car bomb approaches, the official police investigation into the crime remains mired in mistakes, with no one in custody.

Men carry the coffin containing the body of Pavel Sheremet during his memorial service in Kyiv in July 2016.
Men carry the coffin containing the body of Pavel Sheremet during his memorial service in Kyiv in July 2016.

But it is more than just one case.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an international media watchdog, says seven journalists in Ukraine have been targeted for murder, four with impunity, since the country gained independence in the Soviet collapse of 1991.

However, the Kyiv Post newspaper compiled a list of more than 50 journalists who have been killed or died under suspicious circumstances here in the same period.

'Arkady Lives!!!'

In the afternoon on May 29, all eyes turned to a 5 p.m. press conference that many hoped would shed more light on the Babchenko case, now nearly a full day old.

With cameras rolling, Babchenko was trotted out to a disbelieving room crammed full of journalists, eliciting audible gasps and awkward applause.

Across, the river at Babchenko's apartment, this reporter and two others were interviewing a next-door neighbor when another gentle ping alerted us to the remarkable twist.

"Arkady lives!!!" read the message sent to the Messenger group.

"Is it a joke?" asked one reporter.

"I don't understand," said another.

At a stroke, the vigils planned that evening for Babchenko took on the mantle of celebrations.

Questions Remain

And then came reflection. Journalists said they felt deceived and used, and they expressed concern about the implications that the spread of false news might have.

And they wanted answers to the many questions that remained.

Some answers were provided, though in many cases they were not complete ones.

The SBU said it had nabbed the alleged organizer, later be named as Borys Herman. He was remanded on June 1. And it said agents had found evidence connecting Russia to the real assassination plot, although it appeared more circumstantial than water-tight.

But the SBU didn't seem to want to say much more.

As officials celebrated what they called a "successful" staged operation, they were less eager to field questions about the very real unsolved murder of Sheremet.

Asked by a reporter about Sheremet's case at the press conference on May 30, SBU chief Vasyl Hrytsak replied, "Please, today we are discussing another issue."