An excerpt from the draft of a future book.
In memory of Georgiy Gongadze and his contribution to the protection of freedom of speech and the establishment of independent journalism in Ukraine.
All rights reserved.
“I hope the weather will be nice and I can take the kids with me,” I thought as I woke up and slowly opened my eyes. The sun was trying to get into our room through the heavy curtains.
“Thank goodness! It looks like it’s going to be a nice day after all.” I watched as the sun’s rays touched the face of my husband, who was still breathing softly in his sleep next to me.
My soulmate was still sleeping in the morning sun. It was the same perfectly shaped face that I had fallen in love with at first sight when we met nine years earlier. His straight nose, wide-set eyes, light brown hair and strong jaw still attracted me with the same intensity as before. Amid all the challenges he had brought to my life, I still loved him as much as I did when we first met. His beauty was extraordinary, but when combined with his incredible energy, openness and will, it generated a force that was more powerful than life itself.
There are some people in this world who are not afraid of death, and they live as if there are no obstacles, no limits. They know their purpose and are ready to sacrifice everything for it. They live in the moment as if there is no tomorrow.
He was one of them.
He always dressed stylishly and for the occasion. When he walked into a room, it was impossible not to notice him. Men envied him and women couldn’t resist. People would come up to me and introduce themselves just because they were curious about what the wife of such a man could be like.
On that morning, 16 September 2000, he lay there next to me sleeping, naked and vulnerable, and it was hard for me to leave this place where love was still resting.
Our spacious rented two-room Stalin-era apartment on the second floor on Chervonoarmiiska Street did not feel like home. I didn’t like the old furniture the landlady had left us, or the fact that we had to sleep on a fold-out sofa in the living room. But we had nothing of our own, and moving from apartment to apartment in this bustling and bizarre city of Kyiv was part of our unsettled, permanent-temporary existence.
I forced myself to get up, carefully put on his dressing gown, and left the room.
I got a fright yesterday. He was waiting for me at home in the middle of the day when I flew back from Warsaw, where I had spent a week observing the election campaign in Poland. There had been some unexplained surveillance earlier that summer, so I’d been worried about leaving him alone with the children.
“Don’t you have to be at work?” I asked him anxiously.
“I’m going back to work, I just wanted to see you,” he reassured me after a long kiss.
“Do you love me?” he asked me insistently.
“Don’t put pressure on me. Of course I love you, you know that. What kind of question is that?” I replied indignantly, suspecting that the strange surveillance had resumed.
He was becoming vulnerable, and he needed support when he felt lonely or confused or was in some kind of trouble. Just like earlier this year, when he’d called from a phone booth somewhere in Manhattan. “Tell me you love me,” he pleaded from across the ocean at the crossroads of two centuries, on the eve of the new year 2000. And I knew something was up.
During the 1999 presidential campaign in Ukraine, which we’d finally said goodbye to, he had been perhaps the only journalist who never hesitated to ask tough questions on TV shows featuring the presidential candidates, including the incumbent president, Leonid Kuchma.
“The Minister of Internal Affairs is not doing his job fighting corruption, and you are rewarding him. If he’s incompetent, he shouldn’t be in his position. Either you don’t know what he’s doing and you need to find out and possibly replace him, or you do know and you’re just covering for him!” he told the president on the 1+1 TV channel a month before the election.
“Listen, I’m sorry, I don’t know your name,” the president replied, holding back his irritation.
“Georgiy, my name is Georgiy Gongadze!” he insisted, pushing for an answer. His face, shown in a close-up, had his feelings written all over it: “You think we’re all idiots here, don’t you?”
“I’m not Ukrainian, but I’m ready to die for this country. Please come out and vote. Don’t think that your vote doesn’t matter!” That was his message on the eve of election day on his own show on Radio Kontinent, which he hosted every night during the presidential campaign.
Back then, his calls sounded like a lone voice crying out in the desert.
In November of that year, Kuchma was re-elected.
In December 1999, the new old president of Ukraine visited the United States.
Radio Liberty’s reports from those days sounded like the same old same old.
“Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma will visit Washington this week for meetings with US President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. It is unclear, however, whether the trip will yield any financial aid for his country, with the economy in decline and drowning in corruption. Agricultural and industrial production in Ukraine has decreased and corruption is said to be widespread. The World Bank is withholding loans to President Leonid Kuchma’s government, saying the Ukrainian authorities are moving too slowly on open market reforms.”
Georgiy decided to travel to Washington too, to meet with people and talk about the restrictions on press freedom in Ukraine and the corruption that had flourished under President Kuchma’s watch. Along with a number of pieces of evidence of high-level corruption, he brought a letter signed by a group of prominent journalists that we had gathered together in Kyiv. The letter described the campaign of censorship and intimidation of journalists in Ukraine.
During that visit, someone from Kuchma’s inner circle gave Georgiy a friendly warning as they were sitting on a bench somewhere in Washington. “You’re playing with fire,” the representative said, making sure Georgiy understood how dangerous his work was.
Upon his return to Ukraine a month later, Gia (as we called Georgiy) lost another job, and we had to move out of the two-bedroom apartment we had called home since the birth of our children. No TV channel or newspaper would hire him anymore. They knew that he could not be controlled or censored. For the political establishment and the oligarch-controlled media, he was persona non grata.
But his visit to the United States had given him hope. He was inspired, explaining that many Ukrainians around the world had access to the internet and were interested in reading real news from their homeland.
“Besides, I have to remain independent. I have to write about this terrible corruption. You know I can’t stay silent. He [President Kuchma] will change the Constitution to strengthen his presidential powers, and we’ll be back in the USSR. Kuchma is selling Ukraine to the Russians, and his friends are sucking all the blood out of the country. People just don’t understand. They are so poor and so afraid that no one is prepared to speak up. Someone has to.”
There was almost no window of opportunity left for independent journalism in Ukraine, so he decided to create his own newspaper where he could publish whatever he wanted. And it would be an online outlet with no printing costs. At a time when not even one percent of Ukraine’s population used the internet, he believed it was the only way to stay independent and up-to-date and to communicate with the rest of the world.
He was right. The complete control of the media space over the past two years had prompted many journalists, including myself, to look for other jobs in communications. And creating a website, which he named Ukrainska Pravda, was the only way he and a few other brave journalists could do their jobs.
The site went live in April, but after a few stories were posted in May, strange things started to happen. One day, fire service inspectors came to the office to make sure everything was up to standard. The next day the power went down, and it was impossible to establish the cause. We stopped discussing important things on the phone.
In June, we noticed that someone was watching us. Strange, suspicious-looking people used to sit on a bench in the courtyard of our apartment block. Georgiy recorded the number plates of the cars that were following him and handed them over to the police. The prosecutor’s office said that there were no such numbers in the register. When I went to work in the morning and saw someone sitting on the bench next to the house, I called Gia to warn him. We didn’t know what to expect.
We also had a routine at night. When he came into the apartment block, he’d call me on my mobile phone, and I’d open the door of our apartment and greet him loudly. It was a tactic in case someone wanted to attack him in a dark corridor.
One August evening, he told me that some friends “who knew what was going on” were advising him to leave the country.
“Really? Where are we going to go? Two babies, no money, and nowhere to live!” I was in tears.
“Maybe you should reconsider what you’re doing,” I pleaded. “It’s clearly not safe. What about changing your profession? You have so many talents. You could host a travel show, or write about international relations. Look, I managed to find another job. We have responsibilities. We can’t always do or say what we want.”
“Are you serious? You’re telling me to kiss someone’s backside because they have money and power? No way! Everything will be fine. Trust me. You have to trust me.”
I was on the edge.
It was Saturday, 16 September 2000.
I looked at my tired face in the small bathroom mirror. Dark circles under my eyes, and the bones of my jaw were standing out – clear signs of exhaustion.
I hadn’t had a day off for so long. Today I had to work again. We were so low on money that I’d had to take on this three-hour job training political party activists to earn a few dollars. Training in communications for political party members had become my part-time job at weekends to make ends meet. The family budget was my responsibility. Since Georgiy had started his new project, all the money he earned went there. He hardly supported our family financially, and I did use to complain. It wasn’t easy to accept that while his priority was telling the truth, I had to work two or three jobs to pay the rent and feed our family. I just hoped that this new project of his would work out. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could be the sole provider in this family.
I stepped out of the shower and quickly dried my hair, cut short for convenience.
“Everything should be fine. Be positive!” I told myself as I put on mascara and lipstick. “We had such a great evening, I don’t want to spoil those pleasant feelings. I hope the fresh air will do me good today. At least after the training course, I’ll be able to play with the children and go for a short walk in the forest.”
Leila, our cat, sneaked into the bathroom. She was given to us after our dog Hans, an Irish Setter, died almost three years ago, the same year the twins were born.
The noise from the children’s room told me the girls were awake.
It was 07:30 in the morning. Our nanny, Liuba, would be here at 08:00 with fresh milk from the market. The car would arrive at 09:00. I needed to hurry up.
The girls were delighted. I hadn’t seen them for a week and was looking forward to us spending time together. “I’ll only be busy with that training for half the day,” I thought as I lifted them out of their cots.
“Let’s be quiet, Daddy’s still asleep,” I whispered.
Nana was telling Solomiia not to take her favourite things. The girls looked very cute with their short haircuts, but I thought they were too short. They looked like boys.
“He’s done it again,” I thought.
Every time I went away, he’d take our daughters to a hairdresser. He liked to be seen with the girls. People around him would whisper: “Such a handsome man with such cute kids, and he takes them to a beauty salon.” He’d sit in the hairdresser’s chair, holding the girls on his lap one by one, while the hairdresser cut their hair. What a wonderful dad!
The doorbell rang. Liuba was always on time. A woman of thirty, quiet, with dark blue eyes and long, unkempt hair that looked like she cut it herself. She’d quickly become part of our family. I was so lucky to have found her – hers was the first ad in the newspaper I’d responded to. Previously a nursery worker, she came to us when the children were nine months old and I had to go back to work. She hadn’t been able to have children of her own, so she loved ours as if they were her own. It was her responsibility to look after them, cook for them and clean up after them, and she did a great job.
The last two years had been extremely busy for us, with first the parliamentary and then the presidential election campaigns. Sometimes we were both busy until late into the night, so Liuba had to put the children to bed with neither of us home. I’d try to hurry home as soon as I could. When I had time, I’d sing lullabies to the children or switch on the radio so that they could at least hear their dad’s voice on his nightly radio show.
“Is everyone ready? The car’s here waiting outside. Let’s say goodbye to Daddy!”
We walked into the living room with our coats on.
“Oh no! You forgot about our lessons. I have to do that!” Gia, finally waking up, suddenly remembered his self-imposed responsibility.
“But we’re ready to go. The car is here, the kids want to go,” I protested.
“No, the driver can wait for half an hour. We have a lesson to do,” he said firmly, leaving no room for negotiation.
A minute later, the girls began to repeat after Georgiy in English: “Mother, father, bread, water, cat.” He wrote out the English alphabet on sheets of paper and made the children form simple words from these letters. I stood patiently and watched their movements. He’d introduced Saturday English and Georgian lessons only a month ago. I was happy to see him take on this new parental role, although I wasn’t sure what had led to this decision. As the children began to grow older, he’d suddenly begun to pay attention to them.
Was it a newly realised parental responsibility, or the fact that the children had grown up and begun to respond consciously? It was interesting for me to observe. Or maybe it was something else that I wasn’t yet able to recognise.
It was 09:30 already. I glanced at the large antique clock on our living room wall that had belonged to his grandmother and said: “We really have to go.”
“Okay, we’ll postpone the Georgian lesson till tomorrow,” he said, kissing the girls one by one.
“Okay, I’ll see you tonight. I’ll call you if we decide to stay there,” I warned as I left the apartment.
Liuba held both children’s hands and they ran down the stairs.
We kissed on the doorstep.
“Think about your plans for Sunday,” I said. “I need to get some rest.”
He followed me into the shared corridor. Letting us go, he shouted: “I’ll do my best! Take care of the children!”
He did not come home that night, or any other night.
As we found out after years of investigation and many hours of court hearings, that morning might never have happened. The police had planned to abduct Georgiy the night before, on Friday 15 September. But something went wrong in the pre-planned operation by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and they detained him on 16 September. Four police officers led by General Pukach pushed my husband into a car as he was walking home. They drove him to a forest near Kyiv, strangled him with a belt and buried his body there. Later, one of the killers, General Pukach, came back, cut off the head of my husband’s corpse, burned the body and buried it again.
Two months later, I saw what was left of my love at the local morgue, something that people from a neighbouring village had accidentally stumbled across. It was impossible to identify him. The prosecutor wanted me to say that I could not identify the body. No body, no crime.
I tried to tell the truth. I wrote in the report: “This body most likely belongs to my husband, Georgiy Gongadze.”
In April 2001, based on the results of DNA testing, investigators from the FBI’s main office in Washington informed me that the body found in Tarashcha near Kyiv was my husband’s.
Georgiy’s murder, and my efforts to find justice, divided my life into before and after and changed it forever.
I was forced to leave Ukraine with my two three-year-old daughters.
This crime and the public response to it, as well as secret recordings of President Kuchma asking his subordinates to get rid of my husband, changed the path of Ukraine’s development.
All those who committed the crime were punished.
The president suspected of involvement in the murder is enjoying his retirement.
My husband, Georgiy Gongadze, was just 31. His head was not found until six years after the murder. It was not until March 2016 that my daughters and I were finally able to bury him.
He was an investigative journalist.
The price he paid for his work was his life.
Translation: Myroslava Zavadska
Editing: Teresa Pearce
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