The Hunted: These are the Ukrainians Russia wanted to find


December 21, 2022 GMT

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — One was asked to be an informant for Russia. The 16-year-old son of another was kidnapped as leverage. A third is still in Russian custody. These are just a few portraits of prominent Ukrainian politicians, journalists, pastors and more who ended up on Russian kidnapping an effort to strip Ukraine of its leaders.



Two carloads of Russians came for Viktor Maruniak on his 60th birthday.

It was March 21. Maruniak, chief of the village of Stara Zburivka, in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine, said he and three other local men were taken to a nearby hotel, blindfolded, handcuffed, beaten, strangled and forced to get naked below zero .

“They would point a gun at our heads or someone else’s head, saying if you don’t say something, we’ll kill them,” Maruniak said. “Something went off in my head. It helped me survive. I was out of my body.”

After several days, he said, they took him to a second detention center and tortured him with electric shocks. They asked where the weapons were stored. He said the vehicles and uniforms of his captors, together with the documents he saw and the conversations he overheard, indicated that he had been captured by a special paramilitary police force under the Russian National Guard.

To his surprise, he was released three weeks later, on the condition that he return to his village as an informant.

Instead, he fled to Latvia. She said that she had nine broken ribs. Photographs taken after his ordeal show him thin and withered, with injuries to his hands, back, buttocks and legs. He stares into the camera, a man beyond shock or sadness, as if nothing humans could do to one another could surprise him more.

“They kept kidnapping people in my town,” he said. “Nobody knows where they keep them and why they kidnap them.”



When Russia invaded the Ukraine, Ihor Kuraian buried his wedding rings to protect them and enrolled in a volunteer military group in Kherson. Kuraian and his friends planned to raid a detention center where pro-Ukrainian activists were being held, an idea they later abandoned.

They had collected 300 Molotov cocktails, 14 pistols and a bag of grenades. When the Russians found the cache of weapons in his car, they tied him up and dragged him to a basement.

They interrogated him, twisted his fingers with pliers and beat him with a wooden club, he said. One man was beaten so badly that he fractured his sternum and died a slow death, Kuraian said.

Under torture, Kuraian named another person involved in the plan to storm the detention center. When the Russians forced him to call the man, he slipped false information into their conversation as a warning. The friend ran away. The Russians also took over their social media accounts to pump out propaganda.

“They wanted me to cooperate,” he said. “They even offered to make me mayor of Kherson. I rejected.”

Kuraian was detained in Crimea and appeared in a propaganda ad about prison conditions on Russian television. His family saw the video and lobbied for his release in a prisoner exchange on April 28.

“They traded us like you see in the movies,” he said. “Walk down the road toward each other.”



Before the war, Vlad Buryak had the plump carefree face of a beloved child. Family photos show his father, Oleg Buryak, looking at him with a happy smile in front of a Christmas tree.

That all changed at 11:22 a.m. on April 8 at the Vasylivka checkpoint between Melitopol and Zaporizhzhia, where the Russians captured Vlad, then 16, according to evidence gathered by his father, the head of the Zaporizhzhia district administration. As a guard looked on, Vlad called his father from a detention center and told her that he had not been beaten.

Buryak struggled to find words to help his son. “Don’t get into conflict, don’t get nervous, don’t get angry,” he advised.

Vlad had two questions for his father: “Why am I here?” and “When am I going out?”

As Buryak rushed to negotiate his son’s release, the answer to the first question became clear: he was the reason Vlad had been taken away. The Russians wanted local leaders like him to stand in front of a Russian flag and welcome them.

It was three hard months before Vlad could tell the world all the things he hadn’t said on those calls with his father: about the torture he’d witnessed, the blood he’d washed away, the man who broke down and tried to kill himself.

Finally, on July 7, Vlad was released. Buryak held his child in his arms.

“We’re going home,” Buryak said. “Thanks god.”



Yevheniia Virlych, editor of the local news website Kavun City, and her husband, Vladyslav Hladkyi, have spent years writing about Russian efforts to infiltrate Kherson and cultivate collaborators there.

When Kherson fell, they went into hiding and pretended on social media that they were in Poland. In fact, they were holed up in a friend’s apartment with their cat.

They never went out. They set a code to know whether to open the front door. Three rings on the doorbell meant a friend; two rings and one knock meant another.

“I was afraid 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Hladkyi said. “I had headaches. I have a tic in my left eye.

One afternoon in July, Virlych was near the open kitchen window when he heard two Russian soldiers asking for his name. She and her husband created fake Telegram accounts to book tickets on the next bus they could find.

Forty Russian checkpoints later, they were in Zaporizhzhia looking at a Ukrainian flag, wondering if it was a Russian fake.

It wasn’t fake. “It was a real freedom,” Hladkyi said.

“I wanted to cry,” Virlych said.



On a warm June night, a dozen armed men wearing balaclavas scaled the fence of Ilya Yenin’s home in Russian-occupied Melitopol. Jenin’s companion, Olga, went to the front door and was greeted by the glow of a lantern. The Russians knew who they were looking for.

They hit Ilya a couple of times and asked where his brother Daniil was.

Both brothers were civilian activists, and Ilya helped found a group to deliver food and medicine to civilians. Daniil has been working with a different charity fund that helps civilians and supports the Ukrainian army. He left Melitopol in early April, but his brother stayed behind to take care of his grandmother.

Daniil waited for a call demanding a ransom for his brother’s release, but it never came. He began to wonder if Ilya had been kidnapped just to scare, or punish, the people of Melitopol.

After three weeks in a detention center in Melitopol, Ilya was released. She has not dared to try to pass the Russian checkpoints to leave the occupied territory.

Daniil advises the families of the missing to speak up as loudly as possible on the issue.

“If no one is looking for you, it means they can do whatever they want with you,” he said.



Pastor Dmitry Bodyu was having coffee on the morning of March 19 when his wife saw a group of Russian soldiers jumping over the fence.

Bodyu, a US citizen, founded the Word of Life Church in Melitopol, an occupied city in southern Ukraine. The chilling thing was that the Russians seemed to know the secrets of him, not only who he was, where he lived and what he did, but also obscure details about his finances.

“Someone was talking about me. When they arrested me, they knew a lot of information about me,” Bodyu said.

In detention, his daily interrogations were a battery of accusations, all of which he said were false: he is helping the Ukrainian army. You are organizing protests. You are a spy for the United States. He thought his captors, some of whom he said wore uniforms with the markings of Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, wanted him to spy for Moscow.

“I said, what kind of information do you want to know about the US? Where is the McDonald’s? he said. “You’re talking to the wrong man.”

The Russians insisted that they had come to help Ukraine and wanted Bodyu to spread their message of liberation. He said they did not beat him, but he could hear other inmates in the basement cells crying and screaming in pain.

After eight days, Bodyu was released, but was kept under guard by the Russians. In April he fled with his family to Poland via Russia. He said the Russians took the church from him and set up a base there, driving parishioners underground.

“It’s not safe,” he said. “But people still get together and even make plans to celebrate Christmas!”



Serhii Tsyhipa, a blogger, activist and military veteran in Nova Kakhovka in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine, knew the Russians were looking for him.

He went underground, but continued to post updates on Russian forces and a barrage of anti-Russian messages, including a fantastical satire about a pigeon sent to assassinate Russian President Vladimir Putin. On March 12, he went out with his dog and never came back.

Some six weeks later, a thin, hollow-eyed Tsyhipa appeared in a video in pro-Russian media. He trembled and held his arm amused. He regurgitated Russian propaganda. The video has garnered nearly 200,000 views on one YouTube channel alone.

His stepdaughter Anastasiia looked on in horror: What had they done to her? “It’s not normal the way she talks,” she told the AP.

Ukrainian police voice analysis experts concluded that Tsyhipa had made the video under duress, according to a copy of his analysis obtained by AP.

In July, his wife, Olena, received a Telegram message from a man claiming to be a Russian agent. He told her to take Tsyhipa’s clothes and passport to a checkpoint in Russian-controlled territory, where she would return her husband to him. Olena thought something was wrong: if she or a friend went for the delivery, would they take them too?

Tsyhipa’s family have contacted lawyers, NGOs, international organizations, journalists and every Ukrainian authority they can think of, and European officials have publicly pushed for Tsyhipa’s release. But nothing has worked.

“I asked them to put pressure on Russia to release the political prisoners,” Olena said. “I think there are many people like my husband.”


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