KHERSON, Ukraine—Just a few months ago, in the early days of summer, Kateryna Handziuk started jogging regularly. Every time she went out she extended the distance a bit, and she shared the news with Maryna Khromykh, a devoted runner and a close friend from the political trenches in Ukraine.
More than a decade earlier, the two young women had dreamed they could put an end to their country’s post-Soviet authoritarian politics, corruption and criminal impunity. Now they planned to jog together, still dreaming and sweating for the future.
But such dreams can cost you your life in today’s Ukraine.
Ever since Handziuk entered politics in 2006 to become the youngest elected deputy mayor of her hometown of Kherson, she stood out: blonde, round-faced, jolly, fearless, passionate, unstoppable. She was always ready to crack a sarcastic joke or two, always owning up to her decisions.
She dressed informally, comfortably, never looking like an ordinary bureaucrat. In private life, she still had her little girl’s habits. She asked friends to bring her peanuts in chocolate from Poland, and her favorite sweets had a clown on the yellow package. She brought stuffed teddy bears in her backpack on her trips abroad with her husband.
At work she was a natural team builder, gathering a community of revolutionaries around her. Together they took part in the Orange Revolution in 2004, then in the Revolution of Dignity centered on Kiev's Maidan square in 2013 and 2014.
In the spring of 2014, Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula, just 300 kilometers, or about 180 miles, from Kherson. After that, Handziuk was part of the vibrant community of pro-European Maidan activists who were struggling to stop the pro-Russian rebel movement, also known as the Russian Spring.
Handziuk kept up the fight over the last year, even as billboards for pro-Russian politicians went up along the highway from her downtown office to the two-room apartment where she lived together with her father and husband.
In her biting Facebook posts, Handziuk denounced illegal seizures of property and illegal logging in the region, which often was organized by dangerous thugs and local officials. Thousands of her followers read and shared her posts on social media. Kherson knew Handziuk for her aggressive criticism of the local police and regional government, and for a word she often used, “musora,” humiliating slang for Soviet-style policemen.
To reach out to a bigger audience Handziuk, together with the journalist Sergiy Nikitenko, founded a news website called “Most,” or the Bridge. Local elites read articles that detailed corrupt schemes, and watched the documentary made by Nikitenko about the regional administrator, Vladislav Magner. “A bandit from the 1990s,” they called him.
On June 18, two bearded men attacked Nikitenko for his journalism. “I am convinced that the attack on me was revenge for my film about Magner,” he told The Daily Beast.
HANDZIUK HAD NOT BEEN afraid of physical attacks, which previously had seemed unlikely. But there was one thing Kateryna, or simply Katia as her friends called her, had always dreaded. From her earliest childhood: she could not stand pain, even a small scratch on her skin caused her trouble. Tears filled her eyes when she twisted her ankle or cut her finger.
On July 31, Handziuk walked out of her apartment building toward a car parked just a couple of meters away from the entrance when a young man rushed up—she caught a glimpse of the attacker’s face—and poured a liter of sulfuric acid all over her back. Steaming acid streams ran down her body, burning through her clothes and skin.
A few black stains still can be seen on the sidewalk where Handziuk’s skirt and T-shirt dissolved in acid, together with her hair and skin, muscles on her neck and back, on her arm, stomach and legs. Splashes of acid left traces, open wounds. Forty percent of her body was burned.
A neighbor, a middle-aged woman passing by the crime scene a few days ago covered her mouth with her hand when she spoke about the attack, as if trying to hold back a scream. “My own flesh hurts when I think about her suffering, about the five men who were here to kill the poor girl,” the woman said. Then she squinted at a man watching us from a blue vehicle parked across the yard with the engine running. “Here they are musora,” she said quietly, using Handziuk’s slang word, and walked away.
Right after the attack, still in shock and in terrible pain, Handziuk managed to write to her Facebook community: “I was splashed with acid,” she said.
Nikitenko ran to the hospital, with only one word on his mind: “Assassination.”
At the intensive care unit, he found to his horror that he was right. This was not just a “splash,” this was attempted murder that had left Handziuk covered in wounds. “It was a terrorist attack conducted with a clear purpose to terrify all of us,” said Nikitenko. “Today, when we have six accused people under arrest, we have no doubts that they are connected to the regional administration and the governor. But we still do not know the name of the mastermind, the one who ordered her murder to remove Katia from the political arena.”
THANKS TO JOURNALISTS and activists who have been pushing Ukrainian authorities since the attack in July, the Ukrainian Security Service, or SBU, has investigated the roles of the six men. Five of them are veterans of Ukrainian forces fighting in the Donbas war in the east of the country: Sergei Torbin, a 41-year-old officer, allegedly gave a 27-year-old soldier, Victor Gorgbunov, $300 to buy sulfuric acid.
“Anybody can buy acid online in Ukraine for $3.60 a liter; Gorbunov bought two liters in Kakhovka, a village near Kherson,” Nikitenko told The Daily Beast.
Nikita Grabchuk, a 23-year-old man, admitted that he was the one who had poured acid over Handziuk. Twenty-four-year old Vladimir Vasyanovich and Vyacheslav Vishnevsky, 28, were watching out in the courtyard to give the signal for Grabchuk to attack. They testified in court that their commander, Torbin, had explained to them that Handziuk was a corrupt bureaucrat with pro-Russian views—enough of a reason for a Ukrainian soldier to identify an enemy. Torbin offered his soldiers from $500 to $800 each for the attack on the deputy mayor. All four admitted their guilt in court, insisting that they did not know how horrific the burns on Handziuk's body would be.
Over the next three months, Ukrainian doctors patched Handziuk’s horrific wounds with 14 surgical procedures and skin grafts until there was no skin left to use. Her aide, Inna Zelenaya, stayed by Handziuk’s side whenever doctors allowed visits. “Now all we need is the political will; by now authorities must know who had ordered the attack on her.”
Katia was worried about her future appearance, about her burned body and hair, but she agreed to appear on television.
“Katia was so strong, her courage was an example for all of us, I was proud of her when she agreed to give an interview to Hramadske Television, to appear on TV with her burned body,” Zelenaya said. “Her words are now a part of our history.”
In the video Handziuk said: “Yes, I know that I look bad, but at least I am being treated. I’m sure that I look better than fairness and justice in Ukraine, because they are not being treated by anybody today.”
Handziuk had no interest in making a fortune. She lived in a grim neighborhood on the outskirts of Kherson in an apartment on a street named after the Soviet 39th Guard Motor Rifle Division. Her dream was to turn the town’s central Independence Square into a beautiful public space with a fountain in the middle.
On July 6, weeks before the attack, she wrote a powerful Facebook post accusing the current regional management of Kherson of “anti-Maidan revenge” against Ukrainian corruption fighters. Her friends believe that the attack on her was ordered as punishment for her words, for her war against criminal business scams flourishing in the region. But distinguishing criminality from politics has become very hard here.
HANDZIUK DIED ON NOVEMBER 4: “After three months of hellish suffering, of sleeping on her burned back, she died; the old system that wanted to drag our country back to the past, under Moscow’s influence, into corruption, managed to kill her,” Khromykh told The Daily Beast.
Since then, Handziuk’s killing has become a lightning rod for public criticism of Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, law enforcement agencies, and Kherson regional authorities. Her supporters and family members did not allow the head of the administration, Andrey Gordeyev, to attend Handziuk’s funeral. “Get out of here!” “Off you go!” “You have been hiding your head in the sand!” people yelled at the governor. Gordeyev turned around and left.
Only on November 12, after Handziuk’s death, did police arrest Igor Pavlovsky, the suspected middleman between the group of attackers and the mastermind. Pavlovsky was a former official, an aide for state parliament member Nikolay Palamarchuk. The deputy was a senior police officer with more than a decade of experience as a commander in the Kherson region.
Handziuk’s family and friends found that from the day of the attack at the end of July to the day of the arrest in November, Pavlovsky was not trying to hide from justice. “He was convinced that he was untouchable,” Nikitenko said.
HANDZIUK'S FRIENDS IN different regions of Ukraine formed an Initiative Group and put together what they called the “Handziuk List,” with 55 names of victims of politically motivated attacks on activists. “In the process of analyzing each case from the list, we realized that there was a deal made between regional and central powers, that the attacks are systematic and police do not investigate who orders the attacks,” Maxym Kytsiuk, one of the Initiative Group of Handziuk’s Supporters, told The Daily Beast in a recent interview in Kiev.
The Initiative Group of Handziuk’s Supporters included more than one hundred people in Kiev and around the regions. “We know who killed Katia—musora, cops, killed her, but after her death the minister of interior did not quit his job,” he added. During the interview, two men sat at the next table, listening to what Kytsiuk had to say. “They are musora, following us,” Kytsiuk said.
In the midst of Handziuk’s murder investigation the undeclared war between Russia and Ukraine escalated to open military clashes. On Monday the Ukrainian parliament declared martial law after Russian security forces captured 23 Ukrainians and three ships of the Ukrainian navy.
“We are concerned that now the international community will pay more attention to the military conflict with Russia and not to the murders of Ukrainian activists,” Khromykh told The Daily Beast on Monday. “Martial Law would limit the instruments for civil activists, public rallies and other mass demonstrations, but I still hope that our authorities will not give up and will find the mastermind behind Katia’s murder.”
The opposition leader and presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko chose the side of civil society in this conflict. The death of the public activist, Kateryna Handziuk offers a "verdict on the system and all its ‘reforms,’ which are just naked bravado and meaningless words by the leadership,” Tymoshenko, a former prime minister of Ukraine, told The Daily Beast.
Handziuk was a former member of Tymoshenko’s Batkovshina, or Fatherhood party. “Numerous attacks on activists testify to the systematic war that is taking place in Ukraine against the civil society representatives. All these crimes must be investigated and prosecuted," said Tymoshenko.
“The day before she died, I visited Katia in the hospital, and she told me that doctors could not find healthy skin for grafts to patch up the wounds on her stomach,” Handziuk’s close friend Maryna Khromykh told The Daily Beast.
A long time ago, when they spent long nights speaking about problems in their regions, Handziuk told her friend: “If I give people I am responsible for some shitty job, I should do the shittiest job myself.” She used strong words, and she was strong, her friend said. “Knowing her, I had no doubts she would recover – and we’d go jogging together.” Her eyes filled with tears.
This story was updated at 5:10 a.m. EST on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018.