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Irina Babloyan: Exiled Russian journalist’s horror journey across Europe in grips of suspected poisoning

“If you’re a journalist and the government wants to kill you – you’re doing it right”.

Those are the chilling words of broadcaster Irina Babloyan, who until Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine hosted Russia’s most popular morning radio show.

But stalked by the FSB and taken off the air within days of the war starting, the journalist felt compelled to leave Moscow for her own safety.

Little did she realise, like so many of Putin’s critics, she would also suffer symptoms of suspected poisoning that left her skin “burning all the time”.

Established prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s sole major independent radio station Echo of Moscow was taken off air in March 2022, during the Kremlin’s clampdown on information, and then shut down completely.

Events soon took an even darker turn. Late one evening, near her home, Ms Babloyan was out walking with her close friend, opposition politician Ilya Yashin, when he was arrested. He was later sentenced to eight and a half years in prison, over a YouTube livestream about Russian atrocities in Bucha.

From that moment, she says Russian police and FSB agents followed her everywhere – even some 350 miles south to Belgorod – and openly sat outside her home, threatening her that “it’s probably better for you to leave”.

It was as she began to investigate early reports of Ukrainian children being forcibly taken to Russia that the personal danger to Ms Babloyan intensified.

She approached Russian government officials, who told her they were aware of the situation and that the children would remain in the country until the war was over.

While she was initially aware of just one “school” housing Ukrainian children in Russia, the findings soon snowballed until she learned from a fellow journalist of dozens more facilities, holding thousands more. Ukraine’s current figures suggest at least 19,000 children have been taken.

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“I was really shocked and I understood: okay, probably it’s time for me to leave,” Ms Babloyan said, adding: “I was so tired and felt I couldn’t change the situation.”

She returned to her home country of Georgia in October, amid another Russian exodus sparked by Putin’s mobilisation order.

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and children’s rights commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova are both subject to international arrest warrants

(Copyright 2022 Sputnik)

With Echo of Moscow set to resume programming via its app from Berlin, the journalist planned to move to there – in a journey requiring her to drive to Armenia, before flying from Yerevan to Moldova, and then on to the German capital.

On the eve of the long trip, she suddenly “felt something strange going on”.

“In a second”, she began to feel nauseous and tired. “I had dinner with friends – I didn’t want to eat, I didn’t want to drink, I ordered salad and wine, and didn’t [touch] it at all. I decided to go to bed, went to my hotel and fell asleep.” It was the last time she would sleep for three days.

She awoke feeling “much worse”, recalling: “I couldn’t move normally – every single movement was very hard.” She felt a metallic taste in her mouth, with “crazy” pain in her head and “in a strange place” in her stomach, while her hands and feet had turned “wine red”.

“I couldn’t move my fingers normally, and I felt like [I was] touching fire in [my] hands and feet,” Ms Boloyan said.

Blaming hitherto dormant allergies, she bought some antihistamines, packed a bag and embarked on a four-hour taxi journey to Yerevan.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny with his family in a Berlin hospital

(Alexei Navalny/Instagram/AFP)

Save for the border crossing, she lay on the back seat for the entire journey, unable to move. “Every single piece of my body was burning. I couldn’t think normally, couldn’t concentrate on anything.”

At the airport after a sleepless night in a hotel, filled with anxiety, she arranged a phone appointment with a Russian doctor, who told her the symptoms were probably caused by stress. “I was sitting waiting my flight crying all the time I was talking because they didn’t understand what was going on,” she said.

Ms Babloyan spent another sleepless night in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, before flying to Germany, where finally on the third day, she found she could walk, talk and eat again. “It was not all gone, but it was much better,” she said.

Without health insurance, it was December by the time she saw a doctor, who prescribed her antidepressants and told her allergy tests would cost €6,000.

Soon after, Ms Babloyan was forced to stop doing her radio show, as “something strange started happening with my skin”, which broke out in hive-like red spots, “burning all the time”.

She took the tests for all known allergens, which came back negative.

At this point, a Russian friend recommended another doctor, who upon seeing her skin immediately told her she needed toxicology tests for heavy metals – and said she knew of two other Russians, a journalist and activist, who had recently fallen ill in Europe with similar symptoms.

Ms Babloya was treated at the same Charite hospital as Navalny

(Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

The two other cases – Novaya Gazeta journalist Elena Kostyuchenko, in Berlin, and US-based Free Russia Foundation president Natalia Arno, in Prague – were being looked into by Riga-based investigative outlet The Insider.

Doctors and poison specialists have since told the outlet that poisoning is the only explanation for Ms Kostyuchenko’s symptoms, and is the most likely reason for Babloyan and Arno’s symptoms.

She was tested at the Charité Hospital, where the now-jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was diagnosed in 2020.

But she was later told that her toxicology tests had been “lost”, and although doctors also took a sample of her hair, she has still not been told the results. Ms Kostyuchenko is also still in the dark, despite claims by a source to The Insider that law enforcement carried out their own secret analysis of her blood.

Having announced an investigation last month into Ms Kostyuchenko’s case, German prosecutors are now treating it as attempted murder.

However, Georgia is yet to announce its own probe into Ms Babloyan’s case, and she is currently unable to return to Tblisi and formally trigger an investigation herself.

Ms Babloyan interviewing Elena Kostyuchenko on her Echo of Moscow show

(screengrab)

For Ms Babloyan, it was while interviewing Ms Kosyuchenko on her radio show in mid-August that the stark reality truly began to set in.

“When you are looking into the face and eyes of a person who felt the same [symptoms] and you understand it was real, it feels scary – very,” she said, adding that she is still “just trying to understand how to live when you know that someone wanted to kill you, and probably will do it again.”

The journalist – who still has problems with her skin, and suffers pain in her fingers after opening a bottle or even a door – remains even more determined to offer an objective narrative on Russia’s affairs.

“Work is like therapy for me,” she said. “I can’t stop working”, and noted that, as a journalist, if the government “wants to kill you, it means that, what you’re doing – you’re doing it right”.

Asked whether she believed she had been targeted for her enquries into potential Russian war crimes, Ms Babloyan replied: “I just think that all Russian journalists and activists are a target for the Russian government.

“But it’s hard to understand who’s going to be next because if you are trying to find logic, you can’t find it, and everyone can be a target.”


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