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A City Under Siege: Ukrainian Journalist in Kyiv Speaks Out as Russian Troops Move In on Capital

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As the Russian army advances on Kyiv and threatens to topple the Ukrainian government, Ukrainian officials have banned men ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country to potentially be drafted into defense forces and have directed residents to use Molotov cocktails against the approaching Russian troops. We get an update from Ukrainian journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk in Kyiv, who says Ukrainians are showing great resilience against a much greater force invading their country. “The Ukrainian army is really deterring this mighty force on its own,” she says.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Russian troops have entered the northern district of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in what is seen as part of a move to encircle the city and topple the Ukrainian government. At least one apartment building in Kyiv was set ablaze today after being hit by a rocket. This comes a day after Russia launched a sweeping attack on Ukraine by land, air and sea. The Ukrainian government is now urging citizens to make Molotov cocktails to help defend the country. Ukrainian forces have also blown up a key bridge north of the city in an attempt to slow the Russian advance.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he’s remaining in the capital despite threats to his life. On Thursday, he vowed to defend Ukraine, while saying he’s open to talks with Russia and discussing the issue of neutrality.

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY: [translated] Today I have asked 27 European leaders whether Ukraine will be in NATO. I have asked directly. Everyone is afraid. No one answers. But we are not afraid. We are not afraid of anything. We are not afraid to defend our country. We are not afraid of Russia. We are not afraid to talk to Russia. We are not afraid to talk about anything, about security guarantees for our country. We are not afraid of talking about neutrality. We are not NATO members at the moment, but what guarantees will we get? And most importantly, which countries will give us those guarantees? …

I remain in the capital. My family is also in Ukraine. My children are in Ukraine. My family are not traitors. They are citizens of Ukraine. Where exactly they are, I have no right to say. According to the information we have, the enemy has marked me as target number one, my family as target number two. They want to damage Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state.

AMY GOODMAN: The Ukrainian president also said 137 Ukrainian civilians and military personnel were killed in the opening day of the Russian invasion. Ukraine claims it’s killed as many as 800 Russian soldiers, but there has been no verification of the claim. Russia is claiming it’s destroyed over 115 military facilities in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the United Nations says over 100,000 Ukrainians have been displaced, with thousands fleeing to other European countries. In Washington, President Biden condemned Russia’s invasion.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Putin is the aggressor. Putin chose this war. And now he and his country will bear the consequences.

AMY GOODMAN: During a speech at the White House, Biden announced new sanctions against Russia but stopped short of directly sanctioning Putin or kicking Russia out of the global SWIFT banking system. On Thursday, the Pentagon ordered 7,000 more troops to Germany. NATO is holding emergency talks today about the crisis. In Moscow, Putin told a group of Russian business leaders he had no choice but to attack Ukraine in order to ensure Russia’s security.

This comes as antiwar protesters are rallying around the globe, calling for Russia to halt its invasion. In Russia, authorities arrested 1,800 people calling for peace on Thursday. Most of the arrests occurred in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

We begin the show in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, where we’re joined by the Ukrainian journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk. She just wrote a harrowing piece for The Guardian headlined “I’m in Kyiv and awake at the darkest hour — as Putin’s bombs rain down.” She’s the founder of the Public Interest Journalist Lab. Her work focuses on international security and conflict reporting and human rights. She’s spent a lot of time covering Donbas.

Nataliya, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you describe the situation where you are right now, what the people of Kyiv and Ukraine are facing?

NATALIYA GUMENYUK: So, good to talk to you.

I am in Kyiv, in the capital. I am so far working from my home. I am trying to understand where I’m able to go. A lot of people, they were called to stay in the basement. The Ukrainian underground is quite deep, so people — quite a lot of people spend their nights there. There was a call from the government to stay at home, not to really get out, though hospitals are working. Transportation is free.

And I should probably stress then that, you know, like, what is possible to do to make the civilians’ kind of life normal, we’re fortunate to have cellphones, internet so far, electricity and water. But, of course, it’s developing very fast. There was a saboteur groups in one of the residential areas. We know that the Russian military were killed, that it was stopped. We, of course, follow, you know, videos, photos. I, of course, obviously, as a journalist myself, have a lot of colleagues, have a lot of sources online. A lot could be done. And things are happening all across the country, but it’s clear that there is an attempt to overtake Kyiv. But I’d like to stress then, for more than like 32 hours, the Ukrainian army is really deterring this mighty force on its own.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Nataliya, about an interview you did — you wrote about this — with a Russian journalist when she called you?

NATALIYA GUMENYUK: Yeah, I have — I’m in touch with a lot of Russian journalists, independent journalists. They are often in a position they’re forbidden to work in their country. So, as there were the first signs of the war, there was a shelling in the capital, as well, and it was clear yesterday night that it started, it’s a full-scale, it’s something unthinkable.

I got the call — I don’t know the person; I know by name, she’s very famous — to ask, like, “What is happening? Like, is it true?” But she started to beg for forgiveness. She started to talk that she begs for forgiveness to what her country does for her, and she feels powerless, as a lot of Russians do, as a lot of Russian liberals. So, I was, like, telling what’s going on. And she asked to compare. You know, like, she asked to compare. And I said, like, “You know, it would be stupid. I mean, I don’t like this comparison.” I think we too often misuse the term of the Second World War, Hitler, you know, in the public speeches, everywhere, as an anecdote. But because she’s Russian, and I’m kind of from — we are both from the post-Soviet space. We grew up in this stories about Second World War. The Hitler attacks started at 4 a.m. in 1941 with bombing here. And it was 5 a.m., and Putin bombed Kyiv. And that’s a reference that all people in post-Soviet space feel very strong. And it’s happening. And it can be, you know, different. And that’s how Ukrainians felt.

And it was very important to — you know, I’m not that emotional person. I’m trying to keep calm. But I think we kind of cried a bit, because of the — you know, like, this tragedy of the moment, because I don’t want it, she don’t want it, our citizens don’t want it, a huge portion of the Russians don’t want it. There is not any other reason rather than madness, rather than hatred of Vladimir Putin to Ukraine, which within the last couple of months, and within the last years, actually, demonstrated 'til the very, very last moment that it's ready to avoid the war, that it’s really — you know, it’s all about the defense. And now we’re living in a very different reality.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have a sense Kyiv will fall, as early as today or in the next few days?

NATALIYA GUMENYUK: No, my sense is very different, of course. I might be wishful thinking. Actually, now, like, reading to what my colleagues saying, they are in fact very disappointed by the Western kind of tone that it’s a matter of hours. We see that — you know, I cannot independently verify how — you know, like, whether the Ukrainian army, to what extent it was successful, how many there are casualties among the Russian troops. You know, like, the country is big. It’s as big as France. So, none of the media would be capable to verify it. But the resilience which has been shown already by the legit Ukrainian army is really big, because, like, the predictions were — I felt like sometimes it was said, like, “Oh, it’s a matter of hours.” It’s not a matter of hours. I think that Ukraine is way stronger than many people think. But — but, of course, it feels like we are long, and the strength is formidable. So, that’s really different.

And to add, you know, I, by my views — you know, I covered conflict, and I do report them from the humanitarian side. You know, there are journalists who cover war from the military point of view. I’m always with the civilians. I’m always kind of and very much for pro-peace. But at this moment, you just know that in such circumstances, it’s just the legit army in the democratic country where — in a pluralistic society which is trying to hold on. And even though there would be very severe damage — we know, like, the longer it lasts, it also means there would be more damage done to Ukraine, to Ukrainian cities. There would be innocent victims and casualties. But the deterrence is very strong. I feel like very warm. I feel very supported by everybody. I feel like everybody does his or her best. And in particularly, I’m like at core of the civil society. You know, like, my friends and my circle is like super active people, so there were never doubts about what they would do. But I’m looking at like every civilian — like, not every; I don’t want to overdo. But to many, those who we would consider apolitical, those who we would consider that they would just prefer to live their normal life, those who can, they stay in the town. They send their kids and parents. You know, they send their — but they stand here to do something.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what it is that — how your family is preparing right now, your husband also a journalist? We’re hearing about hundreds of people going into the subways as underground bomb shelters, not knowing what else to do, thousands going over the border — what? — into places like Poland, 100,000 displaced in Ukraine right now, and those numbers, of course, could mount. So, how you both are doing your journalism and also preparing your own family?

NATALIYA GUMENYUK: So, yeah, Ukraine is 40 million. It has a border with Poland. We’re having requests. We’re receiving, like, offers from a lot of people in the western part of the country to host. People have relatives. People are really moving from the areas of like bigger danger. My sister managed to get out of the town, but not far away. I’m trying — I’m kind of exactly considering how it would be possible to kind of bring my mom today to the train. We are like in New York: It’s a megapolis; we don’t all, everybody, own cars. So I don’t drive. I should find a way with the public transportation to do that, because Uber isn’t really working.

With my husband, to be honest, like, probably, that’s a moment when I really do not care what is professional, what is personal. He is a bit, like, too brave. You know, like, he’s a bit careless person. So I’m really worried he went, like, somewhere where it’s really dangerous now. And I kind of — I don’t share. I think he should be, like, a bit more concerned. But I know him. It won’t happen, but so makes me a bit angry. But because I kind of more care — I’m more careful while working outside.

Yeah, I’m trying to understand, like: Should I be here with you, talking but being in my room, or should I go out? Where should I go? It’s all everywhere. Would it have any impact if I go there, if I would tweet, if I would make a broadcast to any foreign station? It would matter, but which moment? For how long we should be in this situation? You know, like, I’ve forgotten to eat for two days now. I understood, like, I have to. I don’t really want. But, like, should I sleep? Should we do it in the shifts? Should I move the table to a different corner of the room, so further from the windows, because, who knows, maybe there would be shelling? At what moment I could leave the house? To what distance? Because we are journalists. And, again, I probably received this question, but I report this conflict. You know, like, that’s my profile. That’s something I have to do. You know, like, these are like — we are like on duty. It’s not our task to leave. We should be the ones who would stay as long as possible.

But I want to convey this message of confidence. Really, like, these talks about like how much will — how many hours it will take. I receive the support from friends, people whom I know, you know, like from even like weird places, like from Mali to Tuvalu. People send support, and I appreciate it. But I think that the trust in the Ukrainian society should be also there — not just support, but the trust that we are really doing something special. And it’s not just for Ukraine. It’s really about the rules of this world.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Nataliya, the president, who says he is marked as target number one, his family target number two, now says that men can’t leave between the ages of 18 and 60. They can’t leave Ukraine. They’re calling on all people to prepare with Molotov cocktails to face off the Russian army. I’m wondering if you could comment on this? And also, how this compares to — you talk about your husband being brave, but you, too. You’ve been covering Donbas, the eastern region, for a long time. Can you talk about how this compares to that conflict area?

NATALIYA GUMENYUK: OK. So, I don’t really would stress on the Molotov cocktails. There was also the calls for the people to conscript to fight in the territorial defense. And that was just like additional, on top of that. I can’t verify it myself, but I, like, see the photos, and in towns there are lines to the — you know, where males are — and not just men, but women also, are trying to join the army. But, yeah, probably people should be ready for the guerrilla war. So far, it’s always legit.

It’s very different from the conflict in the Donbas. You know, at that time, Russia still pretended to not be there. It was there, but they pretended that, you know, like those separatists they backed, they didn’t have the — you know, they didn’t have, for instance, air force or navy, because those separatists — as if they bought their guns or, like, that Buk missiles rocket which shot the MH17 jet, that they bought it somewhere in the free market. So, there was a limited. It was dangerous, it was bad, but it was limited somehow. It was mainly artillery. Now it’s a full-scale invasion. Russia knows the military targets in Ukraine, thanks to the old Soviet maps. So, like, every single military unit and military — you know, which doesn’t make sense — like, warehouse was attacked. And the border is very long. Also, Belarus joined Russia in this. The Belarus and other neighbor country, with the regime of Lukashenko, is kind of used — it’s used as a theater, as the place.

So, it really could be compared just like of the biggest war since the Second World War with the mighty force which is there. Again, Ukraine is as large as France. And it’s attacked in the huge part of its territory with not limited — you know, like, I think a lot of countries we can refer. I know quite well, you know, Afghanistan or Iraq. But it was still a limited amount of people flying to some different continent, you know, with some targets. There, we have, like, the country, like Russia, one of the biggest in the globe, with one of the mightiest armies, is trying to overtake quite a big country with a huge number of people.

What I still think, like: What are in the minds of those 150,000 Russian soldiers? The Russian war is not popular in Russia. The Russian television, official television, they don’t mention this war. It’s not exist for them. I am puzzled how it could be possible in the modern world, for how long. So, that’s really something quite historical, unfortunately.

AMY GOODMAN: Nataliya Gumenyuk, we want to thank you for being with us. Please be safe. Ukrainian journalist based in Kyiv whose harrowing piece for The Guardian is headlined “I’m in Kyiv and awake at the darkest hour — as Putin’s bombs rain down.” We’ll link to that piece at She’s the founder of Public Interest Journalist Lab, her work focusing on international security, conflict reporting and human rights, speaking to us from Ukraine’s capital.

When we come back, we’ll speak with a woman who has left Ukraine, a Ukrainian peace activist who just fled, is now in Sharm el-Sheikh. Stay with us.

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Next story from this daily show

Ukrainian Peace Activist: My Country Has Become a Battlefield for Major Powers. End the War Now

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