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Ukrainians Unite to Hold Back Russian Forces in Kyiv, Mykolaiv & Odessa as 3 Million Refugees Flee

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Image Credit: Courtesy: Nataliya Gumenyuk

We speak with Ukrainian reporter Nataliya Gumenyuk, who has been reporting from across Ukraine, including the strategic port cities of Mykolaiv and Odessa in the south of the country. More than 3 million refugees have fled the conflict, and Russian forces are increasingly targeting civilian areas. Gumenyuk says the Russian invasion has reshaped Ukrainian national identity and united the previously fractious country in common purpose. “It’s not just their lives, it’s not just their dignity. It’s really about this right to choose. They are really angry by the fact that another country decides for themselves what [the] government should be, how they should live,” says Gumenyuk, founder of the Public Interest Journalism Lab.

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

AMY GOODMAN: UNICEF is now saying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is creating a child refugee almost every second. Over one-and-a-half million children have now fled Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion three weeks ago. The total number of refugees has now topped 3 million. This comes as Russia is continuing to attack cities across Ukraine. Kyiv is still under curfew as Russia continues to bomb residential areas. Earlier today, Russian forces shelled a 12-story apartment building in the capital.

We go now to Kyiv, where we’re joined by the Ukrainian journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk, who has just returned from a reporting trip to other areas of Ukraine. Her article in Rolling Stone is just out. It’s headlined “'We Would Die Under Moscow.' Odesa Unites to Resist Putin’s Invasion.” Her other piece published this week, in The Guardian, is headlined “In Mykolaiv, a city awaiting a siege, it’s clear that all Ukrainians are now people of war.” Nataliya is the founder of Public Interest Journalist Lab, and her work focuses on international security and conflict reporting and human rights.

Nataliya Gumenyuk, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. First, talk about where you are, meaning tell us what’s happening in the capital Kyiv right now under this curfew.

NATALIYA GUMENYUK: Hi. Indeed, I arrived from another town, Kharkiv, which has really probably suffered, not the heaviest but one of the heaviest assaults, as it’s just near the Russian border. But I’m now in Kyiv, in capital. There is a curfew. So, by tomorrow morning, we are not really allowed to leave the houses. And there is air raid alert here, so we understand that the city is, like, being fortified. But to explain, it’s still a megapolis. There are still a million people who live here. A lot of males and a lot of active people joined the territorial defense or do the things they can do, because now it’s clear we’re already coming to the fourth week of the war. It’s not really something which will leave next, which would be over in a few days. That’s quite clear. Unfortunately, like, you know, every night, there are warnings that there could be heavy artillery shelling. We’re waking up with the idea: “Good, it didn’t happen to that extent which was explained.” To be honest, it’s often so much in the foreign media headlines that that city would be overtaken within day or another day. Fortunately, somehow the major cities in Ukraine are under the Ukrainian control, mainly not because it’s Russia is weak, but also because Ukrainians do resist.

The danger — and that feeling, it’s very strange feeling, because really the country is very large. It takes days to travel from one town to another. But the airstrikes could be anywhere, and now we understand that the strategy of Russia has changed. Prior, they really wanted to overtake the towns. And where they were not capable, also like in Kyiv, they are just targeting the artillery or they’re causing airstrikes wherever they can manage, wherever they can reach. Therefore, you know, it’s not everywhere where they are, but there is this feeling of danger. And for me, just to finalize this thought, that it’s really not — it’s really a lot about whether Ukraine is capable to defend itself. So, the damage is the smallest where the air defense works. It really shows that the military attack could be somehow stopped just with the — you know, some defense weapon and in a military way. Nothing else so far is working.

AMY GOODMAN: You also, from Kyiv — you just were in Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine. Describe what you found there.

NATALIYA GUMENYUK: So, it’s, again, the city where the million people live. It’s an older city. And the downtown, which is not really significant from the military point of view, but the central street, you know, the nice old areas, they are really destroyed. By the Kharkiv residents, it’s considered that’s like a punishment to the town for the fact that it didn’t surrender. The town is 40 kilometers away from the Russian border. The Russian troops are close there. So they are constantly shelling the living, sleeping neighborhoods on the north of the town. We’ve been there. It’s really tough.

And I’ve been, for instance, to the train — to the subway station, which today serves not just the basement for the people who want to hide from the airstrikes, but where some people for 18 days live there. Now the situation changes a bit, but just to visualize, that was also shocking for me, there was a moment when there were up to 2,000 people living at the platform of the subway station. It was so too much that the subway authorities, they allowed for people to walk underground to another station so they can put them there.

The volunteers and the people around, they are doing the great job to help to evacuate people to different towns. But we should really understand, these are the towns where millions live. So, even when we speak about 3 million of Ukrainian refugees abroad, it’s not really something which is doable. This is more about, you know, you can’t find the hiding, the safe space. It’s more about finding the way to defend itself.

Shortly manage, I also have been to another town, which very globally not known. It’s a small town not very much known also in Ukraine, called Okhtyrka. It’s a Sumy region, also near the Russian border. That town stopped the advance of the Russian troops. There are 50,000 of people who lived — used to live there. And that was also quite devastating. On the place where there was the railway station, there is nothing any longer. Where there was the cultural institution in the downtown, there was nothing there. I’ve seen like incredibly large craters of some air bombs, you know, like some three, four meters in diameter. We don’t really know what is that, for sure. And there is this local mayor, who is a surgeon himself, and he also keeps saving people’s life while being the mayor who is trying to help the people, you know, because there could be electricity or water supply in that town — it’s far away from everything — but also trying to save the lives of the people.

So, these are the things. It’s not all over the country like that, but I just want to express and explain what’s happening in the places where a lot of journalists cannot reach, because things are happening in so many small towns where neither Ukrainian nor foreign journalists have not just access, but capacity to cover all those stories.

AMY GOODMAN: Nataliya, your piece in Rolling Stone headlined “'We Would Die Under Moscow.' Odesa Unites to Resist Putin’s Invasion.” While you were in Odessa, you spoke to the renowned poet Boris Khersonsky, a Ukrainian Russian-speaking Jew. Explain his significance and what he told you about Odessa, and what it means to unite people across religions and political perspectives, something that you didn’t have so much before.

NATALIYA GUMENYUK: I think we had that, to some extent, but it was not so obvious. It became obvious now. And indeed, Odessa is known, kind of was a place for a lot of generation of Jews in Ukraine. A lot of people globally in the U.S. live whose parents are coming from that area. And indeed, he says that it’s paradoxical, you know, it’s even grotesque in a very tragic way, that the country where the president is a Jew and whose parents — grandfather fought in the Second World War, needs to defend itself from the Russian occupation, and, you know, with the name as if there is a denazification of that, that it’s a really paradox.

And people of all nations — it’s a very multicultural city, that’s what I wanted to describe — they were standing together. So, the museum workers were kind of saying, like, “We were protecting Russian art from the Russian occupiers.” The Greeks living there, you know, they are staying to defend the city. And there were people across all the social status, so there would be a Greek millionaire, who is a developer, working to help to build those checkpoints, and there would be an elderly pensioner, who’s an electrician, to do the Molotov cocktails.

People are really — and it’s not — it’s of course about the sovereignty. It’s of course about defense of the lives of the people. But also people really strongly — that I didn’t really expect — they really felt that it’s really something they are defending, it’s not just their lives, it’s not just their dignity. It’s really about this right to choose. They are really angry by the fact that another country decides for themself what government should be, you know, how they should live. And they are very strong in that. It was very interesting examples. There was a transgender lady to whom I talked, in 25, when she said that she finds NATO to be cowards, you know, and it’s quite a —

AMY GOODMAN: To be cowards.

NATALIYA GUMENYUK: You know, I think that it really tells a lot.

AMY GOODMAN: You said, “to be cowards”?

NATALIYA GUMENYUK: Yes. They said, like, that, you know, “We feel that, like, NATO would be cowards, because we see how Ukrainian army fights, and we see that the world isn’t really” — you know, people really appreciate the support which is given, but they always see that every — the NATO and the other countries in the West demonstrate that, you know, it’s a Ukrainian fight, we wouldn’t be into that, because we do not want to provoke Putin. The problem that, that what people pass the message through me, the Ukrainians, that they think that, you know, you don’t need to do anything to provoke Putin. He picks up any reason to do what he does already.

AMY GOODMAN: Nataliya, you write about the particular problem of transgender people because often their passport doesn’t reflect who they are, their gender identity, and what that means for leaving Ukraine.

NATALIYA GUMENYUK: You know, I should say that it’s not really like the problem they said the people are living, but the lady whom I talked to, she actually said that, for her, because she didn’t have a time to change the documents, it’s quite tricky. And what is interesting, that both my protagonists who are transgender — one is 21, another is 25 — so, the first boy, he just really managed to join the territorial defense. He was like kind of quite sad that he was not taken for a long time, because there are long lines.

But it also seems that the people who usually are not very much into the law enforcement, they are still there. And this is not just my idea I read somewhere on Facebook; I really talked to so many people around the country, in the south and in the north, from various political affiliation. They really see it as the war against them, which really unites them. And they also say, like, “We don’t care about anything. We don’t care about politics any longer. The bombs are falling on our heads. What we should do, we just need to defend our place. And we do not really count for anybody else to defend us apart from ourselves.”

AMY GOODMAN: And let me ask you about the renowned poet Boris Khersonsky. He and his wife use their own books they’ve written to line up at the windows in case a bomb goes off, to prevent the glass from coming in. But talk about what he says about Odessa and Ukraine right now.

NATALIYA GUMENYUK: So, he really described this as a very multiethnic city and that it has never been as united. And the fact that this war is — you know, like, is really fought by Russia by the slogans of kind of fighting nationalism, that couldn’t be more absurd and grotesque. And this, like, really the lie of the Orwell size, we couldn’t imagine in the books.

So far, Odessa is — you know, it’s not really the heavy fight there. What I understand from talking to military is the air defense works. But this really shows that, you know, those — it’s very hard to compare the — I think I, myself, was always resisting to compare the conflict to the Second World War. But now it really feels like people feel this way. So, in Odessa, for instance, they share the pictures of the famous Odessa theater. And there are the protection, like sandbags and different kind of things they used to defend the town, and they would put the picture of the 1941 and today, how it looks similarly. And for them, this is the war they compare and the threat they compare as existential. And to be honest, with the reason, to be also important to explain, that there are a lot of people speaking Russian. They, for a while, felt that there is some proximity of cultures, but they — probably they do feel extremely betrayed. And they find it absolutely horrendous, what is going on. And they are united with the whole country. So, Odessa people think that they need to defend the city, but they are also very much caring about what’s happening elsewhere.

AMY GOODMAN: Not so far from Odessa is Mariupol — in Russian, Miropol. My great-grandfather, the Grand Rabbi Samuel Kaufman, though, is the descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, fled Miropol, what you call Mariupol, to the Lower East Side here in New York to be the grand rabbi of Henry Street. And if you can talk about the significance of Mariupol, what’s happening right now, and the destruction of this city, and then also where you spent time, in Mykolaiv, all these southern cities?

NATALIYA GUMENYUK: So, Mariupol is really today the most tragic town. To be say, it’s about 100 people living there. It’s a bit further, close to the —

AMY GOODMAN: One hundred thousand?

NATALIYA GUMENYUK: One hundred thousand people living in Mariupol, around, you know. So, the town is close to the area of the Donbas, where the conflict used to be. It was under the Ukrainian control. But it was, and it is, under the military siege for quite a long time. I should be very cautious about the figures, but it was blocked for many days. It’s still almost blocked. I know there is no connection with Mariupol. We know. We’ve seen those pictures of the house for — maternity house has been bombed. I know we don’t have proper connection, but we know that there is a severe human toll. Again, being cautious as a journalist, we heard from the authorities that we’re speaking about dozens of people who died there, because it’s really targeted. If Russia overtakes this town, they kind of capture the Azov Sea. It’s important for them. But they are really destroying. I cannot provide too much information, given example that families of couple of my colleagues, they are off — from the early March, they cannot reach them out, so we are extremely worried. For a number of times, there was an attempt to create a humanitarian corridor. It didn’t work. Sometimes it worked. In some cases, this corridor has been shelled. But it’s really the worst situation, to be honest, in the country there. And there are —

AMY GOODMAN: And Mykolaiv —

NATALIYA GUMENYUK: It’s incredibly difficult for the journalists to go there, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And Mykolaiv, where you spent time before the siege and the assault?

NATALIYA GUMENYUK: So, Mykolaiv is still, fortunately, not under the siege. You know, it’s just taken from one side of the city, so there is a lifeline road to Odessa, where people can either be evacuated or at least they can have a supply of the goods. But they are preparing. They do understand it’s very difficult and they need to defend the town.

However, let’s say — I cannot speak about, like, kind of good news. It’s hard to pronounce that in these circumstances. We know that the shelling is bigger. The human toll — can I really mention that 30 people is not a lot? I mean, it sounds strange to me, but compared to thousands, it’s smaller. But, you know, this anticipation it could happen. But what we understand, that on that area, the Ukrainians’ military are a bit moving not just from the defending, but from the advancing.

What is the biggest concern, just to really understand how it works and why it’s so hard to defend the people, the Russian troops are overtaking the smaller villages around. And if they set and if they control those village areas, they are shelling from there. It’s very hard to, you know, kind of fight them. And those people becoming the hostages. And it’s very hard to evacuate them. It’s very hard for all of the people to leave, especially elderly people. You know, they just do not want to leave their houses unless the worst happens. And you never know which of those villages would be overtaken. So, it’s really moving every day, but the feeling is that, like, every day is a bit like it’s the last day. And that’s not really the — that’s probably how the people feel.

And despite there is a great support, talking to mayor — who, by the way, is a reformer, a nice guy whom I met in the fancy business school earlier, and that’s what he was, and now he’s kind of a military leader. He still says that some things like bulletproof vests or helmets, they are still needed. Ukraine receives a lot of support, but the scale is such big that it’s really not very easy to deliver the support to everywhere, to every town, because everybody should really be defending its part of the land where they live.

AMY GOODMAN: Nataliya Gumenyuk, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Ukrainian journalist, speaking to us from Kyiv, her hometown. We’ll link to your piece in Rolling Stone “'We Would Die Under Moscow.' Odesa Unites to Resist Putin’s Invasion,” and your other piece, in The Guardian, “In Mykolaiv, a city awaiting a siege, it’s clear that all Ukrainians are now people of war.” Nataliya is founder of Public Interest Journalist Lab.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. Coming up, as the world focuses on Ukraine, we look at how the U.S. is expanding its support for Saudi Arabia, and we look at the Saudi-led war in Yemen at a time when the Biden administration is moving to pressure the Saudis to pump more oil. Stay with us. Thirty seconds, we’re back.

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