Nataliya Gumenyuk is a Ukrainian journalist sheltering in Kyiv. At the blaring of sirens, she flees to the basement for cover. Those sirens are not a new sound for Gumenyuk, who specializes in foreign affairs and conflict reporting and spent the past eight years in the Donbas and Crimea covering Russian incursions. But this invasion, with missiles striking her country’s capital, feels shocking to her. “The streets, they do not look the same,” Gumenyuk tells the Times Opinion podcast host Lulu Garcia-Navarro.
In this conversation, Lulu talks with Gumenyuk about what is happening on the ground in Kyiv, and how the invasion is changing not only her country overnight, but also her views as a Ukrainian, a reporter and a pacifist. “I don’t think the country should be militarized, the leadership of the country should be militarized,” says Gumenyuk. “But this is exactly the moment when this is their role. We live in the moment when the army matters. It’s really up to them.”
How the Russian Invasion Changed This Ukrainian Pacifist’s Mind
“We live in a moment when the army matters,” Nataliya Gumenyuk, a Ukrainian war correspondent.
Lulu’s edited conversations with Gumenyuk follow:
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Hi!
Nataliya Gumenyuk: Hi, hello!
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Make yourself comfortable wherever you feel like you need to be.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: Is it OK?
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Yeah.
I spoke to Ukrainian journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk on the first days of the invasion. She was holed up in her apartment in Kyiv, and like many Ukrainians, she couldn’t believe what was happening.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: You know, the last years in particular Kyiv was probably the coolest place in Europe. It was like cool nightclubs, restaurants, galleries. It was the place to be.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: When was the first time you started thinking that this war was actually going to happen?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: I thought it would be gradual, that the Russian regime still needs some justification. So they would do it in the Donbas, and they would move from there. But they really just decided to really invade the whole country.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: The first night of the invasion, thuds woke Nataliya up. She checked her phone. And then on her chat group she heard from friends around the city.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: And we asked, like, so what’s happening in Kharkiv? And they say, we hear shelling all along. Then I looked at Facebook. You know, the people were in different parts of town saying, I heard it, I heard it, I heard it. My accountant, who lives near the airport, she said, explosions. Not explosions, but like bombs, you know. She never heard that in her life.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Nataliya knew that sound. She’s covered the many incursions by Russians over the past eight years in other parts of the country. Places like Donbas and Crimea. Nataliya describes her brand of war reporting this way.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: I do everything from this very humanitarian perspective, human rights following kind of what also the states are doing wrong. I’m very much for, you know, peace by any cost. And, you know, I always, while covering wars for years, I was saying, usually media focus so much on armies. And I’m with civilians. I’m with the civilians.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Meaning she reported on the victims of conflict and not those she saw as the perpetrators of violence. But as the Russians came rumbling in with tanks and guns, as she saw bombs hit apartment buildings and the Ukrainian military fight back, and in some cases push back the Russians, she realized the army was the only way.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: There is no other way. It’s the only legit way. You know, they’re trying to conquer the democratic country.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: How does that make you feel to have lived with one opinion your whole life, to have thought that peace was the only way, to have been antiwar in your job and in your beliefs, and to now think, “My country has to fight to survive”?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: You know, I don’t really have doubts. It kind of clicked. You know, it’s, like, clicked. I should admit those Javelin [missiles], those weaponry which was given, that actually saves people from the Russian tanks, and I am happy that the army has them. So really, it’s a different moment.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: I’m Lulu Garcia-Navarro with New York Times Opinion. The war in Ukraine has forced accountants to pick up guns, mothers to make Molotov cocktails and families to decide whether to flee or fight. That clear line between who are civilians and who are fighters has blurred. When I spoke to Nataliya a few days later she had moved out of her apartment building for safety.
Hi, Nataliya. How are you doing?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: Always, the things are moving that fast. But so many things have changed.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: I can imagine.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: I remember I was still at my flat. And I’m definitely not there any longer.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Yeah. I mean, I think the last time we spoke, you were setting up your office in the bathroom of your apartment.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: Oh, yeah.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: So it would be away from the window in case of explosions. Now you’ve left there. Are you having to go into bomb shelters? Are you hearing sirens?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: So in the evening, during the last days, each evening, we do hear the sirens. So even if the thing’s happening somewhere far away, it’s advisable to go to the basement. Some people do not have basements, so they go to a bathroom or elsewhere. But where I am now, we have. So we prefer to go.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: We’re not going to talk about where you are now for your own safety, but what do you see when you go outside? I mean, what kind of damage has there been, and that you’ve been able to witness?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: So it’s not that obvious if you are not searching for it. In Kyiv, now, you know, the streets, they do not look the same. They are empty. There are random cars, not a lot, for the last days. And especially during the weekend, there were some random street fights.
And yet in terms of damage, we in particular, like, passed through the residential building which was hit early Saturday morning. That was 25 floors there. Four floors were destroyed.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Ukraine, in 2014, overthrew its pro-Russian leader, and Russia had been trying to sort of meddle ever since. And you went down to sort of see those conflicts in Crimea and Donbas. I’m curious, what drew you? What made you want to be a conflict reporter?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: I dreamt to be a conflict reporter from childhood. You know, I think so you know, I was observing all the things in Middle East, and I was studying conflicts. You know, I was studying conflict reporting in the university. Then I was, you know, reporting from the Balkans. So I’ve been to Iraq. I’ve been to, you know, I reported Syria from the first day, but more from the Jordanian and Turkish and Lebanese side.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: So you wanted to be a journalist from when you were young. You studied it, you went to all these countries and then you reported the conflicts in your own country. Why were you never interested in guns and armies? I mean, you told me when we first spoke that “I am with the civilians.” Most war correspondents always want to know sort of what the armies are doing, what is happening on the front lines, where the shooting is. But that wasn’t what you chose.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: No, exactly. I find it that there is more courage in reporting what people do not like to hear rather than everybody wants to hear. I find it’s very easy to make the story with the army. Because, you know, armies are popular, people would support you, you doing the right thing and it’s easy. But then, what difference do you make? While speaking about somebody who nobody really cares about, that’s the way to make a difference, because you can really help.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Was there a moment that made you think it’s more important to see what the victims are dealing with, what the civilian population is dealing with?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: I don’t know. I mean, for me it’s just really how I saw it from the very beginning. I always saw it from the very beginning. Because what I was always puzzled with Ukraine, but now I’m also a bit confused with this, Ukraine was always kind of discussed in these geopolitical terms. You know, security, Cold War, Russia, NATO, or something. And behind that, people underestimated how much the talks about all these big things, and so little about the real life of people.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Nataliya, I just want to bring you back a little bit. Would you have called yourself a pacifist —
Nataliya Gumenyuk: I am.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Back then?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: Oh, I was a pacifist. I probably still am a pacifist, but —
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: What changed? I’m just wondering if there was a moment when, I don’t know, you saw something on television or a video of a Javelin hitting a tank, and you thought, actually, there is a reason why this exists. This has changed me. Something’s changed for me.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: Probably. Yeah, you could say that there was kind of a way when I saw this, you know, the columns of the Russian tanks destroyed, and you just understand that it was stopped because of the weapon. It couldn’t be stopped another way. So, of course, they, they are there for something. There is the idea of the army as a force and the legit army, you know, that’s something we have.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Nataliya, you just spent time with the Kyiv police force, men with guns. I’m wondering, what has it been like there? What have they been telling you?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: It’s interesting for me to observe, because I had a chance to spend time and to look, how do they work? How do they consider the threat? How there would be volunteers and civil defense coming to them and helping, you know, either delivering some of the things they need in terms of equipment, or just saying that we would provide support in a dangerous operation.
They’re very tired, let’s say, to be honest. We have a case when there was a policeman shot, I guess on Saturday, in one of these skirmishes. And I think it’s quite — they’re with the guns, so you expect from them something. But they are not the people who were joining the police in order to fight as the army, to risk their lives in battles. It’s their duty to be there. But at the same time, the initial task for them was different. But I see they’re caring about each other. They’re cheerful.
They are — I do think it’s very difficult for them as it’s for everybody to be on this high alert, even for me as a civilian. But if you everyday know that there might be a siege, there might be an attack, it’s of course not a normal situation. But I can go to the basement. They should go to somewhere if they would be called.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Has it changed your mind, sort of being embedded with them, seeing what they’re dealing with? Has it changed your view of the police?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: I think I had more respect for the guys with the guns. I know that they, they are risking, they’re really risking their lives. It’s not really theoretical. I mean, they have more chances to be killed than, you know, any civilian, of course. They are, it doesn’t matter, third, second line of defense, but they definitely have more chances to be the victims, you know, to be actually dying, which for me, would be very hard to, you know, to say. Because obviously, you see the people, you talk to them. You definitely want that everybody comes from their assignment safe and sound.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: You have new respect for the men with guns. I just want to sit with that for a second, because it just seems like such a shift for you.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: Look, I was always very much — I just, I can’t say that I didn’t respect the people with the guns. I just always saw that there is a legit army and the legit police, and I was not very much for this kind of bravado of militarism. You know, I don’t think the country should be militarized, the leadership of the country should be militarized. But this is exactly the moment when it’s their role. In some time when there is Covid, you see how doctors are important. Sometimes the firefighters are important. So we live in the moment when the army matters. It’s really up to them.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: I have been watching this. And what strikes me about this moment, too, is who is a civilian and who is a fighter are often the same thing. That line that you thought existed before seems to have evaporated.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: But the difference is, the difference is there. If you’ve seen the battle, you know it’s different. The risk to die is just so big. You just going into the guns, you know, like you just going to be shot or exploded. And in what’s happening now in Ukraine, the chances are just so high. So it’s really, it’s really like in the movies. Most of the people globally, haven’t seen, you know, they’ve seen wars in the news, but they haven’t seen the battles.
They’ve seen it like, you know, the destroyed houses, the refugees. If you’ve seen a bit of battle, you just really understand it’s like that. You are hit, you are a target. So I still think it’s, it’s quite a different level of risk to join civil defense, to be supportive, to, you know, remain in town and be helpful and be that one which is targeted. And especially if there is an attack, there are very little chances you survive.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: You’ve mentioned that this is like a movie. And I’m just wondering if it was a movie, which one would you see it as?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: Would you laugh? It’s like “Star Wars” for me today. It’s just “Star Wars.”
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: I am going to laugh.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: I don’t know, I don’t know. In my mind, it’s like “Star Wars.” Like, you’re fighting the Empire, you know, outnumbered, but the Force was with us.
OK. I probably need to go again to my basement.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: OK. I know. It’s OK. Is there a siren that’s just gone off?
Nataliya Gumenyuk: Yep, it is. It is.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Nataliya, may the Force be with you. Stay safe.
Nataliya Gumenyuk: Thank you.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: The next day, Nataliya wrote us as a huge Russian convoy approached Kyiv. She said she was OK, but that people are rushing to try and send their children out of the city, while they still can. This is Lulu Garcia-Navarro from New York Times Opinion.
Times Opinion audio produced by Lulu Garcia-Navarro, Christina Djossa and Kaari Pitkin. Fact-checking by Kate Sinclair, Michelle Harris and Mary Marge Locker. Original music by Carole Sabouraud and mixing by Isaac Jones. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta, and editorial support by Kristina Samulewski. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. Special thanks to Derek Arthur, Stephanie Joyce, Kristin Lin, Patrick Healy, Vanessa Mobley and Yara Bayoumy.