‘Any society can return to its crimes if the narrative changes’: Nataliya Gumenyuk

The Ukrainian conflict reporter and filmmaker on her country’s parallels with dictatorship-era Argentina, shared human experiences of survival, and how to avoid repeating the past

Nataliya Gumenyuk, Ukrainian conflict reporter. Photo by Oleksandr Popenko

By Martina Jaureguy and Sofía De Sousa

Nataliya Gumenyuk is anxious. It’s been raining all week, and on the morning of the interview, the thunder is particularly loud. “It’s scary because I’m thinking, is it an explosion?” she tells the Herald. Her native Ukraine is thousands of kilometers away, but the distant rumbling makes her feel like she’s back there.

Gumenyuk is a journalist, author, and filmmaker who specializes in conflict reporting. She co-founded the Public Interest Journalism Lab and The Reckoning Project, two Ukrainian projects documenting war crimes committed during Russia’s occupation of the country. Her work is being used as evidence by national and international prosecutors.

She has visited Buenos Aires this year, both to screen her work and to accompany a Ukrainian torture survivor who filed a complaint with the Argentine judiciary on Tuesday.

Gumenyuk spoke to the Herald days before March 24, Argentina’s Day of Memory, Truth and Justice, which commemorates the victims of the last military dictatorship. Although they are decades and kilometers apart, she highlighted links between that dark period of Argentina’s history and the situation in Ukraine, as she described in this conversation. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Do you see any parallels between Ukraine’s experiences and Argentina’s last dictatorship?

It’s not up to me, it’s for those who lived through it to say. But, when I hear experiences of journalists from Latin America coming to Ukraine and talking to survivors, they can relate. I’ve talked about the separation of Ukrainian children from their families, and it’s relatable to Argentinians.

According to the Ukrainian government, 19,000 Ukrainian children were deported to Russia. Looking at the basement and torture chambers in the ESMA [Argentina’s largest former clandestine detention center] I can say that is our reality now: the detention centers and the systematic abuse. It’s something from the past, but it is happening. 

On a human level, nobody should go through this. Not then, nor today. Irrespective of your political views, even if you don’t have political views, as with the foreign invasion in Ukraine. That’s why we selected the films about deportation of children and torture and detention to screen in Buenos Aires — it’s relatable for the Argentine crowd.

If Ukraine lives through this, it will become defining for our society. There should be an institution dedicated to identifying and returning the children, to pursue justice for those who are ready to talk. 

Can human rights violations be repeated? Are we failing to learn from the past?

Unfortunately, we are not learning. There could be a political situation in which we return to the past. I was born in the Soviet Union. By the end of the dictatorship we found out about the repression, persecution, gulags, and the detention system. When I was growing up there was a common sense that millions were killed in the concentration camps during Soviet times. There was a huge investigation into the crimes of the twentieth century, and I thought: it’s there, you can speak about it. But in modern Russia, 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is a tendency to no longer have it on the school curriculum.

The heroes of free speech in the 1990s, uncovering the crimes of the past, are no longer acknowledged. Soviet history museums opened in the 1990s were closed. ‘Never again’ isn’t working because any society can forget about its own crimes and return to them if the narrative changes.

I’m not saying our work is in vain. My grandmother wouldn’t speak about the crimes in twentieth-century Ukraine until the Soviet Union collapsed. It was dangerous. My mother grew up with the idea that you don’t speak about it. I grew up with the idea that it’s a consensus, it’s public knowledge, our history. I think if it’s done correctly you can reclaim your history. 

I read A State of Fear: Memories of Argentina’s Nightmare by Andrew Graham-Yooll [a late British-Argentine journalist who worked at the Buenos Aires Herald between 1966 and 1976]. After talking to Ukrainian survivors of torture and electric shocks, I was appalled by a quote from an Argentine torturer saying he considered electrocution “clean” compared with beating. Could it be that people who electrocute Ukrainians in Russian detention centers today also think it’s “cleaner”? 

I think these regimes and perpetrators learn from each other. Child deportation also happened in Spain during the Francisco Franco dictatorship. Someone looked at how things were being done and copied it. Concentration camps were used in Africa, Cuba, the Soviet Union. Abusers inspire each other. It’s appalling how similar the systems of persecution and repression are. 

Do you think international cooperation is important in the Russian occupation of Ukraine?

We all live difficult lives and have imperfect countries so I understand there is a limit to how much a society can relate to somebody else’s troubles. But some of us cooperate to find these connections. While talking to the National Bank of Genetic Data [which works with the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo to reunite them with their appropriated grandchildren], I saw an obvious parallel.

Argentines had to do something very unusual: they needed to genetically identify children whose parents were not there. They had to use more distant relatives’ genetics. It’s quite a unique situation when you don’t have a parent, but you have a kid. Unfortunately, it would be normal for today’s Ukraine, because orphans are being taken to Russia. All of a sudden this very peculiar situation which Argentinians are experienced at can be very relevant for Ukraine.

I am positively surprised that there is a sense of purpose in Argentina. People take their history seriously. It isn’t the case in many European countries, where people don’t care because it was just too long ago. I usually have more positive experiences the further I travel. It’s this idea of the shared experience and overcoming it. So I really think we can find ways to relate. I wouldn’t expect everybody to be like that. Solidarity requires time and effort.

You may also be interested in: How the grandmothers of disappeared children drove a revolution in genetics

Cover image: Nataliya Gumenyuk. By Oleksandr Popenko


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