(NEW YORK) — Since the start of Russia’s invasion, the Ukrainian first lady has been in hiding with her two children. A difficult question her 9-year-old son keeps asking is when the war will end, Olena Zelenska said in an exclusive interview with ABC News.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think any Ukrainian would be able to answer that question,” Zelenska told Good Morning America co-anchor Robin Roberts in her first televised solo interview since the invasion began.
In discussing the state of the conflict nearly 100 days after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a “special military operation” in Ukraine, Zelenska said that conceding territory to Russia won’t stop the war.
“You just can’t concede … parts of your territory. It’s like conceding a freedom,” Zelenska, 44, said in the interview, which aired on Good Morning America Thursday. “Even if we would consider territories, the aggressor would not stop at that. He would continue pressing, he would continue launching more and more steps forward, more and more attacks against our territory.”
World seeing Zelenskyy’s ‘true identity’
Zelenska’s son has also continued to ask about his father, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whom they have been separated from since the start of the war.
“We said goodbye to one another on the very first day. And over the next two months, we only had a chance to speak via the phone,” Zelenska said.
As he’s handled the stress of war, she said she is “proud” that the whole world has gotten to see Zelenskyy’s “true identity.” The two met at university and have been married for nearly 20 years. She said Zelenskyy’s decision to run for president of Ukraine amid a successful comedy career was “unexpected.”
“There’s one trait about Volodymyr that’s very important — he likes to change things around himself,” she said. “And that’s why I clearly realized that there wouldn’t be anything even closely related to the word boring when you were staying with him.”
But as his family, she said she will support him in any way she could.
“If one day he would say that, ‘OK, I’m going to go to space as an astronaut,’ then, well, I would have to fly with him,” she said, laughing.
‘I have to be strong’
Zelenska said she doesn’t feel as courageous as her husband, but as first lady, she feels motivated to “keep on working to do my own part in order to … get closer to our victory.”
“I realized that I have to be strong, that I have to be courageous, that I have to support him,” she said.
Zelenska has drawn attention to the women involved in the war, saying in an Instagram post in March that the Ukrainian resistance “has a particularly female face.”
“I always thought that Ukrainian women are the best. And I was really proud of how the Ukrainian women behaved themselves during the war,” she said. “Now, I’m proud of the fact that the whole world has seen the true face of the Ukrainian women.”
Zelenska said there are countless stories that have inspired her, though one, in particular, involved a maternity nurse in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol.
“She continued working, despite all those shelling,” she said. “There was no water supplies. There was no electricity supply. And she kept on working until that maternity hospital was completely destroyed.”
The nurse, Tatiana, helped deliver 27 newborns during that time, Zelenska said.
Another story of heroism involved a 15-year-old girl named Leeza who helped evacuate four people from a village in eastern Ukraine even after both her legs were wounded during shelling.
“When I saw her on the news report … that was the face of a child,” Zelenska said. “And still, she found the courage to keep on driving.”
For all the stories of unity and heroism, Zelenska noted that the war has been deadly for Ukraine’s children. As of Wednesday, 243 children have been killed as a result of the conflict, she said.
June 4 marks the International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression, as commemorated by the United Nations.
“Unfortunately, this year we will be marking this event,” the first lady said.
Children have also been traumatized by the war; Zelenska recounted hearing about two boys who saw their mother killed in front of them, and then had to bury her themselves.
“We need to help people to live that through. We need to help people psychologically, mentally, in whatever ways possible,” she said.
To that end, she is introducing a national program to provide mental health support for those impacted by the war’s “atrocities,” she said.
“The medical institutions and medical system as we have it right now, it might simply be not enough to cover all the needs,” she said. “That’s why we need to be prepared.”
Another challenge will be getting Ukrainians who might not be used to seeking mental health support to avail themselves of this help, she said.
“Even the parents, they might not recognize that their child is having a problem, is having some sort of PTSD,” she said.
Zelenska discussed the “enormous support” Ukraine has felt from across the globe amid the war — before the interview was interrupted by an air raid siren.
“It’s really important, because you feel you’re not alone,” she said once the interview was able to safely resume.
First lady Jill Biden’s surprise visit to western Ukraine last month was another “tremendous” sign of support, Zelenska said.
“I finally managed to see her face-to-face, and it was a tremendously courageous action that she has made,” Zelenska said. “She came to the country which is at war, and the people of Ukraine, they highly appreciated that.”
This week, President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. will be sending Ukraine more sophisticated military equipment as part of a $700 million package of security assistance. The move comes following calls from Zelenskyy last month for long-range rocket systems to “allow the defeat of tyranny.”
Zelenska said they are grateful for the humanitarian and security assistance Ukraine has received so far, and that they “hope and wait for more assistance to come.”
As the war continues, another difficult question Zelenska finds herself unable to answer is what message she would give to the Russian people.
“Whenever we are trying to ask them a question or relay any message, they tend to answer that we have other information. … Or they might be saying that we have other viewpoints on the situation,” she said. “But how can you have any other view on those killings? On those atrocities committed?”
In a message to the American people, she implored them to “not get used to this war.”
“Otherwise, we are risking a never-ending war and this is not something we would like to have,” she said. “Don’t get used to our pain.”
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