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Ukrainian first lady speaks out about ongoing conflict with Russia: 'Don't get used to our pain'

The 44-year-old has been in hiding with her two children since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in February.

Ukrainian first lady speaks out about ongoing conflict with Russia: 'Don't get used to our pain'
Cover Image Source: Olena Zelenska (L) and her husband, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (R), cast their ballots in parliamentary elections on July 21, 2019, in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

In her first televised solo interview since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska spoke about the toll the war has had on her family and the rest of the nation. The 44-year-old, who has been in hiding with her two children for the past three months, revealed that her 9-year-old son keeps asking when the war will end. "Unfortunately, I don't think any Ukrainian would be able to answer that question," Zelenska told Good Morning America co-anchor Robin Roberts.

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Discussing the state of the conflict—as the country's civilian death toll surpasses 4000, according to estimates from the United Nations—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 freedom," she said. "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." Speaking of her husband, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Zelenska said their son has continued asking about him as they've been separated since the start of the war.

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"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," she revealed. The pair met at university and have been married for nearly 20 years. While she admitted that Zelenskyy's decision to run for president of Ukraine when he had a successful comedy career was "unexpected," Zelenska said she is "proud" that the whole world has gotten to see her husband's "true identity" as he handles the stress of war. "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."

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"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 added, laughing. Zelenska shared that although she doesn't feel as courageous as her husband, as the first lady of Ukraine, 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." 

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There are countless stories from the war that have inspired her, Zelenska revealed. One is that of 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." According to Zelenska, the nurse named Tatiana helped deliver 27 babies during that time. Another story of heroism involved a 15-year-old girl, 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."

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However, amidst all the stories of unity and heroism, Zelenska noted, is the crushing reality that the war has been particularly deadly for Ukraine's children. As of Wednesday, 243 children have been killed as a result of the conflict, she said. Even the ones that are alive have been left traumatized by the bloodshed and cruelty of the war. Zelenska recalled 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.

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Zelenska revealed that she is introducing a national program to provide mental health support for those impacted by the war's atrocities. "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." However, the effort faces the challenge of convincing Ukrainians who might not be used to seeking mental health support to avail themselves of this help. "Even the parents, they might not recognize that their child is having a problem, is having some sort of PTSD," she said.

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In the interview, Zelenska also addressed the "enormous support" Ukraine has received from across the globe amid the war. "It's really important because you feel you're not alone," she said. The first lady expressed gratitude for the humanitarian and security assistance Ukraine has received so far and said that they "hope and wait for more assistance to come." In a message to the American people, Zelenska implored them to "not get used to" the 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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