(CNN) — When Russian troops invaded their homeland, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky and First Lady Olena Zelenska refused to flee or give in, choosing, like many of their compatriots, to defy the aggression.
While the president has focused on the military fight against Russian forces, the first lady has concentrated on humanitarian and children’s issues, working to raise global awareness of the suffering of ordinary Ukrainians as a result of the war.
CNN’s Christiane Amanpour interviewed Zelenska via email. Her answers have been translated from the Ukrainian.
Amanpour: Madam First Lady, with everything that is going on, how are you and your family?
Zelenska: It’s like walking a tightrope. If you stop to think how you do it, you lose time and balance. So to hang on, you just have to go ahead and do what you do. In the same way, as far as I know, all Ukrainians endure.
Many of those who escaped alone from the battlefields, who saw death, say that the main cure after the experience is to act, to do something, to help someone. I am personally supported by the fact that I try to protect and support others. Discipline breeds responsibility.
When she became first lady, she made a commitment to make children a centerpiece of her work. How devastating has it been to see Ukrainian children, including your own, suffer in a war zone?
That’s how it went. Children and their needs were one of the main areas of my work, along with the introduction of… equal rights for all Ukrainians. Before the war we launched a school feeding reform, preparing for several years, to make it tasty and healthy at the same time so that children would get sick less.
How do I feel now, you ask? I feel like we were thrown back years and decades.
Now we are not talking about healthy food, but about food in general. This is about the survival of our children! We are no longer discussing, as before, which is the best team for schools; [en cambio] the education of millions of children is questioned.
We cannot talk about a healthy lifestyle for children: the number one goal is to save them.
Half of our children were forced to go abroad; thousands were injured physically and psychologically. February 23 [el día antes de que Rusia invadiera Ucrania]they were ordinary European students with a schedule and plans for the holidays.
Imagine that you have built and renovated a house and you have just put flowers on the windowsill; and now it is destroyed, and on the ruins you must light a fire to keep warm. This is what has happened to our children and to every family in general.
Tell us about the work you have been doing to support Ukrainian refugee women and children. What else can the world do to help on this front?
Now I am working in several directions. In the summer, we managed to create the summit of the first ladies and gentlemen of the world, and now my colleagues are true allies in this.
First, we evacuate our most vulnerable, children with [cáncer], [aquellos con] disabilities and orphans, to countries that agree to accept them for treatment and rehabilitation. The main route passes through Poland, and from there to other European countries.
Second, we are importing incubators to Ukraine to support newborns in cities that are being bombed by the Russians. In many hospitals there are power outages, and the lives of children are in danger. Therefore, we need devices that save lives without interruption. Two such devices have already been delivered, and eight more incubators are planned to be delivered.
Thirdly, we are accelerating the adaptation of refugees (children and their mothers) to the new location, because humanitarian aid alone is not enough: children need accelerated socialization and school in a new place. In particular, this applies to thousands of children with autism abroad. We are now working to make it easier for you to access the classes, otherwise your development will simply stop.
Together with the embassies, we are coordinating events in support of Ukraine: several international concerts have already raised money for humanitarian aid for Ukrainians.
Have you been able to see your husband since the conflict began?
Volodymyr and his team actually live in the presidential office. Due to the danger, my children and I were forbidden to stay there. So, for more than a month we have communicated only by phone.
The whole world has been inspired by her husband’s leadership during the war in Ukraine. She married him in 2003 and has known him since they were both in college. Did she always know that he had this leadership?
Zelenska: I always knew that he was and would be a reliable support for me. He later became a wonderful father and support to our family. And now he has shown the same traits.
It hasn’t changed. It’s just that more people saw what I saw through my eyes.
They have a 17-year-old daughter, Sasha, and a 9-year-old son, Kyrylo. How have they explained the war to them? Do they stay with you?
Fortunately, the children are with me. And, like I said, when there’s someone to take care of, it’s very disciplined. By the way, this also applies to the children themselves: they have grown dramatically during this time, and they also feel responsible for each other and those around them.
Nothing specifically needed to be explained. We’re just talking about everything that’s going on. When I watch Bucha’s children’s interviews or listen to my friends’ stories about their children, I realize that children don’t understand everything better than adults. They look at the essence. As one little boy put it: “Why are the Russians so mean to us? Apparently, they beat them at home.”
You are reportedly the second most important target of Russian forces, after your husband. How do you maintain your resolve in the face of such danger? What made her choose to stay in the Ukraine?
For some reason, I am constantly being asked this question. But if you look closely, it becomes clear that every Ukrainian is a target for the Russians: every woman, every child.
Those who died the other day by a Russian missile [mientras] trying to evacuate Kramatorsk were not members of the presidential family, they were just Ukrainians. So the number one target for the enemy is all of us.
Your husband has spoken directly in Russian to the Russian people, but it is obviously difficult to communicate with them. Given the atrocities that have been committed against her people, do you have any messages, particularly for Russian mothers and wives, that she thinks they should hear at this time?
The level of Russian propaganda is often compared to Goebbels’ propaganda during World War II. But in my opinion, it exceeds [eso]because in World War II there was no internet and access to information, like now.
Now everyone can see the war crimes, for example, those committed by the Russians in Bucha, where the bodies of civilians with their hands tied just lay in the streets.
But the problem is that the Russians don’t want to see what the whole world sees, [para] feel more comfortable. After all, it’s easier to say “It’s all fake” and have your coffee, rather than read the story of a particular person who died, look at their grieving family and friends.
For example, read the story of one of the victims [en] Bucha, a woman named Tatiana, who was shot by a Russian bullet, and her husband, who asked the invaders to take the body away, but was beaten and tied up.
How to make the Russians see this? I am more and more inclined to think that, unfortunately, they are not at all blind in belief. They do not want to hear and see. I will not address them.
The main thing for Ukraine today is that the whole rest of the world hears and sees us, and it is important that our war does not become “usual”, so that our victims do not become statistics. That’s why I communicate with people through foreign media.
Don’t get used to our pain!
You have used your social media accounts as a platform to pay tribute to the Ukrainian soldiers and the Ukrainian resistance. How proud are you of your country, particularly of what you have called the “female face” of the Ukrainian resistance?
On the first day of the war it became clear that there was no panic. Yes, the Ukrainians did not believe in war, we believed in civilized dialogue. But when the attack came, we did not become a “frightened crowd” as the enemy expected. No. We became an organized community.
Immediately the political and other controversies that exist in every society disappeared. They all banded together to protect their home.
I see examples every day and I never get tired of writing about them. Yes, Ukrainians are amazing.
And in fact, I write a lot about our women, because their participation is everywhere: they are in the armed forces and in the defense forces, most of them are doctors. And they are the ones who bring children and families to safety. For example, only they can go abroad. So, in a way, their role is even more diverse than that of men; This is more than equality!
Editor’s Note: This Q&A interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.