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Olena Zelenska, Ukraine’s first lady, highlights the horrors of war and the hard work of healing

Washington — Olena Zelenska, the first lady of Ukraine, joined her husband in the U.S. last week to highlight the toll that the war in her country has taken on Ukraine’s children and way of life, telling “Face the Nation” that Russian invaders “want to destroy our culture.”

Zelenska sat down with “Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan in Washington, D.C., at the end of her visit to speak about her humanitarian work in the midst of the devastating war with Russia.

“I’m confident that we have strengthened the strong power of friendship that exists between the United States and Ukraine,” Zelenska said. “And we’re thankful to the United States for helping us to sustain this war effort.”

In Washington, Zelenska spoke to students and faculty at Georgetown University, met with President Biden and first lady Jill Biden, and gave a joint address with her husband, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, at the National Archives.

Earlier in the week, the couple attended the United Nations General Assembly in New York. There, Zelenska addressed alleged war crimes perpetrated by Russia and attempts to preserveUkraine’s cultural heritage.

She discussed these topics with “Face the Nation,” as well as her work to provide mental health care to Ukrainians.

When asked if Ukraine has received enough military aid that it needs from Washington, Zelenska deferred.

“That is a very political question,” she said. “It would be better if you ask it directly to the president.”

However, Zelenska was clear that American aid is necessary to counter Russian attempts to destroy the Ukrainian way of life.

“We hope that all Americans understand what’s going on, and we do not believe that this assistance that we now receive from Americans will stop,” Zelenska said.

“Of course, there are political debates,” she continued. “This is a democracy. But nevertheless, truth has to win because it is clear that truth is on Ukraine’s side.”

Returning Ukrainian children and fighting sexual violence

One of the facets of the war in Ukraine that Zelenska is focused on is the effort to return Ukrainian children to their homes. A report released by the Conflict Observatory in February found that at least 6,000 Ukrainian children had been taken to camps in Russia and Russia-occupied territories with “the apparent goal of integrating children from Ukraine into the Russian government’s vision of national culture, history, and society.”

The forcible transfer of children is part of the United Nations’ definition of genocide, a crime under international law.

“We’ll knock every door and raise this issue at any political platform possible,” said Zelenska. “This is a true problem because these are kids, sometimes they do not fully understand what’s going on.”

The Ukrainian government estimates that the number of children who have been taken is close to 19,500. Recently, Belarusian state media reported that children have arrived in Belarus from Russian-occupied territories in eastern Ukraine.

“That is why when we spoke at the United Nations, we proposed to develop a new system of joint efforts that would make Russia return Ukrainian children to their country,” Zelenska continued. “We are responsible for these children, we cannot play with those children’s destinies. It is not human.”

Zelenska also spoke about the sexual violence perpetrated by Russian soldiers against women and children in occupied territory.

It’s very difficult to describe in words,” said Zelenska. “This is not an individual case. It means that the leadership of the Russian army allows Russian soldiers to do this. This is something they commit consciously. They try to threaten the population in Ukraine to demonstrate that they are in charge.”

The Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine has recorded 231 cases of sexual violence committed by the Russian military. Thirteen children are among the victims. Zelenska noted that the real number of victims may be much higher, due to the stigma of reporting incidents of sexual violence.

“You need to be truly courageous to let others know that you’ve become a victim yourself,” Zelenska said. “And people will only start talking about it when they will see that those who committed those crimes have been taken to justice. And that is why the restoration of justice will be the key element of letting people acknowledge these crimes and start speaking more openly about them.”

Preserving Ukraine’s cultural heritage

Zelenska also spoke about Ukraine’s cultural heritage, and how vital it is to preserve.

“Culture is also the area of the battlefield. We see that the occupiers want to destroy our culture. We see hundreds of libraries which have been burned by the occupiers. Thousands of museums and cultural institutions have been destroyed,” she said. “It is one of the frontlines. It is one of the ways for us to demonstrate who we really are.”

Zelenska’s trip to Washington included a visit to Georgetown University, where she donated a set of books as part of her “Ukrainian Bookshelf” initiative to share Ukrainian literature around the world.

“American specialists, who helped us to document those crimes, say that those museums were targeted intentionally. They were not collateral damage,” Zelenska continued.

In July, Russian missiles severely damaged the Transfiguration Cathedral, a landmark in the historic city of Odesa.

“There were no military objects next to them. So we see that Russians specifically wanted to destroy our cultural sites, because they want to destroy our identity. By destroying our identity, they just want to destroy our nation, and that is why we have to inform about our culture.”

Mental health

Zelenska is also an advocate for mental health care for Ukrainians, an increasingly pressing issue as the war continues to impact daily life.

“When people ask for psychological support, we need to overcome the problem of stigmatization,” said Zelenska. “People need skills to understand their mental issues better. Unfortunately, Ukrainians do not always feel that they need support in the field of mental health.”

The push to provide mental health care includes a campaign called “How are you?” Ukrainians can find resources to address struggles with mental health on the campaign’s website.

USAID has supported the campaign, as well as other efforts to provide psychiatric help to Ukrainians, including children.

“We have developed a special program protocols of how psychological assistance will be given to children,” Zelenska said.

“In the beginning our psychiatrists relied very much on the experience of our international partners. But later we realized that not all protocols can be applied in Ukraine because we now undergo the war, which Europe and the world has not seen in many years. So we needed to adjust the protocols which had been shared with us.”

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