Ukraine’s Olena Zelenska tells of war’s impact on family life

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By Yalda Hakim & Mattea Bubalo
BBC News

Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska has told the BBC of the emotional impact Russia’s invasion and the resulting war has had on her family.

In a highly personal interview, she said it was hard to see her children live in uncertainty, unable to plan for their futures.

She also spoke of the family missing spending time together.

“This may be a bit selfish, but I need my husband, not a historical figure, by my side,” she said.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Olena Zelenska spent months in hiding in secret locations with her children.

She described her emotional state at the beginning of the invasion as “a constant feeling of adrenaline”. As time passed, she found it was “necessary” to calm herself and start living life in “the existing conditions”.

After emerging from hiding last year, the war thrust the former scriptwriter into the spotlight, and she has since travelled the world to meet leaders and give speeches.

“We don’t live together with my husband, the family is separated.” Olena Zelenska told the BBC, “We have the opportunity to see each other but not as often as we would like. My son misses his father.”

“But we stay strong, we have strength both emotionally and physically. And I am sure we will handle it together,” she added.

However the uncertainty of living in war has come at an emotional cost for her children, she said.

“It pains me to watch that my kids don’t plan anything. At such an age, young people. My daughter is 19. They dream of travelling, of new sensations, emotions. She does not have such an opportunity.

“There are limitations in time in what you can allow yourself, they exist, and we somehow try to live within them.”

The first lady and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky were high school sweethearts who went on to work together in a comedy troupe and TV studio – him as an actor and her as a scriptwriter.

Now, she reflects that she never dreamt of her husband becoming the “historical figure” he is today, saying she has missed him and needed him to stand by her side as her husband.

Despite what she said may be a “selfish” longing, Olena Zelenska said the president, “really does have the energy, the will power, inspiration, and stubbornness to go through this war.”

“I believe in him. And I support him. I know that he has enough strength. For any other person I know, I think, it would be much harder this situation. He really is a very strong and resilient person. And this resilience is what we all need right now.”

Her recent work as first lady has focused on helping Ukrainians deal with the psychological impact of war, and she is preparing to host an upcoming in Kyiv that will focus on mental health and resilience.

“I really hope that I can inspire someone, can give someone hope or advice, or prove with my own example that we live, we work, we move forward,” she said

“No one can know what awaits for them. After all, no one could have imagined that in the 21st Century, that such a war would be unleashed in the middle of Europe, that it would be so cruel. A bloody war. So, I have never imagined that I would be in this role at this time.”

Ukrainians cannot be sure about tomorrow or have confidence in the future, she explained – but they have hope.

“We have huge hope for victory, but we don’t know when it comes. And this long wait, constant stress, it has its toll.”

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