WELT AM SONNTAG: How are you Mrs Zelenska?
Olena Volodymyrivna Zelenska: I feel like someone whose country is at war. Like a person who keeps getting alarming messages without end about the injured, fallen or missing people while their friends and relatives are fighting a never-ceasing battle – it is a thought that makes my heart bleed. And that’s how it has been for me for almost four months, day and night. But I also feel like a person trying to do everything for victory. And I am sure that the majority of Ukrainians feel the same way, feeling disquieted but also determined.
WELT AM SONNTAG: Russia has robbed your two children of a carefree childhood and youth. As a mother, can you ever forgive something like that?
Zelenska: Childhood was stolen not only from my children, but from all children of Ukraine. After all, any normal person would think not only of one’s own children, but of all children. Practically everyday children are becoming orphans; they are severely injured or scarred for life as a result of mine explosions. Can anyone forgive something like that? I think you can guess the answer yourself.
WELT AM SONNTAG: What are you doing to protect your children from the trauma they may be burdened with throughout their life?
Zelenska: That’s a painful question. You can no longer protect them from trauma, because they are already gravely traumatized. I mean the whole generation. They are the children raised in the hope of peace and development; these children are all children of the 21st century with its best values. They went to school, learnt languages, learnt to program, played sports, had hobbies and so on. That is extremely important to Ukrainian parents. Like anywhere else, education and development are what you begin with in the early years. And now these children have lost everything; instead of going to school they are compelled to go into hiding in basements and bunkers, next to many injured or fallen relatives. Now, how can we tell our children that life has a meaning? And, that there is still something good in this world for them? To find some answers, I took the initiative to launch the „National Programme for Psychological Support“. The best experts in the world should teach our psychologists as to how they can combat post-traumatic stress disorders, how they can instil in children the strength to live. I do not want to resign myself to the fact that the children of Ukraine remain traumatized for life. We must rekindle in them the belief in goodness in the world.
WELT AM SONNTAG: The Ukrainian identity is a highly complex matter. Its history is marked by foreign occupation, freedom struggles and genocides against Ukrainians. What does it mean to you to be Ukrainian?
Zelenska: Today, being Ukrainian means fighting endlessly to be allowed to be Ukrainian in the first place. For the sake of the right to exist. And this is not for the first time in our history. Of course, it would be better if being Ukrainian meant simply living, raising children, developing the country and the culture, just like the people of the EU do. Therefore, we hope that at least after our victory it will finally be a similar situation.
WELT AM SONNTAG: Mariupol, which is a Russian-speaking city in Ukraine, has been captured by Russian troops. Most of the people there regarded and still regard themselves as Ukrainians. How important is the language that is spoken there for their Ukrainian identity?
Zelenska: Now many people are switching to Ukrainian, even if they didn’t speak any Ukrainian before – simply because they experienced the Russian aggression and don’t want to have anything common with the aggressors. Although Russia cynically claims that it wanted to “protect the Russian language”, in reality it has only made that language less popular in Ukraine. At the same time, young men and women, who have always spoken and still speak Russian, are fighting for Ukraine on the front lines. And no one has the right to dictate to them in which language they should express their love for their homeland. It was so, and so will it be. I think, when an offender wants to attack others, he essentially doesn’t care what language the victim speaks. The example of the battered Mariupol in particular proves that. It is like claiming inappropriately that rapes happen because of miniskirts. Such a grotesque justification! Rapes happen because of rapists.
WELT AM SONNTAG: As a mother yourself, can you understand the fact that some young Ukrainian men have fled the country? Do you think it is all right if young men are not allowed to abandon the country?
Zelenska: Since the first few days of the war, and still, we have long queues at the military commissariats. More than 200.000 men have returned from abroad to enlist for military service. Highly motivated people have come back to defend Ukraine. And these people are right now on the front lines. In my personal opinion, the best defender is someone who is motivated, responsible and committed and sees this as his or her personal duty. And our army, I am sure, now follows the perception that it is an honour to do military service and to defend the country. And that it is not a punishment, as most people felt during the Soviet times – and it still is in Russia.
WELT AM SONNTAG: At the onset of war, you have said that particularly women represented the resistance in Ukraine. What precisely did you mean by that?
Zelenska: War has a feminine face because our women are everywhere in this war. On all fronts. I spoke about this recently at the “Women in Conflicts” conference, whose co-founder Nadia Murad is a human rights activist who suffered torture and slavery at the hands of the terrorist group IS – but still did not succumb to it. It is horrible to say, but many Ukrainian women are going through the same experience under the occupation as Nadia had to endure. Because the Russian occupiers are no better than IS terrorists. Those that are experiencing the horror right now are the Ukrainian women and, incidentally, women outnumber the Ukrainian men by nearly two million. But they are not passive victims, because each and every one of them has his or her own personal history of resistance. A large number of our doctors and teachers are women, half of our entrepreneurs are women, around 37,000 women are in the ranks of the Ukrainian armed forces, of which more than 1,000 have already become commanders.
WELT AM SONNTAG: Together with Brigitte Macron and Agata Duda, you have organized the so-called „Flight for Life“ to help evacuate many cancer patients. In an interview with the weekly newspaper „ZEIT” you publicly called on Elke Büdenbender, the wife of the German Federal President, to join the efforts. What was her response?
Zelenska: I am grateful to Ms. Büdenbender for her video message in which she backed the Ukrainians and spoke words of support and solidarity. And the „Flights for Life” are helping a lot. More than 500 of our children afflicted with tumour diseases are already being treated abroad – and that gives them a chance to get through the cancer. A chance they wouldn’t have had in the midst of bombs. In addition, many orphans have been taken to countries where there is peace. Every day the number of war invalids is increasing in our country – there are even children in our hospitals who were severely wounded by mine explosions. We have started shifting them abroad too, so that they can get prostheses there, because our own hospitals can hardly take care of the many injured people. We are currently talking about 410 adult patients and 16 children with such amputations that require prostheses. The first of these are already abroad, namely in Germany, Norway and America. If Germany continues to help, we will be sincerely grateful because it saves lives.
WELT AM SONNTAG: Many Ukrainians are disappointed in Germany. Are you too?
Zelenska: I am very grateful to Germany and the German people for taking in our refugees – here I feel only gratitude – gratitude from the bottom of my heart. However, when someone is killed right in front of one’s own eyes, people decide for themselves whether they want to help or simply watch, this is not a political but a moral decision. Because, when politics begin to play – the question is: what do I get for it? – the morals simply vanish. What I want to say: Everyone can do something so that people need not leave their homeland at all and become refugees in foreign countries. As First Lady, I don’t ask anyone for weapons, that is not my area. But if anyone can also help Ukraine on the front – and not just in humanitarian situations – then it is, of course, Germany…
WELT AM SONNTAG: Our new editorial colleague Anna Shemyakova, who emigrated with her family from Zaporizhzhya in southern Ukraine as a child, has this question: Why return to Ukraine now?
Zelenska: It can’t be a question of “should” or “must”. The only thing Ukrainians can do now is to stay safe. When it is safe, they can return home, they can take part in rebuilding the country. And we all want that to happen as soon as possible. When you see how many are already coming back from abroad, though the risk of rockets flying across still persists, this desire to go home must be huge. The main point now is: Ukrainians, who have had to seek refuge around the world, should know that people in Ukraine are waiting for them, their country needs them.
WELT AM SONNTAG: Apart from the fact that freedom is worth fighting for, what can the world learn from the fate of your country?
Zelenska: The world can and should learn that there are no foreign wars. In modern conditions, rockets can reach any place, refugees flee to almost every country. The world is very small, everything is so close. That’s why there is no such thing as “far away” and no “that doesn’t concern us”. I want the world to understand at least that.
WELT AM SONNTAG: What will be the first thing you will do when the war is over?
Zelenska: I will have a good sleep. No alarm sirens, no scary news. This is what all Ukrainians are dreaming of.
WELT AM SONNTAG: How should the country be rebuilt when the war is over? Will it be a different Ukraine?
Zelenska: Restoration is waiting for us – a material one and a psychological one. The material restoration is obvious. The Russians are destroying everything on their way deliberately, seemingly with the logic: „you shouldn’t belong to anyone, then“. Or, as one of them wrote on the wall in the Kyiv region: „who allowed you to live so lovely?”. Already more than 1600 schools, 600 hospitals and countless homes have been ruined in our country. But we are already on our way to rebuild so that at least some of the hospitals and schools can be used again by autumn. In terms of the psychological restoration, we face even greater challenges in this regard. I have already mentioned our project for psychological support for Ukrainians. Indeed, we must learn to live on and to support one another in this. And of course, we will need more accessibility. Every day there are more disabled people, the war is crippling children and adults. We have to create the most favourable conditions for them – spatially in the rebuilt cities, but above all psychologically. Yes, it will be a new country – a country that had to suffer something you would not wish to happen to anyone. Years ago, we heard people saying that, after Auschwitz one could not live as before and, likewise, after Bucha and Mariupol one cannot continue to live as before either. We want our misery to become our strength. We will do everything to just achieve that.
The interview was conducted in writing. Read the German version here.