Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska warns children are ‘losing the will to live’ over Russia’s war

Independent TV Exclusive: Mrs Zelenska says her nation is seeking international help to find nearly 20,000 children Kyiv believes have been abducted into Russian territory

Bel Trew
Chief International Correspondent
Monday 07 August 2023 18:15 BST
Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska’s interview with Bel Trew | An Independent Original

Ukraine’s children are “losing the will to live” – the country’s first lady has warned – in an emotional plea for help over the struggle to retrieve tens of thousands of children disappeared into Russia.

In an exclusive interview for Independent TV from the heavily-guarded presidential office in Kyiv, Olena Zelenska said the Ukrainian authorities will soon be launching a new initiative with international partners to try to find and return at least 19,500 children they believe have been abducted into Russian territory.

This estimate is woefully low, the first lady said, as Kyiv has received reports that Russia had “cleared out whole orphanages”. So far Ukraine has only managed to bring home 380 of the missing children.

In March, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his child ombudsman, for the alleged war crime of deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.

Mrs Zelenska, said the warrant sent out a “powerful message” to the world – and would hopefully have a “practical implementation” to help bring Mr Putin to justice. But she added this was just one of the myriad problems children were facing in Ukraine since the Russian president launched his invasion last February.

“Children have been robbed of their childhood. There are also huge problems in education. Only a third of Ukrainian schools are open,” she said.

“Children are losing the will to live. It is the most tragic thing to see when a child refuses, cannot smile, does not speak, or stops eating. These are terrible things we have to live with now,” she added.

The full interview is now available to watch on The Independent’s website and on your smart TV .

Mrs Zelenska said the impact on children was part of a wider mental health crisis plaguing Ukraine in the wake of Russia's invasion. One that is affecting children and adults alike.

The first lady said one of the biggest concerns is for hidden survivors of sexual violence. Ukraine’s General Prosecutor’s office is currently investigating just over 100 cases of sexual violence against children, men and women, but the true number of cases was “hundreds times this” as people are too ashamed to speak out fearing stigma.

Mrs Zelenska in the presidential complex in Kyiv (Anton Kulakowskiy)

“This is the most stigmatised and terrible of war crimes as the victims pay with their whole lives” Mrs Zelenska said. “Some of them say that ‘it would be easier if they killed me because what happened to me kills me every day anyway.’’

“It destroys families,” she added.

In the wide-ranging interview ,Mrs Zelenska she warned that Russia winning the war would be a threat to “all humanity” and urged Western partners to speed up humanitarian and military assistance to Ukraine as the country's soldiers were paying with their lives to “maintain the whole democratic world’.

In response to her heartfelt plea, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told The Independent that Britain will back Ukraine “every way we can” until the war is over.

“No one in Britain is showing any signs of fatigue in supporting Ukraine, because it is the right thing to do,” he said. "We are with them. And we will continue to be [with them], as I have often said publicly, to the end.”

(Anton Kulakowskiy)

Mrs Zelenska also spoke passionately about her work, including multiple construction projects across the war-ravaged country. They include rebuilding hospitals in the northeast and new cutting-edge prosthetic centres in the west.

Mrs Zelenska wants to redefine what it means to be a first lady, as more than just a “decorative” role. In September she will host a summit of first ladies and gentlemen aimed at building a global group that can run joint projects. The focus this autumn will be on mental health.

“We can no longer perform only a decorative role,” Mrs Zelenska said of her desire to “set a new trend”.

“We cannot just stand nicely next to the head of state. We can try harder and we do much more. And I saw the response it has in our community," she added.

The full interview is now available to watch on and your smart TV .

To find out more about our Independent TV smart TV app click here.

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