First Lady Olena Zelenska On the Trauma Of War In Ukraine

OThe First Lady of Ukraine Lena Zelenska went to bed early on the night of the Russian invasion. The presidential residence in south Kyiv was where her children were found long asleep. It is a large mansion made of yellow stones that they have always considered too extravagant and ostentatious. Because the gates contain an additional building for their security, they had made arrangements to move there in 2020. Zelenska sensed nervousness in the bodyguards for several days. The talk of war, she says, “was everywhere, just kind of hanging in the air.”

Although the government of Kyiv advised civilians to not panic, it was made more difficult by the Russians’ massed invading force, which surrounded Ukraine in the north, south, and northeast. There was a wealth of advice on blogs for potential refugees. Information programs provided tips on how to prepare for fleeing. Zelenska had made a mental note of what she needed to pack for her family the night before. However, she didn’t get to do it.

Volodymyr Zelensky, her husband, did not see the intelligence reports. The President of Ukraine had seen the intelligence reports—the satellite images, the intercepted phone and radio traffic—indicating the Russians were ready to attack. However, he didn’t think they would carry out the attack and he didn’t urge his wife not to prepare for it. Zelenska said that when they got to bed Feb. 23, Zelenska didn’t think it would be their last night together for several months.

Alexander Chekmenev for TIME

Before dawn, the Russian invasion began the day after. It shattered the First Family like many other Ukrainians. Zelensky was able to stay in Kyiv’s compound and lead the country while his wife fled with their children. Her projects to improve the nation’s education and health care had to be halted, as was her career as a screenwriter. It was difficult for her to know where she would go to sleep at night because she was constantly surrounded by soldiers.

Zelenska was able to emerge from hiding after just 10 weeks. She has now become a leader in wartime. Her husband was primarily concerned with securing Western weapons support, but the First Lady is committed to helping Ukraine deal with the traumas it has suffered, personal and collective. Her government launched an initiative in May to provide psychological assistance to all Ukrainians. Now, it has started training trauma counselors and establishing mental-health hotlines. Foreign experts can also be tapped for support.

Continue reading: Inside Volodymyr Zelensky’s World.

The psychological toll that the war has on people is immense. Ukraine’s Health Ministry estimates that 15 million people—nearly a third of the population—are likely to require mental-health care. Around 8 million civilians have been forced to flee the country by the conflict, with the majority being women and children. Since the invasion, the number of military personnel, now at more than 700,000., has nearly tripled. Many of these soldiers are vulnerable to trauma and will need to be retrained. “There could be enormous consequences for the country,” Zelenska tells TIME in an interview at the presidential compound on June20, “if we end up with posttraumatic stress that goes untreated after the war.”

Soldiers with signs of trauma will have to be screened by the Ukrainian military. The challenge will also lie in convincing regular Ukrainians to get medical care. When Zelenska, 44, talks about her efforts in this field, she often borrows the English phrase—Mental health—because the concept is hard to describe in Ukrainian. “We have a particular distrust for terms that include the word psycho,’’ she says, in the muted gray rooms that now serve as her headquarters, down the hall from the Situation Room where her husband gets briefings from his generals. Ukrainians link psychotherapy to state-run asylums which are places designed to separate the mentally ill from society. Zelenska believes that much of the stigma stems from Soviet Union. There, generations of Ukrainians dealt with trauma in hiding. The attitude, she says, was “Deal with it, get over it, and if you complain, you’re weak.”

Zelenska celebrates her husband’s election victory in 2019

Sergei Grits—AP

Trauma of warZelenska was awakened by the sound of explosives just before dawn on February 24, 2019. Her husband was already in work clothes, so she got up and went to bed. “Emotionally he was like the string on a guitar,” she says: taut to the point of snapping. She recalls that there wasn’t any fear, confusion or surprise on his face. “He was completely together, focused.”

Talking for just a couple of minutes, they ended up chatting briefly. He told Zelenska that the war was already underway. “He had nothing else to say,” Zelenska recalls, “and I didn’t know what to ask.” He promised to call her later that day with instructions on what to do next.

The President ran out of the room before the children got up and understood what was going on. Kyrylo (age 9), obeyed his mother calmly, stuffing some of his belongings into a small bag: a book of puzzle pieces, markers and parts of an partially assembled Lego set. Oleksandra (his 17-year-old sister), was on social media keeping in touch with his friends and trying to understand what was going on outside.

About a hundred miles to the north, the Russian forces had exploded across the border around dawn, aiming to encircle the capital and overthrow Zelensky’s government. Russian paratroopers descending from the skies on Kyiv were trying to capture the airports. The Ukrainian volunteers and troops were determined to fight back. The First Lady was looking out from the windows at the presidential residence when a fighter jet flew low enough that she could hear the impact in her ribs. They told their family they had to get down to the basement. The Russians could bomb their family from the sky.

Continue reading: TIME’s Interview With Volodymyr Zelensky.

Zelenska was not willing to let the children go. She told the President that she felt more at home than they do in a secret area, and that their pets, two dogs and a cat named Kesha, were not able to go. There was no need to argue. The family’s address had been made public in media reports. So the First Lady packed the family’s things into one roller suitcase, and they drove to the presidential compound to say goodbye to Zelensky.

Zelenska visits families that were forced to flee Russia in May


When they arrived at Kyiv, the President was already settled to stay there. The President’s team had already set up the Situation Room and the command center from his office. Unsentimental farewells were not received. Family members did not enter a private space to have a conversation. The family hugged one another in the hall, exchanging some quick words as they rushed by the aides. “It was a calm conversation for the road,” she says. At that time, they were trying to calm their kids down by performing for them.

Both knew the risk. Zelensky had been warned by Western intelligence agencies that Russians wanted to kill and capture him. “The enemy has marked me as target No. 1,” the President said in a video address on the second day of the invasion, “and my family as target No. 2.”

Zelenska, her family and children were required to move off-grid in an effort to minimize assassination risk. The children could not take their smartphones or log into their social media accounts. This could allow them to be tracked. Zelenska sent a Facebook message to Ukraine before leaving the compound. It was a plea for her. “Today I will not panic and cry. I will be calm and confident,” she wrote. “My kids are watching me.”

Friends from Europe offered to house the family during the conflict. Zelenska was not expelled with her children. They were not locked in underground bunkers. While they did not stay in Ukraine for long, the couple had to get around because of security threats. “You just hope that you’re safe right now,” she says of her mindset in those early days. “You don’t know what will happen in two hours.” The uncertainty gave rise to a habit of making the most of the amenities in the places where they were taken, she says, “because you don’t know when else you will have time, and when you will next get to a normal shower.”

They were not permitted to speak with President Obama via video call due to security issues. They spoke on only secure telephone lines for weeks, and this had to be prearranged. But they did see him on television. Even though the difficult topics that the President discussed in his speeches were hard for many, his nightly visits provided comfort and relief to his kids. “They could see that dad was at work and looked all right,” says Zelenska. “There was some stability in that.”

It was hard for her to keep working. As schools across the country were closing, her campaigns for education had to be stopped. Zelenska had been a comedian and screenwriter while in the First Lady’s position. She also stopped her comedy show career. “Before the war I could do both,” she says. “Not anymore.”

Zelenska’s husband and daughter attended the funeral in Kyiv of Leonid Kravchuk on May 17, 2007.

Viacheslav Ratynskyi—REUTERS

It was the beginning daysThe invasion made it impossible to feel sorry. It was surrealistically disorienting. Zelenska managed to keep her optimism by wearing a mask. The adrenaline started to fade and soon the terrible reality of the situation became clear. Already the Russians were sweeping across large areas of eastern and southern Ukraine and their tanks were heading southwards to surround the capital. Millions of Ukrainians were fleeing the war, including many of the family’s closest friends.

“I understood that I may never see them again, all the ones I love,” Zelenska wrote to Vogue in April. Zelenska had difficulty reaching her loved ones and couldn’t find out their location or if they survived. “That was probably the first time when I cried, the first time I let my emotions go. I just couldn’t take it.”

Continue reading: Ukrainian photographer documents the invasion of his country.

Zelenska, the children and Zelenska settled down to a daily routine by week 2. Kyrylo spent many hours drawing and did his schoolwork. His mother was concerned by some of the pictures he made. His pictures were not the typical Batman or Spider-Man sketches. Instead, he showed scenes of destruction and war. Oleksandra, whom the family calls Sasha, followed the news and helped cook the family’s meals. Her mother expected that the ban on social media would not be as problematic for her 17-year-old daughter. “It was all right,” Zelenska says of her daughter. “It turns out her phone addiction was not all that strong.”

The security protocols became more relaxed over time and allowed the family access to the internet. Zelenska was able to track her husband’s pronouncements and other sources of information about the war. She woke up often from the noise of sirens and the news that they had just delivered. “It’s a revolting habit,” she says, “reading the news at night.”

Continue reading: Bucha: The Crime Scene Russians are Left behind at a Camp Summer Camp.

Millions upon millions of Ukrainians live this way every day, seeing tragedy after tragedy on their screens. One story hit Zelenska particularly hard. Zelenska was struck by a story in the diary of an 8 year old boy. He had survived the Russian invasion of Mariupol. The port city of Mariupol on the Black Sea has been reduced to rubble under Russian bombardment. “My two dogs died,” the boy wrote in one entry. “So did my grandma Galya, and my beloved city.”

The boy’s story brought home the depth of the trauma that Ukraine’s children are facing. “Imagine how this could affect the psyche of a normal child, who was not raised for war, not taught to hate,” the First Lady says. “And there are thousands of these children.” It will be a generational challenge to help them heal after this war, and Zelenska has tried to make that challenge her own.

On May 8, Mother’s DayZelenska was hiding when she met Jill Biden at an American First Lady’s school in west Ukraine, which had been converted into refuge for refugees. Zelenska was given a new position upon her appearance. She has since become a vocal and visible advocate for Ukraine’s defense on the international stage. Her work has mainly focused on connecting trauma-treatment specialists with the state, such as the Ministry of Health. This allows them to provide care for those who are most in need.

Zelenska and Jill Biden, the First Lady of the United States, meet in west Ukraine in May

Susan Walsh—REUTERS

Her recovery is underway after spending more than two months hiding. It is jam-packed with interviews, speeches, meetings and panel discussions. Many of her peers around the globe have offered their assistance. Michal Herzog (First Lady of Israel), has assisted Zelenska in creating training programs for Ukrainian trauma counsellors. Agata Kornhauser Duda, the First Lady of Poland has been working closely with Zelenska in order to help Ukrainian refugees. “This club of ours has been a big help,” Zelenska says. “We understand each other.”

Continue reading: The Historic Mission To Provide Arms and Aid To Ukraine

Zelenska is aware that Zelenska and her husband are still living apart. Zelenska also understands the difficulties her family faces while war rages. They reunited for a brief moment in May. The children held on to Zelensky and savored the opportunity to hug him. “It was touching,” the First Lady says. “But I can’t tell you more than that.” She only admits that they still see him most often on television and they have not been able to return to their family routines of watching movies and sharing meals.

The separation is in some ways appropriate. Ukraine is home to millions of people who have split their families. As the fighting continues and more casualties pile up, Zelenskys will also need emotional support. “Every day you read about them, you hear about them, you absorb it, and it has an effect,” says the First Lady. “Each of us, including myself, have felt that our psychological state is not what it should be.” After four months of war, she adds, “none of us are OK.”

Mariah Espada/New York – Reporting by Simmone Shah

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