Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska called it terrorism when told of the bombing of two schools, a library, a hospital and a football stadium in the city of Chernihiv.
“[The Russians] Try to scare people into running, leaving towns and villages empty so they can occupy those areas,” Zelenska told correspondent Scott Pelley for this week’s 60 Minutes. “Definitely terrorism. The war is waged with modern means, but from a moral and ethical point of view [it’s] the middle age.”
Zelenska has embraced the pain of 44 million people since Russia launched its attacks last February. And as Ukraine gains ground, according to Zelenska, half of the country’s families have been separated.
“Someone is at the front, someone went abroad to save their children, someone went under [Russian] Profession,” Zelenska said through an interpreter. “People are afraid to leave theirs [homes] because of shelling. They are even afraid to evacuate. We have thousands of dead. Hundreds of children are dead.”
Zelenska is 44 years old and has been married to her husband, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, for 19 years. Their surnames differ because in Slavic languages surnames are often modified by gender.
When 60 Minutes spoke to her husband in early April, Zelenskyy said his wife and children had gone into hiding. But weeks later, it was used strategically. In May, she showed American First Lady Jill Biden the new homeless of the war in western Ukraine. In July, she came to Washington and became the first First Lady to address the US Congress.
“I ask for guns,” she told American lawmakers, “guns that would not be used to wage war on someone else’s land, but to protect one’s home and the right to wake up alive in that home.”
60 Minutes met Zelenska in the capital, Kyiv, at a location we agreed not to disclose. On the day of our interview, Ukraine was forcing a Russian withdrawal and exposing more horrors of the Russian invasion.
We noticed an apparent tiredness that Zelenska was keen to ignore. It was the price of the path the former comedy writer had chosen — meeting her people, knowing her pain, and bearing the weight of empathy.
“I feel like a part of those people. I feel like this is my pain,” Zelenska told Pelley. “[The] Stories are scary and we’re trying to help the survivors in some way.”
Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska
Ukraine has lost entire cities. Almost 500 hospitals and clinics were hit. Schools are devastated.
Zelenska said about 150 schools simply don’t exist anymore. Around 900 schools were damaged.
“How are you raising the children of Ukraine today?” Pelley asked.
“Around 3,500 schools are only operated online because schools cannot accept students and because their parents are afraid to send their children to school,” Zelenska told 60 minutes. “[Ukraine’s] Kids went to school this year… and the first thing they learn [is] where the bomb shelter is, how to get there and what to do if a missile hits. We will fight. We will not give up on our children. I don’t know how we can forgive that. I don’t think we’re going to do that.”
After the Russians cut off communications with the occupied territories, the Ukrainians dropped messages in the Dnipro River – with the current and against the chance they would reach those behind the new Iron Curtain.
“We really hope that our love letters will be received by someone there and that they will hear us. I really hope [our people] will endure,” Zelenska told Pelley. “We will never back down [up our people]. And by the way [there is this idea of giving up territory in some kind of negotiation.] Our people are there. We will never betray them.”
“This is non-negotiable from your government’s perspective,” Pelley said.
“I really don’t want to express a political opinion. That’s not my role,” said Zelenska. “But imagine a situation where you were attacked by bandits. They threaten you, kill your children. And someone [suggests] Maybe it would be better to negotiate? [That] is now impossible. That’s just my opinion as a citizen of Ukraine.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Friday that Russia would move to the occupied territories of Ukraine despite strong international condemnation. Putin has also threatened to use Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
During her interview, Pelley Zelenska showed pictures of the United States’ support for Ukraine. Zelenska took the opportunity to forward a message to a teenager she met in Washington who wrote her a letter of encouragement.
“Dear Hector,” said Zelenska, “I remember I took your letter to Ukraine.
“So it seems to me that normal people understand what evil is and that the attacker is evil,” Zelenska continued. “That it is normal to defend your country, your children, your home. I’m sure Americans are like that themselves.”
“What does the future hold?” Pelley asked.
“We dream of it. In these months we have seen that the human being is at the center of everything. That distinguishes us from the attacker. They don’t count theirs [dead]’ Zelenska said. “We count every person who has died and we want everyone who is still alive to feel safe and have opportunities [to grow]. That’s what we dream of. This is how we want to see our country in the future.”