Olena Zelensky, First Lady of Ukraine reflects the feminine face of the war

Joe and Jill Biden welcomed Olena Zelenska to the White House on July 19th 2022. Photo credit: Office of the President of the United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

IO – More grim news in from the Ukrainian War as Reuters reported that on Friday the 29th of July, “Dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war appeared to have been killed during the night, when a prison building was destroyed in a missile strike or an explosion, with Moscow and Kyiv accusing each other of responsibility on Friday.”

The prisoners who were killed, were Ukrainian prisoners of war being held in the eastern Donetsk province of Donetsk Oblast, by Russian backed separatist forces. Many of them were apparently members of part of Ukraine’s Azov battalion who had surrendered after defending the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol. Both Russian and Ukrainian sources say that at least 50 Ukrainian prisoners were killed and according to the Russian Ministry of Defense about 75 prisoners were wounded at the prison just outside the frontline town of Olenivka. The Azovstal steel plant was the last Ukrainian stronghold in the siege of Mariupol, before it fell to the Russians.

Russian backed forces and occupying authorities in Donetsk claimed that the prison was attacked by Ukrainian forces using the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) provided by the United States in order to dissuade Ukrainian forces from surrendering. Ukraine however, says that Russia (or Russian backed separatist forces) attacked the prison with explosives to cover-up their abuse of Ukrainian prisoners of war.

In the UK, the Russian Embassy’s twitter account said that the Azov fighters were not real soldiers and called for them to be executed by hanging rather than in front of a firing squad. Meanwhile, Andriy Biletskyi, founder of the Azov Regiment accused the Russians on Telegram saying, “Regarding the attack on the [penal] colony in Olenivka, where our comrades from “Azovstal” are located: last night, the Russians killed some of the captured ‘Azov’ fighters.” Several units of the Azov Regiment have announced that they will hunt down those responsible for killing Ukrainian prisoners of war in Olenivka on the 29th of July 2022.

At the initiative of Olena Zelenska the memory of children killed as a result of Russian aggression was honored in Kyiv. She wept throughout a great part of the ceremony. Photo credit: President.gov.ua, CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons. org/licenses/by/4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

For Indonesians in far-away Southeast Asia it is of course, impossible to verify what actually happened. That must be left to the United Nations and the International Court of Justice. However, with so many Russian opposition leaders imprisoned or killed through poisoning, falling off balconies or being shot, Russia’s human rights track record leaves much to be desired and indicates scant respect for the lives of even its own citizens – let alone those of non-citizens. Evidence and witnesses proving the murder of civilians in places like Bucha, further strengthens that assumption as does the usual method of warfare that Russia engages in. Russia is currently conducting a war of attrition through continuous bombardment of Ukrainian cities leaving them flattened with their populations either forced to flee or risk being killed. This lack of regard for human life was also reflected in its wars of attrition in Syria, Chechnya and Afghanistan – to name a few. If we compare this to the policy of the Ukrainian government which continually seeks to work together with UN officials as well as other international bodies in trying to collect evidence of war crimes and in bringing the perpetrators to justice – one gets a clearer picture of the war and which side was more likely to have attacked the prison outside Olenivka. Having such a policy makes it highly unlikely that Ukraine would risk not only its international reputation and cooperation with the UN and other international bodies in bringing to justice the perpetrators of war crimes against Ukrainians but also the condemnation of the international community. Ukraine can only hope to prevent a Russian victory if it receives the moral support of, as well as military aid from the international community.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that the prisoners should have been protected by guarantees secured by the United Nations and the Red Cross. Together with his foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, he urged international organisations to intervene and investigate what happened in Olenivka and who is responsible for the deaths of the prisoners and several prison guards. Last June, the UN appointed experts to investigate other human rights violations in Ukraine.

Olena Zelenska at the Kyiv Summit of First Ladies and Gentlemen in 2021. Photo credit: President.gov.ua, CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org /licenses/by/4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

This is a war not just fought with weapons but it is also a PR war fought through information and images. As part of its campaign against human rights abuse by Russia during the Ukrainian War, President Zelensky recently sent his wife, Olena Zelenska, on an international mission to campaign against such abuses which are clearly in contravention with the Geneva Convention. The President uses his wife to help create an international platform for Ukraine to make the world aware of Russian atrocities committed against Ukrainians and also to provide a softer, more womanly face for the war ravaging Ukraine.

Olena Zelenska who was a comedy writer, usually plays a supportive rather than a more central role. However, she told Vogue magazine “These have been the most horrible months of my life, and the lives of every Ukrainian. Frankly, I don’t think anyone is aware of how we have managed emotionally. We’re looking forward to victory. We have no doubt we will prevail. And this is what keeps us going.”

After meeting with American President Biden and his wife Dr Jill Biden as well as United States Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, Zelenska spoke in front of the United States Congress. There she asked, “for something I would never want to ask for: I am asking for weapons — weapons that would not be used to wage a war on somebody else’s land but to protect one’s home and the right to wake up alive in that home” – after showing them photographs of Ukrainian children killed in the war.

Olena Zelenska, the First Lady of Ukraine. Photo credit: President.gov.ua, CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons .org/licenses/by/4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Who is Olena Zelenska? She was born on the 6th of February 1978 in Kryvyi Rih and was given the name Olena Kiyashko. Zelenska clearly came from an intellectual family. Her father was an academician who taught at a technical university whereas her mother was head engineer at a factory. So, it probably came as no surprise when she studied architecture at Kryvyi Rih National University. As Zelenska grew up Ukraine was still a part of the Soviet Union and she was brought up speaking Russian. She only learnt Ukrainian later. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, she was a teenager. Ukraine became independent in 1991. Therefore, it has been free for almost 30 years now and it makes no sense to her and other Ukrainians that Russian President Putin says that there is no such thing as a Ukrainian culture and people; that they are just a part of the Russian culture and people.

Zelenska had already met Volodymyr Zelensky when she was at secondary school but they only began dating when they were in university. He says that it was when they began talking and discovered each other’s mutual sense of humour that they began to fall in love. He later became not only a comedienne as well as film star but also founded Studio Kvartal 95 with several friends (including Zelenska) which after the fall of the Soviet Union became one of the largest television and film production companies among the former Soviet states. At Kvartal 95, Zelenska became a scriptwriter and editor creating comedy sketches for her future husband whom she married in 2003. In 2019 Zelensky won the presidential elections in a landslide victory and Olena Zelenska who had not wanted Zelensky to run because she was concerned how it would affect their family life, became the First Lady of Ukraine.

Olena Zelenska (left) and Volodymyr Zelensky (right) Photo credit: President.gov.ua, CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

It was a role she did not easily fit into right away as she had always been a shy person who would rather stay out of the limelight, preferring to play a supportive role in the background but the war forced her to change. Most Ukrainians were not expecting Russia to attack Ukraine, including President Zelensky. It came as a shock to her when Russia began invading Ukraine on the 24th of February 2022. At the time she was in the presidential palace with her husband and two children, Oleksandra, aged 18, and Kyrylo, aged 9. Unlike, the former President of Afghanistan, Zelensky point blank refused to flee Ukraine to try and lead a resistance from outside the country. He insisted on remaining in Ukraine and fighting together with his people. His daily video talks to Ukrainians is what lifted their spirit of resistance and his courageous stance earned him the respect of the world. Zelenska and her children spent the first months of the war in hiding because the Russians were not only searching for Zelensky but also for her and her children. She was target number two.

Despite being forced to stay in hiding between secure locations, Zelenska continued to carry out her duties as first lady as well as written interviews with journalists. She first came into the public view again after the invasion on May 8th, Mother’s Day when together with Jill Biden she visited a centre for refugees in Western Ukraine. Like her husband, her appearance reassured the Ukrainian people that she had not fled the country and that she was still in Ukraine working for the good of the people. Since then, she has appeared many times both domestically and internationally promoting the Ukrainian cause.

Olena Zelenska together with Emine Erdogan, wife of Recep Erdogan, President of Turkey in 2020 during a working visit with her husband. Photo credit: President.gov.ua, CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

In the first months after the invasion, she was not allowed to speak with her husband or even her own parents. Even now for security reasons, President Zelensky is unable to see his children and this is very difficult for them all. He is quoted in Vogue magazine as saying, “Like any ordinary man, I have been worried sick about them, about their safety. I didn’t want them to be put in danger. It’s not about romance. It’s about horrors that were happening here in Kyiv’s outskirts and all those horrors that are happening now in our country, in the occupied territories. But of course, I’ve been missing them. I’ve wanted to hug them so much. I’ve wanted to be able to touch them.”

Such separations have been the fate of more than 9 million Ukrainians who have had to flee the country as refugees. They are mostly women and children, for Ukrainian men between the age of 18- 16, are forbidden to leave the country and must stay to help defend Ukraine against the Russians. It is known that 5000 Ukrainian civilians have died since the Russian invasion although it is thought that when all the dead can truly be counted the figure will be far greater. Zelenska feels deeply the pain of her people and the sadness of the Ukrainian people is reflected in her beautiful face. President Zelensky has said of his wife, “Of course, she is my love. But she is my greatest friend. Olena really is my best friend. She is also a patriot and she deeply loves Ukraine.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Ukranian first lady Olena Zelenska and Turkish first lady Emine Erdogan in front on Galata Tower. Photo credit: President.gov.ua, CC BY 4.0 (https:// creativecommons .org/licenses/by/4.0), via Wikimedia Commons