On Tuesday, First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska published an open letter on what life has been like for Ukrainians since Russia invaded the country on February 24. “What happened just over a week ago was impossible to believe,” she wrote. “Our country was peaceful; our cities, towns, and villages were full of life.” Now, she said, families are taking shelter in basements, and babies are being born in bomb shelters: “There are several dozen children who have never known peace in their lives.”
Her letter, published in English, German, and Ukrainian, called on the global media for informational support. It also called out “Kremlin-backed propaganda,” which has downplayed the Russian invasion as a “special operation.” “It is, in fact, a mass murder of Ukrainian civilians,” she wrote.
Understanding what’s going on in Ukraine has been difficult, and not just because war is a heavy and complex issue. In Russia, the government has banned Facebook and restricted Twitter. It’s criminalized the intentional spread of what their officials deem to be “fake” reports on the war, which includes “discrediting” Russia’s Armed Force, according to Russian media outlet Kommersant. As the New York Times reported, Putin recently signed a law that “effectively criminalizes any public opposition to or independent news reporting about the war against Ukraine.” In other words, the legislation could make it illegal for its citizens to call the war a “war” on social media and in the news.
In the 13 days since Russia invaded Ukraine, Zelenska has been vocal on social media. She’s shared stories of some of the children who are among the estimated 406 Ukrainian civilians who have been killed. (Officials have struggled to count the exact number of Ukrainian casualties, which includes those killed and those injured, though most recent estimates have recorded at least 752 civilian casualties.) She’s posted videos of the immediate fallout on the ground, showing some of the over 2 million Ukrainians who have been displaced and forced to take refuge in neighboring countries.
“With this letter, I testify and tell the world: the war in Ukraine is not a war ‘somewhere out there,’” she wrote. “This war is in Europe, close to the EU borders. Ukraine is stopping the force that may aggressively enter your cities tomorrow under the pretext of saving civilians.”
Here is her letter in full:
An Open Letter to the Global Media by Olena Zelenska
Recently, an overwhelming number of media outlets from around the world have reached out with requests for interviews. This letter serves as my answer to these requests and is my testimony from Ukraine.
What happened just over a week ago was impossible to believe. Our country was peaceful; our cities, towns, and villages were full of life.
On February 24th, we all woke up to the announcement of a Russian invasion. Tanks crossed the Ukrainian border, planes entered our airspace, missile launchers surrounded our cities.
Despite assurances from Kremlin-backed propaganda outlets, who call this a “special operation” - it is, in fact, the mass murder of Ukrainian civilians.
Perhaps the most terrifying and devastating of this invasion are the child casualties. Eight-year-old Alice who died on the streets of Okhtyrka while her grandfather tried to protect her. Or Polina from Kyiv, who died in the shelling with her parents. 14-year-old Arseniy was hit in the head by wreckage, and could not be saved because an ambulance could not get to him on time because of intense fires.
When Russia says that it is ‘not waging war against civilians,’ I call out the names of these murdered children first.
Our women and children now live in bomb shelters and basements. You have most likely all seen these images from Kyiv and Kharkiv metro stations, where people lie on the floors with their children and pets – trapped beneath. These are just consequences of war for some, for Ukrainians it now a horrific reality. In some cities families cannot get out of the bomb shelters for several days in a row because of the indiscriminate and deliberate bombing and shelling of civilian infrastructure.
The first newborn of the war, saw the concrete ceiling of the basement, their first breath was the acrid air of the underground, and they were greeted by a community trapped and terrorized. At this point, there are several dozen children who have never known peace in their lives.
This war is being waged against the civilian population, and not just through shelling.
Some people require intensive care and continuous treatment, which they cannot receive now. How easy is it to inject insulin in the basement? Or to get asthma medication under heavy fire? Not to mention the thousands of cancer patients whose essential access to chemotherapy and radiation treatment have now be indefinitely delayed.
Local communities on social media are full of despair. Many people, including the elderly, severely ill and those with disabilities, have been debilitatingly cut off, ending up far from their families without any support. War against these innocent people is a double crime.
Our roads are flooded with refugees. Look into the eyes of these tired women and children who carry with them the pain and heartache of leaving loved ones and life as they knew it behind. The men bringing them to the borders shedding tears to break apart their families, but bravely returning to fight for our freedom. After all, despite all this horror, Ukrainians do not give up.
The aggressor, Putin, thought that he would unleash blitzkrieg on Ukraine. But he underestimated our country, our people, and their patriotism. Ukrainians, regardless of political views, native language, beliefs, and nationalities, stand up in unparalleled unity.
While Kremlin propagandists bragged that Ukrainians would welcome them with flowers as saviours, they have been shunned with Molotov cocktails.
I thank the citizens of the attacked cities, who have coordinated to help those in need. Those that keep working — in pharmacies, stores, public transportation, and social services — showing that in Ukraine, life wins.
I acknowledge those that have provided humanitarian aid to our citizens and thank you for your continued support. And to our neighbours who have generously opened their borders to provide shelter for our women and children, thank you for keeping them safe, when the aggressor has rendered us unable to do so.
To all the people around the world whoa re rallying to support Ukraine. We see you! We’re here watching and appreciate your support.
Ukraine wants peace. But Ukraine will defend its borders. Defend its identity. These it will never yield.
In cities where shelling persists, where people find themselves under debris, unable to get out of basements for days, we need safe corridors for humanitarian aid and evacuation of civilians to safety. We need those in power to close our sky!
Close the sky, and we will manage the war on the ground ourselves.
I appeal to you, dear media: keep showing what is happening here and keep showing the truth. In the information war waged by the Russian Federation, every piece of evidence is crucial.
And with this letter, I testify and tell the world: the war in Ukraine is not a war “somewhere out there.” This war is in Europe, close to the EU borders. Ukraine is stopping the force that may aggressively enter your cities tomorrow under the pretext of saving civilians.
Last week to me and my people, this would have seemed like an exaggeration, but it is the reality we’re living in today. And we do not know how long it will last. If we don’t stop Putin, who threatens to start a nuclear war, there will be no safe place in the world for any of us.
We will win. Because of our unity. Unity towards love for Ukraine. Glory to Ukraine!