UZHHOROD, Ukraine (AP) — US first lady Jill Biden made an unannounced visit to western Ukraine on Sunday, where she held a surprise Mother’s Day meeting with the country’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, as Russia continues its punishing war in the eastern Ukraine. regions continues.
Biden traveled under the guise of secrecy, becoming the last high-profile American to enter Ukraine during its 10-week-old conflict with Russia.
“I wanted to come on Mother’s Day,” Biden told Zelenskyy. “I thought it was important to show the Ukrainian people that this war must stop and that this war has been cruel and that the people of the United States stand behind the people of Ukraine.”
The first lady traveled by vehicle to the town of Uzhhorod, about a 10-minute drive from a Slovakian village bordering Ukraine.
The two gathered in a small classroom, sat across from each other at a table, and talked to reporters before meeting in private. Zelenskyy and her children have been to an undisclosed location for their safety.
Zelenskyy thanked Biden for her “courageous act” and said, “We understand what it takes for the US first lady to come here during a war where military action takes place every day, where the air sirens sound every day — even today.”
The school where they met has been converted into temporary housing for Ukrainian migrants from elsewhere in the country.
The visit allowed Biden to conduct the kind of personal diplomacy her husband would like to do herself.
President Joe Biden said during his visit to Poland in March that he was disappointed that he could not visit Ukraine to see the conditions “first hand”, but that he was not allowed to, probably for security reasons. The White House said last week that the president “would love to visit,” but there were no plans for him to do so at this time.
The meeting came about after the two first ladies exchanged correspondence in recent weeks, according to US officials who declined to provide further details because they were not authorized to discuss the ladies’ private communications.
When she arrived at school, Biden, who was wearing a Mother’s Day corsage that was a gift from her husband, hugged Zelenskyy and offered her a bouquet.
After their private meeting, the two joined a group of kids living at the school to make tissue paper bears to give as Mother’s Day gifts.
Jill Biden’s visit follows recent stops in the war-torn country by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress, as well as a joint trip by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of State. of Defense Lloyd Austin to meet President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kiev.
Her visit was limited to western Ukraine; Russia concentrates its military power in eastern Ukraine, and it was not in danger.
Earlier, in the Slovakian border village of Vysne Nemecke, she visited the border processing facility, where she inspected operations set up by the United Nations and other aid agencies to help Ukrainians seeking refuge. Biden attended a religious service in a tent set up like a chapel, where a priest honked, “We pray for the people of Ukraine.”
Before that, Biden met in Kosice and offered support to Ukrainian mothers in Slovakia displaced by the war in Russia, assuring them that the “hearts of the American people” are behind them.
At a bus station in the city that is now a 24-hour refugee shelter, Biden found herself in extended conversation with a Ukrainian woman who said she struggles to explain the war to her three children because she can’t do it herself. to understand.
“I can’t explain it because I don’t know myself and I’m a teacher,” Victorie Kutocha, who had her arms around her 7-year-old daughter Yulie, told Biden.
At one point, Kutocha asked, “Why?” appears to be seeking an explanation for Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine on February 24.
“It’s so hard to understand,” the first lady replied.
The 24-hour facility is one of six refugee centers in Slovakia, which provides an average of 300 to 350 people daily with food, showers, clothing, emergency accommodations and other services, according to White House information.
Biden also raided a Slovakian public school that has been hosting displaced students.
Slovak and Ukrainian mothers were brought together at the school for a Mother’s Day event, while their children made crafts to give them as gifts.
Biden went from table to table to meet the mothers and children. She told some women she wanted to come and “says the hearts of the American people are with the mothers of Ukraine.”
“I just wanted to come and show you our support,” she said before leaving for Vysne Nemecke.
In recent weeks, there have been an average of fewer than 2,000 border crossings per day, up from more than 10,000 per day immediately after the Russian invasion on February 24, and much of that flow is daily cross-border traffic.
Biden will pay a four-day visit to Eastern Europe to highlight US support for Ukrainian refugees and allied countries such as Romania and Slovakia providing them with a safe haven.
She spent Friday and Saturday in Romania, where she visited US troops and met Ukrainian mothers and children of refugees.
With her journey, the American first lady followed the path of previous incumbent first ladies who also traveled to war or conflict zones.
Eleanor Roosevelt visited soldiers abroad during World War II to boost the morale of the troops. Pat Nixon accompanied President Richard Nixon on his 1969 trip to South Vietnam, becoming the first first lady to visit a combat zone, according to the National First Ladies’ Library. She flew 18 miles from Saigon in an open helicopter, accompanied by US Secret Service agents.
Hillary Clinton visited a combat zone and stopped in Bosnia in 1996. Four years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and during the US-led war in Afghanistan, Laura Bush went to Kabul in 2005 and Melania Trump accompanied President Donald Trump to Iraq 2018.