Uzhhorod, Ukraine (AFP) – Jill Biden made an unannounced visit to western Ukraine on Sunday, where she held a surprise Mother’s Day meeting with First Lady Olena Zelenska to show US support for the beleaguered nation as Russia presses its ruthless war in the eastern regions.
Traveling under a cloak of secrecy, Biden became the latest high-profile American to enter Ukraine during its 10-week-old conflict with Russia.
“I wanted to come on Mother’s Day,” the first lady of the United States told Zelenska. “I thought it was important to show the Ukrainian people that this war had to stop, that this war was brutal, and that the people of the United States stand with the people of Ukraine.”
Biden spent about two hours in Ukraine, traveling by car to the town of Uzhhorod, about a 10-minute drive from a Slovak border village where she toured a border processing facility.
Zelenska thanked Biden for her “courageous act” and said, “We understand what it takes to get here during the war when military operations happen every day, sirens go off every day — even today.”
The first two ladies gathered together in a small classroom, sat at each other’s table and greeted each other in front of the reporters before meeting in private. For their safety, Zelenska and her children were in an unknown location.
The school where they met has been converted into a transitional housing for Ukrainian immigrants from elsewhere in the country.
The visit allowed Biden to conduct the kind of personal diplomacy that her husband would like to do himself.
President Joe Biden said during his visit to Poland in March that he was disappointed that he was not able to visit Ukraine to see conditions “firsthand” but was not allowed, likely for security reasons. The White House said as recently as last week that the president “would like to visit” but there are no plans to do so at this time.
The meeting came after the two first ladies exchanged correspondence in recent weeks, according to US officials, who declined to elaborate because they were not authorized to discuss the women’s private communications.
Arriving at school, Biden, who was wearing the Mother’s Day vest that was a gift from her husband, embraced Zelenska and presented her with a bouquet of flowers. After their private meeting, the two joined a group of kids who live at the school making teddy bears out of tissue paper to give as Mother’s Day gifts.
Biden’s visit follows recent stops in the war-torn country by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress, as well as a joint trip by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv. .
Her visit was restricted to western Ukraine; Russia is concentrating its military power in eastern Ukraine, and hasn’t been in harm’s way. On the same day as Biden’s visit, a Russian bomb destroyed a school in eastern Ukraine that housed about 90 people in its basement, and dozens are feared dead. Also on Sunday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Ukraine to meet the president and “reaffirm Canada’s unwavering support for the Ukrainian people,” according to his office.
Earlier, in the Slovak border village of Vysne Nemecke, she toured its border processing facility, surveying operations set up by the United Nations and other aid organizations to help Ukrainians seeking asylum. Biden attended a religious service in a tent set up as a chapel, where a priest chanted, “Pray for the people of Ukraine.”
And before that, in Kosice, Biden met and provided support to Ukrainian mothers in Slovakia who were displaced by the Russian war. She assured them that “the hearts of the American people” are behind them.
Biden found herself in a lengthy conversation with a Ukrainian woman who said she struggled to explain the war to her three children at a city bus station that is now a 24-hour refugee processing center, because she couldn’t make it out on her own.
“I can’t explain because I don’t know myself and I’m a teacher,” said Victory Kotocha, who was surrounded by her 7-year-old daughter Yuli, Biden.
At one point, Kotocha asked, “Why?” He appears to be seeking an explanation for Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine on February 24.
“It’s very hard to understand,” replied the first lady.
The 24-hour facility is one of six refugee centers in Slovakia, providing an average of 300 to 350 people per day with food, showers, clothing, on-site emergency accommodation and other services, according to information provided by the White House.
Biden also attended the Slovak Public School, which received displaced students.
Slovak and Ukrainian mothers were gathered at school for Mother’s Day while their children were making crafts to give as gifts.
Biden moved from table to table to meet with mothers and children. She told some of the women she wanted to come and say, “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, the number of border crossings has averaged less than 2,000 per day, down 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 is on a four-day visit to Eastern Europe to highlight US support for Ukrainian refugees and allied countries like Romania and Slovakia that offer them safe haven.
She spent Friday and Saturday in Romania, visiting US forces and meeting Ukrainian refugee mothers and children.
On her journey, the American First Lady followed the path of First Ladies who also traveled to areas of war or conflict.
Eleanor Roosevelt visited military personnel abroad during World War II to help raise the morale of the troops. Pat Nixon joined President Richard Nixon on his 1969 trip to South Vietnam, becoming the first woman 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 made a stop 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 in December. 2018.
This story has been corrected to reflect that the first lady of Ukraine’s name is Olina Zelenska, not Olena Zelensky.