UZHHOROD, Ukraine (AP) — U.S. First Lady Jill Biden paid an unannounced visit to western Ukraine on Sunday, hosting a surprise Mother’s Day get-together with the country’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, as Russia continues its punitive war in the eastern regions.
Biden has traveled under the cloak of secrecy, becoming the latest high-profile American to enter Ukraine during his 10-week dispute with Russia.
“I wanted to come on Mother’s Day,” Biden told Zelenskyy. “I thought it was important to show the people of Ukraine that this war must end and that this war has been brutal and that the people of the United States stand with the people of Ukraine.”
The first lady drove to the town of Uzhhorod, about a 10-minute drive from a Slovak village that borders Ukraine.
The two met in a small classroom, sitting across from each other at a table and speaking in front of reporters before meeting privately. Zelenskyy and her children were in a secret location for their safety.
Zelenskyy thanked Biden for his “courageous act” and said: “We understand what it takes for the first lady of the United States to come here during a war where military actions are taking place every day, where aerial sirens happen every day – even today. ”
The school where they met has been turned into transitional accommodation for Ukrainian migrants from elsewhere in the country.
The visit allowed Biden to conduct the kind of personal diplomacy her husband would love to do himself.
President Joe Biden said during his visit to Poland in March that he was disappointed he could not travel to Ukraine to see the conditions “first hand”, but that he was not allowed, probably for security reasons. The White House said just 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 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.
Upon arriving at school, Biden, who was wearing a Mother’s Day corsage given to her by her husband, kissed Zelenskyy and presented her with a bouquet.
After their private meeting, the two joined a group of children who live at the school to make tissue paper bears to give as gifts for Mother’s Day.
Jill Biden’s visit follows recent stops in the war-torn country by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress, as well as a joint trip by the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to meet President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv.
His visit was limited to western Ukraine; Russia is concentrating its military power in eastern Ukraine, and it was not in danger.
Earlier, in the Slovakian border village of Vysne Nemecke, she toured its border processing facility, inspecting operations set up by the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations to help Ukrainians seeking refuge. Biden attended a church service in a tent converted into a chapel, where a priest intoned, “We pray for the Ukrainian people.”
Before that, in Kosice, Biden met with and offered his support to Ukrainian mothers in Slovakia who have been displaced by the war in Russia and assured them that the “heart of the American people” is behind them.
At a city bus station that is now a 24-hour refugee processing center, Biden found herself in a long conversation with a Ukrainian woman who said she struggled to explain the war to her three children. because she couldn’t figure it out herself.
“I can’t explain 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?” seeming to seek an explanation for Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine on February 24.
“It’s so hard to understand,” replied the first lady.
The 24-hour facility is one of six refugee centers in Slovakia, providing an average of 300-350 people a day with food, showers, clothing, on-site emergency accommodation and other services, according to information provided by the White House.
Biden also visited a Slovak public school that took in displaced students.
Slovak and Ukrainian mums gathered at school for a Mother’s Day event while their children made crafts to give as gifts.
Biden went from table to table meeting the 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, border crossings have averaged less than 2,000 a day, down from more than 10,000 a day immediately after the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, and much of that flow is daily cross-border traffic.
Biden is on a four-day visit to Eastern Europe to highlight U.S. support for Ukrainian refugees and allied countries such as Romania and Slovakia offering them safe haven.
She spent Friday and Saturday in Romania, visiting US troops and meeting Ukrainian refugee mothers and children.
With her trip, the US first lady followed the path of seated first ladies who have also traveled to war or conflict zones.
Eleanor Roosevelt visited servicemen overseas during World War II to help boost troop morale. Pat Nixon joined President Richard Nixon on his trip to South Vietnam in 1969, 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, stopping in Bosnia in 1996. Four years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and during the US-led war in Afghanistan, Laura Bush visited Kabul in 2005 and Melania Trump accompanied President Donald Trump to Iraq in December. 2018.