Ukraine's first lady Olena Zelenska said the abduction of around 19,500 children by Russia constitutes "an act of genocide" under international law, as she called for other countries to more strongly support efforts to ensure their return.

"This is the wiping out of identity, the wiping out of cultural code and memory. They become Russian children. This is exactly what (Russians) want to do," Zelenska said Monday in a sit down with Kyodo News and other Asian media outlets at the presidential office in Kyiv.

While in Russia, the children are given new identification documents and have the spelling of their names changed to the Russian style, making it difficult for Ukrainian authorities to track them, said Zelenska, adding that only 386 children have been returned so far.

Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska speaks to foreign media in Kyiv on Nov. 27, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Public Interest Journalism Lab)(Kyodo)

According to a U.N. convention, forcibly transferring children from one group to another with the intent to "physically destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group" constitutes genocide.

Zelenska further stressed the difficulties Ukrainian children are facing during the war, including the fact that only a third can physically attend classes due to the lack of bomb shelters at schools.

She also spoke of the "indescribable responsibility" her husband, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, bears as the leader of a country at war, with his duties only allowing him time to meet with their 19-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son once or twice a week.

Zelenska said that when such opportunities arise she tries to embrace him in the warmth of family and steer conversation toward "things that we can discuss regardless of what is happening around us," such as how the children are doing at school.

"Today we were discussing what gifts we can prepare for children for St. Nicholas," she said, referring to the Christian feast day celebrated on Dec. 6 in parts of Europe.

While noting that her husband is "a very resilient person" who can withstand negativity, she said he still needs to release stress through sports like boxing.

"The most important thing, I think, is his confidence that he has to lead our country to victory and see peace come," she said.

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