ZAPORIZHZHIA (Ukraine) (AP). -- A caravan of unmarked cars tears across the muddy lawn next to the play area. The children stopped spinning and swinging on the merry go-round. Parents and residents from this town in the south gather to watch. Security guards dressed in battle fatigues and heavily armed open the doors of their cars.
He is now among them, too: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, wartime commander and chief morale officer for his country.
Zelenskyy travelled across the country in a 48-hour trip by train this week to rally soldiers fighting Russian forces and to encourage the communities caught up in the crossfire. Zelenskyy visited the area, which is about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the front line, to witness the damage caused by a Russian attack a week earlier.
Violence broke out just a few steps away from the playground, merry-go round and other play areas. A person was killed, and 30 other people were injured. The attack in Zaporizhzhia was a reminder to many Ukrainians of the arbitrary nature of threats they face every day, as Russian missiles strike beyond the frontlines.
Zelenskyy is concerned that, with the conflict in its second anniversary, both Ukrainians and the world outside are becoming numb to war's harsh realities.
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Keep a Nation Focused
Zelenskyy told journalists who travelled with him in the train, "Thank you for not only meeting me in the capital." He says 'Thanks' for finding it possible to travel with him.
Zelenskyy rarely travels with reporters. His office stated that AP's trip of two nights with him is the longest since the beginning of the war.
Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian public face against Russia's invasion has been a strong and unexpected force in the last year. With billions in Western military assistance, Ukraine has repeatedly pushed back Russian forces, including holding off attempts to take Kyiv during the early war.
This success has led Zelenskyy to describe the'reality' of modern warfare as a split-screen. The capital city is filled with cafes and restaurants, but there are also deadly battles in eastern Ukraine and along the vast border between Ukraine and Russia.
From one side, I think it's wonderful that people, children, and families love this life. It's fantastic. He says it's wonderful that our soldiers have brought back normal life. "But it is very dangerous from the other side."
He says it's dangerous because soldiers could lose motivation on the frontlines if they feel their fellow citizens have turned away. It is dangerous because some Ukrainians are willing to relax their guards about the dangers that exist away from the front.
He regrets that it is now a "natural habit" to ignore the air raid sirens, and to not go to bomb shelters. He compares this to how many people let their guard down before the second COVID-19 infection wave hopped around the globe.
Zelenskyy does not make a mistake. Air raid sirens are heard throughout the city just moments before Zelenskyy's caravan reaches the apartment building in Zaporizhzhia. No one runs. No one even blinks.
RIDING THE RAILS
Zelenskyy’s travels across Ukraine are a closely-guarded secret. His location is usually not revealed until he has already left, and his government's communications team uploads photos and videos online - often with him speaking directly to the camera. The AP withholds some information on his travel at the request of President's Office.
His schedule is often grueling. On Sunday night, he left Kyiv under the cover of darkness to take a 10-hour train journey overnight in the south-east corner of Ukraine. He made private visits to soldiers on the frontlines, presented medals to ailing troops at a nearby hospital, and huddled up with the UN's chief atomic agency at an important power plant which has been repeatedly attacked by Russia.
Zelenskyy's travel has increased in the last few weeks. He is often closer to the front. He wants to remind Ukrainians about their achievements so far by attending ceremonies in towns and cities that mark their liberation from Russian troops one year ago.
'These people have saved our country from Russian tanks and armed vehicle,' he said to AP at Okhtyrka. Okhtyrka is a border town of around 50,000, which was severely damaged during the first months of war. Zelenskyy praised Okhtyrka for its heroism, as the names and deaths of the soldiers who defended the city were read out loud.
Zelenskyy travels by train the majority of the time. Zelenskyy works in a coach car, which is not distinguishable from the masses of Ukrainian state railcars that regularly traverse the vast country. The train is filled with sleeper cabins that have two or four beds. Most of them are occupied by Zelenskyy, his traveling advisors, the security detail, and railway staff.
The rail system in Ukraine has played a vital role for people and goods to move across the country during the war. This is especially true when the commercial air traffic was shut down, and the roads were dangerous or unpredictable. The trains are remarkably punctual, as if they were defying the uncertainty that has engulfed the country.
Zelenskyy is not a person who stays in one place for very long. He is often gone in less than an hour. He admits that his desire to see troops on the front lines can sometimes put his security team beyond their comfort level. But he knows that there are risks.
Zelenskyy, a member of Zelenskyy's security team, says: "I must also think about their lives." "That's why i'm being as careful as i can."
The energetic Ukrainian president is sometimes frustrated by the limitations that come along with being a leader during wartime. He complained recently of his failing eyesight and asked his security chief if he might get some fresh air. Maybe some walks outside?
"Open the window.
Finding a Purpose in War
At first, they called him a light weight.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy entered politics in a roundabout way, after establishing himself as an actor and comic. After he was re-elected in 2019, he was dismissed by many people, including those in Western capitals. Many Americans became familiar with him through the first impeachment case of Donald Trump. Trump tried to use a visit to Washington by Zelenskyy for dirt on Biden, his political rival at the time.
Zelenskyy is no longer an entertainer. It's often marketed as an asset.
In the early days of the war, he communicated aggressively, rallying the support at home and abroad with nightly videos that showed him firmly planted in Kyiv, as the city faced the prospect Russian encirclement. He refused to be moved to safer grounds. He is a regular -- and usually virtual -- presence at international events such as the Grammys or the Super Bowl. Even though Russian President Vladimir Putin portrays him as a dangerous renegade and an enemy, his celebrity fans are numerous.
Even when he greets world leaders, he adopts the look of a president in wartime, ditching his pre-invasion suit for military sweatshirts, cargo trousers and boots. In recent months, he has used his public platform and force of personality to persuade dozens of world leaders to visit Ukraine. He has portrayed each visit as a brick in the wall that isolates Russia from the rest the world.
Many of them, like him, take trains. This method of transportation is known as "Iron Diplomacy" by Ukrainians. In one of Zelenksyy’s cabins, a poster boasts that '300+ delegations have been safely delivered to the Capital of Bravery.' It also features photos of world leaders on board the train. Biden, French president Emmanuel Macron and Indonesian president Joko Widodo are among them.
Zelenskyy is rarely idle. He is energized, he says, by what he refers to as'moments small victories' which provide respite from a relentless war. He was greeted by a woman in Trostianets, a liberated town, who wanted to hug him. He made a quick phone call to his son about finishing second in a recent wrestle match.
He says that sometimes these two to three minutes will bring you into a state of relaxation.
'NOW I KNOW WHAT IS IMPORTANT'
Zelenskyy laughs and refuses to answer when you ask him what surprised him most about himself in the past year. "This question is a big surprise," he replies. He does admit this: the war has changed and focused him.
He says, "Now I know what's important." "My home, My God .... My country, my spouse, my children, and my parents.
He sees in the youngest of his children, his son who is almost 10 years old, a new generation, a group of young Ukrainians who have been shaped and changed by the war that he believes started nearly a decade earlier with Russia's occupation of the Crimean Peninsula.
Zelenskyy said, "My son is a child of war." He's a true Ukrainian. He knows who our enemy is, who's a hero and who are friends.
Zelenskyy is aware of the cost the war has imposed on Ukrainians. He is hearing it everywhere, and he has experienced some of it. He is often filled with emotion, especially when he meets grieving families.
Zelenskyy: 'Everyone is very emotional due to stress' "There is no good in war." Children without childhoods and school years. Without moments of friendship or love.
Zelenskyy is grateful for the war in his country, just as he conveys optimism and hope when he makes his whistlestops. He says that the war has forced Ukraine, which is a young democracy, grow up and discover what it's willing to fight for.
He says, 'It was not a surprise to me that the people are willing to fight for their freedom. "Freedom is in the hearts of Ukrainians." This means we're ready to stay for as long as you need. ___
Julie Pace, senior vice president and executive director of The Associated Press. This report was contributed by AP journalists Hanna Arhirova in Zaporizhzhia and James Jordan.