International Jewish groups and the community of Dnepropetrovsk are mounting rescue and relief operations for hundreds of Jews who fled battle zones with little more than a suitcase.
Ukraine — Anatoly Lazaurenko’s face betrays no emotion as he watches footage of an old woman he used to know lying in the rubble of what once was his home in the war-torn city of Slavyansk.
Oblivious to her mangled face, Anatoly, 8, points to a corner of the computer screen to indicate the bombed-out apartment in eastern Ukraine that his family fled last month as a tense standoff between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces escalated into urban warfare.
Like many Ukrainians, the boy has become inured to disturbing sights after months of violent conflict in his country. Even after watching the video, Anatoly says he would rather be home — under fire, but with his friends and classmates. But his mother insists they are staying with relatives near Dnepropetrovsk, far from the battle zone, as long as the fighting persists.
“Every day Anatoly asks me in tears if we can go back yet,” says his mother, Ludmila.
The Lazaurenkos are among hundreds of Jews made refugees by the fighting in eastern Ukraine, part of a larger movement of tens of thousands of people who have fled since pro-Russian militias — some toting heavy caliber machine guns and mortars — took up arms against government troops in March.
Hundreds have already died in the fighting, including the 298 passengers and crew aboard a Malaysia Airlines jet shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17 by what American and Ukrainian officials say was a Russian anti-aircraft missile fired from rebel-controlled territory.
On July 18, two Jews — Svetlana Sitnikov and her daughter, Anna — were killed in an explosion in the eastern city of Lugansk.
The Jewish refugees are surviving on assistance from local and foreign Jewish groups that in recent weeks have launched major rescue and relief operations. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and community officials are helping to provide housing, monthly stipends, food and medicine in what they describe as one of largest mobilizations in the history of Ukrainian Jewry.
“We’re talking about a multi-element package designed to improve the situation of each and every person who left the battle zone,” said Yoni Leifer, the head of operations in the Dnepropetrovsk region for JDC. A separate relief operation is being carried out by the Chabad-led Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk.
The Lazaurenkos decided to leave Slavyansk last month after government forces began engaging the separatists. But Ludmila Lazaurenko does not blame Ukrainian troops, who launched their offensive following the standoff with the rebels.
“We were pro-Russian,” Lazaurenko said of herself and her parents, Nadezhda and Alexander Belovol, who fled with her and Anatoly. “But that changed after we saw how they fought from inside the houses of civilians, with no regard for their lives. There is no excuse for that.”
Two weeks after the family left, they learned from a television news broadcast that their house had been blown up.
“We started crying when we saw that nothing was left,” Lazaurenko said. “We have nothing now.”
For those without relatives to take them in, JDC and the Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk have arranged rooms in the community’s various institutions.
Elena Konigina and her 12-year-old daughter, Ksenia, have stayed at a scenic countryside resort near the Dnepropetrovsk suburb of Pavlograd since they fled Lugansk in May.
Konigina would like to immigrate to Israel, but Ksenia is a minor and cannot exit the country without the consent of both parents. Konigina says she does not know how to reach Ksenia’s father, whom she divorced several years ago.
Even if she could go, Konigina worries that the situation in the Jewish state won’t be much better.
“I don’t know what good that will do,” Konigina said. “They are shooting there, too.”