MARIUPOL/CHERMALYK, Ukraine – The armored van rattles down the decrepit blacktop, slowly navigating around potholes and shell holes as we make our way from the city of Mariupol to Chermalyk, a dusty little village separated from separatist territory by the Kalmius River.
I want to see the war with my own eyes.
In front sit two soldiers of the Dnepr Battalion, a privately funded pro-government militia, a loaded Kalashnikov and two shoulder-fired rockets on the floor between them. We pass several checkpoints with heavy weapons and concrete bunkers hidden behind mounds of dirt and sandbags. Antitank obstacles bracket the road and checkpoints.
Only around 40 percent of the 3,000 or so pre-war inhabitants remain in the village, with the rest having been forced out by rockets fired from across the river.
While the separatists’ forces outside Mariupol have shelled the city, killing some 30 civilians during one attack in January, the residents have largely been spared the extensive rocket fire that targets their neighbors 40 kilometers to the north.
Finally arriving in Chermalyk, we leave the armored car for the back of a pickup truck bearing the Dnepr Battalion logo and begin to drive along the dirt roads between the farms lining the Kalmius.
During the winter when the river froze there were several raids here, one soldier tells me as we pull up to a house with a shattered roof.
A dog barks and pulls at his chain as we get out of the pickup and an old woman pulls her door open a crack to see who we are. She slams the door shut and a minute later reemerges with an elderly man.
They introduce themselves as Volodya and Olga, pensioners and farmers who are living in an outbuilding next to their farmhouse, whose roof is being rebuilt after being hit by a separatist rocket two weeks ago.
Asked if they are scared, they reply that they live in fear and that every day they listen to the sounds of rocket fire, and “if it sounds too loud we go down to the basement.”
They would like to go elsewhere but cannot afford it, they tell me.
Several minutes later I am in the living room of Valentin, 78, who was watching television with his wife when rebel fire came through the ceiling of the room, blasting apart the roof and ceiling. They both survived, uninjured but traumatized.
Unlike Volodya and Olga, however, he says he will never leave.
Shortly thereafter I find myself in a plowed field, the tail of what I am told is an unexploded rocket sticking out of the ground. The soldiers leave it, presumably because they do not have any bomb disposal equipment.
Back in Mariupol, Rabbi Mendel Cohen, the Israeli Chabad emissary who runs the Jewish community, explains to me that because separatist forces are on his city’s doorstep and his congregants are so close to the front, people flee and return all of the time.
“People are always coming and going,” he says.
Unlike in rebel held areas like Donetsk or Luhansk, refugees from Mariupol frequently come back to the government-controlled city and the Jewish community here, along with the financial backing of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, pays the expenses of those who leave, the rabbi tells me. Most of the aid the community offers has been paid for by the group.
The community is in an “absurd situation,” he explains, adding that the Jews of Mariupol are living an existence unlike to that of their co-religionists in any other city in Ukraine.
Like Jews in other cities, however, they do receive large amounts of aid from the community, including daily meals, regular food packages and even medical treatment, he adds.
Some 600 families receive such food packages, while 120 children have been given money to buy clothing.
“The needs are great,” the rabbi says.
Michael is one of those who received aid from the community.
Caught in the crossfire he was shot in the foot during fighting between government troops and separatists in the city a year ago, he underwent two operations at the community’s expense.
He would like to leave but is physically incapable of doing so.
Julia Evashenko has fled Mariupol twice, both times returning, and is planning to leave again shortly.
She gave birth while staying with relatives in Melitopol in the Zaporizhia Oblast during one of her times away. Her husband, Andrei, who had stayed behind in Mariupol to support their extended family, hurried to her place of refuge for the birth before returning to work.
In January, Julia and the two children fled for the second time, again staying with relatives while Andrei remained behind, and they are planning a third flight.
“It is hard to make a living for all of us live on my husband’s salary,” she says. “My mother is on pension and my brother has no work and there is no work to find. Andrei’s parents have no work as well.”
“It’s lonely” without his wife when she leaves, Andrei says, agreeing with Julia that they will stick out the war in Ukraine.
Another family with whom I spoke, however, is less interested in staying in the country.
Yulia Mashtanir, 36, hopes to make aliya with her husband and sons in May, and while she does not know what will happen in Israel, in Ukraine her children are facing horror and war.
Like the Evashenkos, the Mashtanirs fled and returned, going to Crimea to stay with family there, but they have since submitted their paperwork to immigrate to the Jewish state instead of looking to return to Crimea for another break from the war.
Her seven-year-old son Eitan was traumatized by the shelling, shaking and crying when the sound of rockets would reach their house.
Asked if he was happy to leave for Israel, he and his younger brother Yisrael answered with resounding yeses.
According to Rabbi Cohen, around 100 members of Mariupol’s core community have made aliya while eight children are waiting in Dnepropetrovsk to move ahead of their parents through a youth aliya program.
Jews who never involved themselves in the community have begun to show up at the synagogue doors since the crisis began, community officials here say.
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>