Two Jewish escapees from eastern Ukraine who say that they underwent interrogation and even torture at the hands of Moscow-backed separatists landed in Israel on Wednesday, joining the more than 7,000 Ukrainian refugees who have come here since their country descended into civil war last year.
One of the 89 new immigrants who arrived on Wednesday’s flight – which was sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews – was Roman Makria, 25, a lawyer from the rebel stronghold of Donetsk. A government worker, Makria was kidnapped from his office and interrogated by the separatists, who accused him of espionage.
“In Donetsk, I worked as a lawyer in the district attorney’s office,” he said in a statement.
“In May 2014, a couple of thugs came to our offices and took me away. They interrogated me over the course of two days, all the while threatening to kill me, and then let me go. [Afterward,] I got fired from work because they didn’t want to be involved with all this and the thugs had told them I was a spy.
My own boss was kidnapped and tortured. He came back a broken man.”
Makria recounted that “until the fighting started, I had everything – a beautiful home, a car, money and connections. I used to make $800 a month, which is considered a good salary. After I was released, we fled to Kiev. We couldn’t stay in Donetsk any longer. Every day, rockets fell, there was gunfire. Many of my friends and acquaintances were shot, wounded or killed. When I got to Kiev, I found work. But I wasn’t able to make more than $120 a month. The rent in Kiev alone is three times more than I’m used to paying. It’s impossible to live there making so little.... I have nothing to go back to. The minute you flee your home, the Russian rebels move in.”
He explained that he and his girlfriend, Sasha, had “decided to make aliya and to begin a new, normal life here.”
However, he added, “I’m worried about my parents who stayed behind. They can’t leave their business. There is open anti-Semitism in Eastern Ukraine, particularly on social media channels.”
Over three-quarters of Donetsk’s pre-war Jewish population of between 10,000 and 11,000 have fled the city since fighting broke out last year.
Anti-Semitic propaganda has been a major leitmotif of the war, but overt attacks against Jews have been few and far between.
Last April, several masked men posted flyers outside the city’s synagogue demanding that Jews register with the rebel government. The separatists denied any links to the flyer, a claim the community’s leadership backed up.
Pinchas Vishedski, the city rabbi, theorized that it could be the work of “anti-Semites looking to hitch a ride on the current situation.”
Asked about rebel leaders’ relationship with the Jews under their control in February, Vishedski’s assistant Rabbi Aryeh Shvartz told The Jerusalem Post that “they have acted well toward us.”
Rebel leaders recently made use of anti-Semitic rhetoric during a televised press conference, stating that “miserable Jews” run Ukraine.
Another new immigrant from Donetsk, identified only as “D,” said that he had also been kidnapped by separatists.
He declined to give his full name for fear of reprisals against members of his family still in the war zone.
A 68-year-old veteran, D said that last June, rebels kidnapped him in the middle of the night and grievously injured him.
“They broke into my house, put a sack on my head, beat me up and broke my jaw with the butt of their rifle,” he recalled.
“I was terrified. They were Russian. They brought me to a cellar, I’m not sure where. They put a grenade in my hand and told me that if I didn’t give them the information they were looking for, then they would chop my head off. At a certain point, I lost consciousness. A day later, I woke up in a hospital in Dontesk; surgeons were hovering above, repairing my jaw.”
Like Makria, he said that he “had everything” in Ukraine prior to the outbreak of hostilities, but now had “nothing to keep me there.”
“My biggest concern is my daughter, whom I left behind in Donetsk,” he said, explaining that her husband, who had volunteered for the Ukrainian army, had been taken hostage and was now “somewhere in Russia.”
“My daughter doesn’t work, and she has two kids. I don’t know if we’ll be able to support her, and she can’t come to Israel. I’m worried they won’t even have money for food. The situation is very bad there, and they barely have any money,” he said, adding that he hoped that his daughter, who was awaiting word of her husband, would be able to join him here soon.
While the Jewish community has not been directly targeted, its members have suffered due to the war, with those remaining in Donetsk waiting on lines at the synagogue for food packages and hot meals. Medicine is in short supply, with one Jewish Agency official telling the Post about a recently arrived family who watched their four-year-old daughter die in front of them due to a lack of medicine there.
Refugees from the east have told of escaping in ambulances while under fire and of watching their homes reduced to rubble.
In February, rockets hit a bus near the city’s synagogue, and members of the community have died from both rocket and gunfire.