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Jewish Journal

Jews trapped on both sides of Russian-Georgian conflict

By Grant Slater

August 13, 2008 | 12:48 am

Victims of the Georgia-Russian conflict adjust to <br />
their new surroundings in a Russian refugee camp <br />
in Alagir on the border of South Ossetia.<br />
Photo by American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee

Victims of the Georgia-Russian conflict adjust to
their new surroundings in a Russian refugee camp
in Alagir on the border of South Ossetia.
Photo by American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee

MOSCOW (JTA) -- Vissarion Manasherov left his city as the bombs were falling.

One day later, on Monday, with bombs still falling, he returned to Gori, a city at the edge of war, to convince the few Jewish families still in the area to leave. The Russians were at their doorstep, he told them.

Manasherov, the community's leader and a local emissary for the Jewish Agency for Israel, said he fled to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi with a wave of 200 Jews, leaving fewer than a dozen compatriots behind.

"I was the last to leave," he said. "But I went back. And we'll go back."

As the conflict between Georgia and Russia moved toward an uneasy stalemate Tuesday, the migration of refugees away from the devastated capital of the breakaway republic of South Ossetia spread farther and more Jews emerged from the fog of war.

Ossetians and Georgians fled north to Russia through a mountain tunnel or south to Tbilisi, while others boarded planes to Israel.

The evacuation effort has been a joint project of international Jewish organizations working in close conjunction with the Israeli government. The Israeli Embassy has become a hub of activity where leaders and refugees have shuttled to and from since the conflict began.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), one of the agencies working on the ground, estimates that more than 700 Jews have been displaced in recent days.

Jews caught on both sides of the conflict looked back at the damage with starkly different political viewpoints.

"Who's at fault? Who bombed whom? Who fired the first shot?" Manasherov said by telephone from the Israeli Embassy in Tbilisi. "War is war. It's hard to say who is right and who is at fault."

Russia has taken a hard line against Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, branding his initial incursion into South Ossetia as genocide and strongly defending its campaign into undisputed Georgian territory.

Following days of fighting, which left scores of casualties, leaders from Georgia and Russia took tentative steps toward ending the latest conflagration in the war-weary Caucasus region -- Russia's largest use of force outside its borders since 1989.

On Tuesday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced an end to attacks beyond Georgia's border with South Ossetia while Saakashvili pressed a cease-fire agreement. Saakashvili also announced to thousands in Tbilisi that Georgia would leave the Commonwealth of Independent States, an umbrella organization largely controlled by Russia.

The conflagration began Aug. 8 when Russian tanks and soldiers poured into South Ossetia, which fought a war for independence from Georgia in the early 1990s. Russia said it was protecting its citizens and peacekeepers from a Georgian attempt to secure the capital, Tskhinvali.

Saakashvili had made the reunification of Georgia with its breakaway republics a central plank of his campaigns as he cultivated close ties with the West, sending soldiers to U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as seeking entry to the NATO alliance.

Saakashvili's distance from Russia chafed at then-Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Moscow holds little love for the poster child of democracy in the former Soviet sphere.

Amid the uncertainty, Jewish rescue and relief agencies worked throughout the fighting and planned to continue their work to assist refugees in need.

The Jewish Agency helped evacuate 31 Georgians to Israel aboard special flights Tuesday. The agency said others have applied to make aliyah and their paperwork is being expedited.

Alex Katz, the Jewish Agency's emissary to the former Soviet Union, accompanied Gori's community leader Manasherov to the city on Monday and saw columns of Georgian troops leaving the city.

"The situation is tense now -- very, very tense," Katz said. "We are used to this as Israelis, but it is a very complicated situation now."

The JDC, meanwhile, has eight representatives in the region helping to locate and rescue local Jews, as well as provide food and medical relief in both Georgia and Russia.

The head regional representative said the JDC had helped evacuate a Jewish family from a bombed-out building in Gori on Monday.

Most of the more than 200 Georgian Jewish refugees who have made their way to Tbilisi are staying with relatives and friends there. Between 10,000 to 12,000 Jews live in Georgia, mostly in the capital.

The local Chabad community, headed by Rabbi Avraham Michaelashvili, organized a three-day blood drive for victims, and Chabad rabbis have worked to ensure safe passage for a group of 50 Israeli tourists vacationing on the Black Sea, according to reports from the Chabad Web site.

Georgian troops withdrew Sunday from South Ossetia, a pro-Russian de facto state since 1992. Russia has issued passports to South Ossetian citizens for years and served as a peacekeeping force in the region.

Before wave after wave of ethnic conflict shook the foundations of Tskhinvali starting in 1992, there was a growing Jewish community of more than 2,000 people in the city of 30,000.

The JDC listed the number of Jews in Tskhinvali at 19, as of one month ago. Nothing was heard for days from these refugees.

But the JDC representative in Vladikavkaz, the Russian regional capital closest to the conflict, said they had located five of the Tskhinvali Jews, including girls aged 6 and 16. The girls had made their way to the Russian city with the younger girl's grandmother after spending several days huddled in a basement without food or water.

The representative, who spoke on condition of anonymity owing to safety concerns, said the experience of hiding from the shelling in the Ossetian capital had badly shaken the teenager.

On the Russian border, the representative said the Russian government was refusing help from international aid organizations and JDC was the only nongovernmental organization operating in Vladikavkaz.

Mark Petrushansky, the chairman of the Vladikavkaz Jewish community, said emotions were running high on the Russian side of the conflict, stoked by sometimes shocking images on television of the aftermath in Tskhinvali.

Petrushansky said he saw television footage of a Jewish child he knew from a local school fleeing Tskhinvali with her grandmother to Russia. Incensed, he placed the blame on Georgia and Saakashvili for starting "this horrible massacre."

ALTTEXT
Georgian Jews emigrating from their war-torn country arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel on Aug. 10, 2008. Photo by Abe Selig/JTA

"The American agencies are broadcasting and we're watching these lies meant to manipulate people," he said by telephone Monday.

Russian media have portrayed Saakashvili, the Columbia University-educated president who has courted U.S. favor and sought Georgia's membership in NATO, as a puppet of the West. They have broadcast a loop of his interviews with Western news organizations such as CNN and pronouncements from his presidential desk in English.

Petrushansky also had heard reports that Israel had provided weapons and military training to Georgia, which he likened to Germany under Hitler.

"Why is Israel helping Georgia? I'm so embarrassed about this," he said. "This is a war against Jews and they don't even understand it."

The Israeli daily Ha'aretz cited an anonymous senior defense official who said Israel feared that further aid to Georgia would provoke Russia into providing more advanced weaponry to Iran and Syria. Israel has sought to distance itself from Georgia since the conflict began.

Israel has a longstanding defense relationship with Georgia and over the years has sold rockets, night vision and aerial drones to the former Soviet republic. A drone that was shot down by Russian forces in the breakway republic of Abkhazia earlier this year came from Israel.

In contrast, soldiers and citizens in the midst of the fighting in northern Georgia have expressed a sense that the United States betrayed them by not providing more support as the conflict unfolded.

They see Russia's actions as heavy-handed, a return to the Soviet mentality in which neighbors are either puppets or enemies.

"Russia is in the middle of an act of aggression against Georgia," said Gregory Brodsky, the Jewish Agency's emissary to Tbilisi. "The attempt to take Abkhazia and Ossetia is obvious to the whole world as an attempt to create anew the Russian empire."

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, alongside a group that advocates for Jews in the former Soviet Union, NCSJ, released a statement rebuking Russia for its forays into Georgian territory and calling for an end to the hostilities.

"We urge that the cease-fire be implemented fully and immediately, and that the status quo be re-established," the statement said.

Local Jewish groups were more reluctant to take sides.

In Abkhazia, Russian forces have demanded that soldiers in the Georgia-controlled regions lay down their weapons -- a sign that Russia may be ready to open a second front in the war.

The Abkhazian capital Sukhumi is home to some 120 Jews who are no stranger to tanks and rebel armies prowling across the hilly seaside region, though the capital is on the coast far from where border skirmishes would take place.

Alexander Glusker, the chairman of Sukhumi's Jewish community, said that he and his fellow Jews are "Abkhazian patriots," though he shrugged at the possibility of Abkhazian independence in the near future. He said he had seen too many wars, three or four at last count, to become too excited.

"Russia will never let Georgia join NATO, and this is why we have the conflicts and the bombs in our South," he said. "We know there is tension in the mood but we're used to it. It's nothing. I think that everything will be civil before too long."

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