A journey into Ukraine as the war anniversary approaches

ODESSA, UKRAINE — There is comfort in the familiar, even if the familiar is the trappings of wartime. Flags, posters assuring victory, warning klaxons ready on poles, young soldiers standing guard near the border — all these had grown familiar during my time in the Gaza periphery, but this was a different place, and a different war. 

I had been invited to Ukraine by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, one of the major aid organizations providing for Jews at risk during the ongoing war to repel the Russian invasion. Given the events in Israel and Gaza, it can be easy to forget that there are other wars and other places that Jewish communities are grappling with ongoing warfare.

With the invasion nearing its second anniversary on February 24, we decided that it was time to visit these communities and see how they and their Ukrainian countrymen have been dealing with their own trials.

Entry into Ukraine itself is a challenge. The skies are closed, with no civilian aircraft in or out. To visit, one needs to first travel to a neighboring country, like Moldova.

Representatives from IFCJ and I landed in Chișinău on Sunday, and were driven to the Ukrainian border. For two hours we drove through winding roads, in a region of the world where it seems that road lanes and signage appears to be more of a suggestion than anything.

The border crossing took an hour by itself, though there were only a few cars. When we finally crossed, we passed by young men and women wearing new combat riggings, and joined the stream of semi-trucks hauling aid and other goods into the country.

The driver noted that a year ago, the street lights would have likely been off — due to Russian strikes, there had been frequent outages and power conservation. This had changed, a testament to improving defenses and operations against the Black Sea Fleet that had been lobbing Kalibr missiles at the city’s port.

Traveling through the city center, one could almost forget that there is a deadly struggle going on in the east. The stores and hotels are lit up, people are walking along the streets leisurely. Yet the proliferation of the proud yellow and blue flags, the posters for recruitment and public relations, and that familiar tension in the background remind otherwise.

With tomorrow’s light, I hope to see more of the city, and learn about the Jewish community, this different place, this different war.

Continue to read The Jerusalem Post in the coming days for further reports by Michael Starr on his experiences visiting Ukrainian Jewry.

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