This week Ukraine lurched further towards a humanitarian “catastrophe” according to Jewish charities in the country, as fighting raged in the port city of Mariupol despite the fragile ceasefire.
Having annexed Crimea, analysts say Russsian President Putin now wants a “corridor” to the peninsula, with Mariupol standing in the way. At least it’s still standing. Much of Donetsk and Luhansk – cities in the east, that have long been home to Jewish families – have borne the brunt of the war.
With 3,000 dead and over a million displaced (including 2,000 Jews) Putin stands accused of playing out Cold War fantasies in the east of this vast, flat, European country, where demonstrations in the capital Kiev ousted a corrupt president in February.
Putin has consistently denied helping the pro-Russian rebels, who seem mysteriously well-armed. Up to 15,000 combatants laden with sophisticated military equipment able to shoot down planes flying at 33,000ft do not seem like the average ragtag army, and have fought accordingly, in civilian areas, with homes shelled and buildings strafed.
“The situation in Ukraine has rapidly descended from bad to worse to catastrophic,” said Paul Anticoni of World Jewish Relief (WJR). “Jewish families have been torn apart as Rosh Hashanah approaches. Many have lost everything.”
WJR and others have provided some respite. From a centre in Kharkiv, a central province hundreds of miles to the west of the fighting, many Jewish families from the east are now living in temporary accommodation, unable to return, in some instances because their homes have been destroyed.
Such is the case with Tatyana, 43, who says she was at the Israeli consulate in Kharkiv last month, registering her 14-year-old daughter on a trip to Israel, when she heard that her home had been shelled.
“It’s gone, like so many others,” she says, her voice wavering. “We were part of a community. Now most have left. Here, we have no home and no job. I can’t find work and our savings are running out. The charity has paid for one month’s rent. I don’t know what we will do after that.”
A trained accountant, Tatyana says she could easily work in Kharkiv, but “negative attitudes” to those fleeing the fighting means she and her husband are finding it difficult. “They don’t know how long you will be here, so they don’t give you a job,” she says.
She thought she would only be in Kharkiv for three days so packed light, carrying “mainly documents”. What makes it worse is that she does not know how many of her friends have fared.
“The regional phone operator has been closed, so we cannot contact them,” she says. “The road to the city is destroyed, so there is no way in or out. I don’t know who is still alive.”
Some, like Luhansk’s Chabad rabbi, fled to Israel at the first sign of fighting, she says, but many elderly community members chose to stay. Others moved elsewhere within Ukraine, like her in-laws. “Everyone just wants their life back,” she sighs. “We don’t want sides. We just want peace.”
Those thoughts are echoed by Dasha, 16. She too is living in rented apartments in Kharkiv, alongside her parents and siblings. They were left homeless after separatists took over her home in Luhansk.
“They forced their way in,” she said, her voice simmering with anger. “I don’t know who they are, maybe Russian, Chechen, local criminals. We won’t get our home back unless the Ukrainian military comes, and even then maybe not. The town is destroyed. Many feel we can never go back.”
Yet to finish school, Dasha spoke of her hope of going to university, a hope which – until recently – was realistic. “I wanted to do languages, perhaps study in Israel,” she says. “Now I just want somewhere to live and for my parents to find work. The future is uncertain.”
Indeed it is. Last month Russia called an emergency session of the UN Security Council warning that Luhansk and Donetsk were “on the brink of a humanitarian disaster” and asked the international community to “mobilise for immediate assistance”.
WJR is one of many organisations trying to fill the gap. But Anticoni warns that the situation is grave, saying: “The numbers alone don’t do justice to the sense of panic and distress.”
For most, hopes of peace are slim, with Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian border. Ukraine’s Jews and their compatriots may find things get much worse before they get better.