Emergency aid mission to Georgia: Find every Jew

TBILISI, Georgia (JTA)—Some ran Friday when the bombs fell on Tskhinvali, some on Saturday when they fell on Gori and some on Sunday when the Russian tanks rolled into Georgia proper.

The Jews of Georgia scattered, disappeared and resurfaced in refugee camps, relatives’ homes or at the doors of the synagogue.

As Russia occupied Georgia, pushing ever closer to the capital Tbilisi and bisecting the country, the relief effort for nearly two weeks has had only one prime directive: Find every Jew.

The most recent parallel to the Georgian relief effort, spearheaded by the Jewish communities of Tbilisi and Gori alongside the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel, would be the 1999 Kosovo conflict, when Jewish groups sought out and provided aid to fewer than 100 Jews in the war-torn area.

The United Jewish Communities, the umbrella of the North American federation system, which provides significant funding for both the JDC and Jewish Agency, has launched an emergency appeal to supplement the annual campaign funding being used to help the Jews in the region. It has raised $17,000, according to UJC officials.

The current conflict has displaced more than 200 families—some 300 individuals—and stranded dozens behind the Russian lines, where transit is nearly impossible and communication lines have fallen apart.

The displaced have made their way to Tbilisi.

After a first wave of frantic immigration to Israel—three El Al flights in the first week evacuated scores of Israeli citizens and dozens of Georgian immigrants—the relief agencies and local Jews are now picking up the pieces and trying to put the rest of the community back together.

In Tbilisi, the first stop for refugees has been the JDC-funded community center in an Armenian district near the city center built in 2003.

For two days, more than 200 families lined up at the window holding stacks of receipts. At the window, Rafael Mesingisen waited to take the receipts and trade them for black bags of food and other necessities.

Mesingisen, 66, is the chairman of the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities of Georgia, which pulls together community leaders from eight Georgian cities with Jewish populations.

Those cities are now rent apart, effectively isolated by the Russian army, which patrols Georgia’s main east-west highway with impunity.

All day Monday and Tuesday, Mesingisen passed the black bags through the window to family after family, most of whom are from Gori. He smiled to everyone from beneath his black kipah as a photo of the Lubavitcher rebbe looked on.

Some of those that made their way to Tbilisi were easy to find, but some had no idea that Jewish organizations were looking for them and wanted to help.

More than 50,000 refugees are scattered across Tbilisi and its environs. Those without family in the capital or special organizations to help them are living in makeshift shelters without beds that smell of days-old perspiration. Or they may be staying in tent camps on the city outskirts.

In this regard, at least, the Georgian Jewish refugees are lucky.

“What do you think? Are you glad to be a Jew today?” Mesingisen asks the refugees at his window. “We’re not happy today, but we’re glad that we were born Jews.”

When the conflict began, Mesingisen got on his phone and started the search, using what is referred to here as “Jewish radio” to mine the social connections of the close-knit communities and bring them back into the fold.

Some Jews fell through the cracks, and JDC officials visited the refugee camps over the weekend looking for stragglers.

Among others, they found the Yosefbashvilis. The five-member family fled Gori on Sunday as the Russian troops crossed into the city. Once in Tbilisi, they registered with the government’s refugee office and were sent to a school, where they stayed two nights with no beds and dozens more refugees.

Two of the three teenagers in Tomas Yosefbashvili’s family study at university in Tbilisi, but they didn’t have anywhere to turn in the capital. Now they have two rooms in a hotel 20 yards from the Jewish community center.

On Tuesday they picked up their food and aid. Before that, they only had their documents and the clothes they were wearing.

“I already knew that the Jewish people were good people, but now I can put a stamp on it,” Yosefbashvili said, referring to the official stamp needed to accomplish anything in former Soviet countries.
Most of the refugees have found shelter with Jewish families in Tbilisi who have opened their homes to their fellow Jews. One family alone is hosting 22 refugees, JDC officials said.

From her office in the corner of the community center, Elen Berkovich has managed another piece of the aid puzzle. As a representative of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, she has parsed out thousands of dollars in cash handouts to refugees, ranging from $200 to $500 per family, depending on need.

The funds come from the congress, headed by Kazakh oligarch Alexander Machkevich, but the cash flowed under the urging of Josef Zissels, the congress’ representative in Ukraine—another country eyeing Russia’s actions in Georgia with trepidation.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Sunday that Georgian troops would begin to pull out, but they appear only to have dug deeper into the vital arteries of this mountainous republic.

Relief agencies are preparing for a protracted effort to maintain the well-being of Georgia’s Jews before they can move on with the work of rehabilitation, said Amir Ben Zvi, a Ukraine-based staff member of the JDC’s Georgia operation.

The situation is even more desperate for those on the other side of Russian lines—in Gori and other cities. The road to Gori is lined with Russian snipers, checkpoints and tree-camouflaged tanks.

No Western reporters have been allowed to enter the city through the main road for days and relief workers have been let through sparingly. On Tuesday, Sergey Vlasov made the trip as head of the JDC’s Tbilisi office and a Georgian citizen.

The JDC had a list there of 27 Jews remaining in the city. Vlasov and his driver found all of them, including three Israelis.

After a brief skirmish with Ossetian militia, Vlasov was able to make the trip back to Tbilisi and report to the families of the Gori Jews with whom he spoke. Those still there have no desire to leave, say JDC and Jewish Agency officials, mostly concerned that their property will be looted.

Concerned that their efforts might be stymied, the JDC has signed a mutual cooperation agreement with the Georgian Red Cross to assure continued assistance to the Jews still in need.

The JDC, meanwhile, says the number of Jews in Tbilisi is 4,000 to 4,500, well below the 10,000 estimated by Jewish groups when their latest efforts began.
The Jewish Agency is preparing to send some 50 teenagers from the local communities, at an estimated cost of $1,500 to $1,700 per child, to Israel for a 10-day camp experience. The program, slated for early September, is to provide a respite for 13- to 16-year-olds caught in the conflict.

For certain, the hardest-hit city in the conflict has been the Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. Russian and Georgian forces leveled the city in fierce fighting as the war broke out.

The city’s two dozen Jews fled north to Russia, but rumors persisted that one Jew—an old woman—had stayed behind.

On Monday, JDC workers in Tbilisi were jubilant: They had found Rivka Rosa Jinjikhashvili, 71, in the middle of the war zone, and someone would be visiting her home to cook a hot meal later that day.

But Jinjikhashvili’s home is in ruins. She has moved to a summer annex nearby, and no one knows when her city will come back to life again around her.

—JTA senior editor Lisa Hostein contributed to this report

Jews trapped on both sides of Russian-Georgian conflict

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.”