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Ukrainian Jews still holding out for better days

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It’s been just more than 100 days since Russia invaded Ukraine, bringing fear, chaos, and loss to millions who just wanted a peaceful life. One of those was South African filmmaker and entrepreneur Ronnie Apteker, who found his “happy place” in Kyiv. His beautiful apartment, which he calls “The Nest” was where he was raising his baby son with his Ukrainian wife. But all that changed when he and his family fled the war with just the clothes on their backs and the will to live.

They made it to Poland, and eventually came to Johannesburg, where Apteker’s brother lives. Writing on his blog on 15 May 2022, he said, “When we arrived in Johannesburg, we were in such a state of shock. It’s hard to describe what we’re going through and I hope no one ever has to deal with something like this, but the trauma is non-stop and this war isn’t letting up. All we want is to return to Kyiv soon and help rebuild. There’s going to be a lot of pain and a lot to do.

“The war has caused all kinds of problems and challenges for everyone in Ukraine. Work projects cancelled or postponed, unplanned costs, money going to help others in need, and so on. Luckily my family and I are still okay, but we have had a few folk reach out to us and offer us financial help. I’m grateful to these kind friends. The thing my brother and his family gave us, which is way beyond money, is laughter, warmth, support, their loving home, care, time, patience, and much more.”

Writing on his blog on 12 May, he described struggling with insomnia. “The nights aren’t easy. Too much time online reading news and just staring at stories and images on the net, trying to comprehend how this can be happening. Aren’t we meant to living in civilised times where things like invading other countries doesn’t happen anymore? Who sends in tanks to terrorise innocent people and destroy their homes? Who does this, in this day and age? Russians do this. And their leader is an evil, small, coward of a man.”

On 25 May, he wrote, “It was three months ago today that we left Kyiv, shocked and scared. We’re now in a holiday resort in South Africa [staying in a holiday home], but we’re not on holiday. We’re still in a state of shock but we’re not scared any more. We’re unsure, though, about the future and for now, it feels like we’re treading water. And that can be exhausting.

“I was born in South Africa, and I love it here. But my soul was restless and in Kyiv, I found a magical world that was my happy place. I’m grateful that as I write this, we’re comfortable and safe. Every day I count my blessings. But all we want is to return to Kyiv.”

Meanwhile, Ilya Bezrucho has been able to return to Kyiv from Lviv, where he stayed for three months after the invasion began. His wife and son are in Israel and he doesn’t know when he will see them again.

Asked if it’s safe in Ukraine’s capital, he says, “Kyiv is armed and dangerous. It’s a city prepared for war. There are barricades and anti-tank hedges on the roadsides, a lack of fuel, and a lot of military men in the streets. Ukraine isn’t safe in any place right now, but I feel at home. I cannot leave the country due to the law, and I’ve got a business here and staff. We actually just reopened.”

Sana Nelina has remained in her hometown of Odesa since the invasion began. Her elderly father has also remained in a town nearby. “My dad is safe. He’s still in Mykolayiv, which is a frontline city under hard shelling and rocket attack almost day and night,” she told the SA Jewish Report.

“Local citizens still live without pure water in their houses. They have water technically, but for drinking they need to buy it or to take it from volunteers. Almost half of the locals resettled to the other cities of Ukraine or to European countries. Odesa is under threat of rockets from the sea because there are several Russian warships and at least one submarine in the Black Sea area.

“The price of everyday needs and food has almost doubled,” she says. “There’s a shortage of fuel and gas due to bombed oil and gas storage. We have no salt because the Russians bombed our salt mining enterprise. Lots of people have lost their jobs. Here in the south, the sea ports are blocked by Russia. Everybody is tired of living in a war, but we understand that we can’t give up. We need to win back our occupied territories and free the Ukrainian people from the horrors which Russian invaders cause our country. It’s hard to describe what they do – the filtration camps, torture of civilians and military, and lots of propaganda, because in most occupied cities they have blocked Ukrainian internet and mobile providers.”

She says she can leave but “actually I don’t want to leave my Odesa. The only way I think I will leave is if Russians occupy the city. I have a sister in Germany, so maybe I would go there. It wouldn’t be easy. The closest borders to Europe are Moldova and Romania. It means six customs controls and hundreds of roadblocks along the way. I would need to evacuate my dad and his dog from Mykolayiv to Odesa, and then take my pets, and only then would we go to the border with Moldova. Those who have done it say it takes about two to three days in the best-case scenario.”

She says not as many people are fleeing as at the beginning of the war. “Actually, lots of people are trying to come back to the more or less safe areas of the country. We have no choice but to hold the line and be together until victory. The world is standing with us, and we definitely feel this support even when we think we have been forgotten by the global communities. Thank you for caring about us. It matters.”

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