As war rages, lone IDF soldiers from Ukraine reunite with families in Moldova

Unique trip brings Israeli troops and their loved ones together in Chisinau ahead of Rosh Hashanah, after they were kept apart by Russian invasion

IDF lone soldiers who immigrated from Ukraine and their families celebrate Rosh Hashanah in Chisinau, Moldova, September 20, 2022. (Chen Schimmel)
IDF lone soldiers who immigrated from Ukraine and their families celebrate Rosh Hashanah in Chisinau, Moldova, September 20, 2022. (Chen Schimmel)

CHISINAU, Moldova — For young immigrants to Israel who make the move on their own and enlist in the Israel Defense Forces, the physical distance from their countries of birth and rigors of intensive military service pose significant hurdles to seeing their families.

While that divide can always be a strain on so-called lone soldiers and their relatives — particularly during the Jewish High Holidays which begin Sunday evening with Rosh Hashanah — the feeling of being apart has taken on a whole new meaning for soldiers originally from Ukraine, whose loved ones have been living in a country wracked by war since Russia invaded seven months ago.

Beyond the inherent risks of traveling to a war zone, as well as Kyiv’s current ban on flights, many of these troops would be unable to return to Israel if they visited their families, due to the Ukrainian prohibition on fighting-age males from leaving the country.

The families, meanwhile, face steep challenges to exiting Ukraine beyond the absence of commercial flights, including the dangers of traversing areas close to the front or which are liable to be attacked, and the need to care for relatives who are unable or unwilling to leave.

To overcome these difficulties and enable some lone soldiers from Ukraine to be with their families for Rosh Hashanah, a group of 19 such troops was recently flown from Israel to Moldova while their families were bused in from next door.

The trip and complex logistics involved – including the need to shuttle the relatives across the border – were arranged by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. The charity drew on its work assisting lone soldiers in Israel, as well as its role in facilitating immigration from Ukraine through Moldova since Russia launched its invasion on February 24.

A delegation of IDF lone soldiers organized by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews is seen at Ben Gurion Airport prior to departure for Chisinau, Moldova, to see their families from Ukraine, September 18, 2022. (Chen Schimmel)

According to the Israel Defense Forces, there are currently around 370 serving troops who moved to Israel from Ukraine. These soldiers’ service conditions have not changed because of the war, but the IDF stressed that commanders “take the issue into consideration and make accommodations to make it easier for soldiers whose families live in combat zones.”

‘Your parents are there and you’re here’

As the flight ferrying the soldiers touched down in Moldova’s capital Chisinau early on Monday morning, September 19, two mothers who came early were on hand to greet their children at the airport.

“As we left [passport control] I saw her and started crying… It was really moving,” Yelyzaveta Kudriavtseva said of the moment she saw her mother Yelena.

Kudriavtseva, a soldier in the Home Front Command’s Search-and-Rescue Brigade, recalled her initial sense of fear as the invasion began and the difficulty to determine the situation on the ground amid the fog of war.

“On the first days it was very scary to know your parents are there and you’re here. You can’t help, don’t really know what is going on,” she said. “All the time you think about if everything is alright.”

Yelyzaveta Kudriavtseva and her mother Yelena in Chisinau, Moldova, September 19, 2022. (Chen Schimmel)

Kudriavtseva said she never lever lost contact with her family and that there is now a certain sense of normality after seven months of fighting. In her unit, she is the only soldier to come from Ukraine.

“At first it was really discussed and now it’s every once-in-a-while. There is still a war,” she said. “Everyone looks out for me. They give me a lot of attention.”

She also emphasized there were “no fights” with comrades who came to Israel from Russia. “It’s all good. Here they understand the situation. They are supportive, understanding… ask if I need help.”

Kudriavtseva, who moved to Israel to complete high school before enlisting, also has an older brother in the country. She said her parents have Israeli citizenship but did not want to make Aliyah — the Hebrew term for immigrating to Israel — before the war, as “they have a home, friends and everything.”

Even after Russia’s invasion, she continues to have mixed feelings about her parents moving to Israel, as they do not know Hebrew or “have anything” in the country. She said it would be difficult to help them out, between her brother’s work and her own service in a combat unit. She added that her father is barred from leaving due to being in the fighting-age range, and her mother could not leave her father there alone.

“When everything works out, we do want them to come,” Kudriavtseva said.

‘Respect my decision to stay’

Other troops on the trip recounted talking with their parents about moving to Israel due to the war, but being rebuffed.

Corp. Emil Allakhverdieev, 20, said his mother and younger brother came to Israel after the fighting started, but his father would not.

“I wanted to bring him to Israel, but he refused to leave. He said if there is a war somewhere, men don’t flee war,” said Allakhverdieev, who serves in the Golani infantry brigade’s reconnaissance battalion. “He contributes and does everything he can for the Ukrainian military to defeat the Russians who came to take over the land.”

Allakhverdieev is the first of the family to see his father Rafik, one of the only male relatives permitted by Ukrainian authorities to travel to Moldova for the trip from his home in Odesa.

Corp. Emil Allakhverdieev and his father Rafik pose for a selfie in Chisinau, Moldova, on September 19, 2022. (Chen Schimmel)

According to Allakhverdieev, his father — a Muslim originally from Azerbaijan — had wanted him to move to Israel since he was a young child so he could enlist in the IDF and live in the Jewish state. The trip marked the first time in three years they were together in person.

“I was really moved. I was not in touch with him. I didn’t know where he was, when he would arrive,” Allakhverdieev said of the initial reunion with his father.

“I don’t care how I spend the time with him, I just want to be together with him, speak with him, hear stories,” he added.

Allakhverdieev said that while in Israel he texts with his dad every day and continues to feel “a sort of anxiety” over the fighting in Ukraine, but also touted the support he receives from his fellow troops and commanders.

“All my friends in the army are always with me. They ask me how’s my dad, how’s my family, if I need anything, if I’m missing something,” he said.

Staff Sgt. Elizabet Zborowski, 22, of the Combat Intelligence Collection Corps also said she speaks regularly with her mother, with the frequency of their contacts increasing because of the war.

Her family lives in the central Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia which, though well away from the front, has been targeted in Russian missile attacks, including a strike in July that left 25 dead.

“I always need to check how they’re doing and everything,” she explained.

Zborowski described a mix of feelings upon seeing her mom, which she attributed to not being together in person for over a year as well as the ongoing war.

“It’s all together — it’s good but also sad,” she said.

Staff Sgt. Elizabet Zborowski and her mother in Chisinau, Moldova, September 24, 2022. (Chen Schimmel)

Zborowski, who moved to Israel at 15 to finish high school, also said her family’s perception about her service in a combat unit has evolved.

“I can really remember the moment when I told my family that I want to be a combat soldier. It was a serious blowup,” she recalled, citing their concerns of her being injured in either training or operational activities. “The feelings [now] are really different, it’s more pride.”

While Zborowski has lobbied her mother to join her in Israel, her mom does not want to leave Ukraine.

“She has her life in Ukraine and is really connected,” Zborowski said. “Of course, I tried to convince [her], but she told me, ‘I respected your request to move [to Israel] at 15, so respect my decision to stay.’”

‘A lot of challenges’

As part of the trip, a festive Rosh Hashanah meal was held for the families so they could celebrate the upcoming Jewish New Year together, along with a visit to a winery and a tour of several Jewish sites in Chisinau.

The latter included a wreath-laying ceremony at the memorial for the infamous 1903 pogrom in the city, then part of the Russian Empire, during which 49 Jews were killed over a “blood libel” that claimed a member of the Jewish community murdered a Christian child for ritual purposes. The massacre is seen as a turning point in Jewish history that ushered in a new form of antisemitic persecution.

Alexander Vinaru and Anatoly Zarik, two members of the local Jewish community who took part in the event, said local Jews do not forget the massacre and come regularly to clean the memorial.

The two added that they were moved to see Israeli soldiers at the site, as proof that they too have not forgotten the pogrom.

They also said ties between Moldova and Ukraine have always been good, both at the national and personal levels, and that this has remained the case as the fighting rages next door.

Shoulder tags bearing the insignia of IDF units are placed on a memorial to the 1903 Kishinev Pogrom, in Chisinau, Moldova, September 20, 2022. (Chen Schimmel)

Moldova, like other countries on Ukraine’s western border, has seen an influx of refugees due to the war. According to the UN Refugee Agency, over 91,000 Ukrainian refugees have been recorded in Moldova.

Along with Poland, Moldova has served as a key transit country for those fleeing the war and moving to Israel.

“When the war broke out, we understood aliyah from Ukraine became a completely different scenario, with people just fleeing to neighboring countries. There are thousands who want to move to Israel,” said Benny Hadad, the head of the IFJC’s Aliyah and Immigration Absorption Department.

At the outset of the war, Hadad said his organization and the Jewish Agency agreed to join forces rather than work in parallel, with the latter tasked with bringing immigrants from Ukraine to Israel through Poland and the former through Moldova.

The IFCJ then moved to set up a logistical support system in Moldova to enable and smooth the immigration process. The group used that same infrastructure to arrange bringing the parents of the lone soldiers to Chisinau.

“This delegation combines our activities… Aliyah is not only flying someone. There is a lot of background work, explaining and preparation and work within Ukraine,” Hadad said.

Benny Hadad of the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews speaks with IDF lone soldiers who immigrated from Ukraine and their families, in Chisinau, Moldova, September 19. 2022. (Alexander Fulbright/Times of Israel)

He noted some of the difficulties in bringing the families on buses from Kyiv and Odesa to Moldova, including “technical reasons” that prevented some relatives from coming, including the exit ban on males and Ukraine’s refusal to let one of the mothers leave the country because of an unpaid debt.

Other complications included curfews that prohibit overnight travel and the breakdown of the bus from Odesa near the border, requiring another bus to be sent from Chisinau to retrieve the family members. A soldier’s mother who now lives in Montenegro had to fly back a day after arriving due to the requirements of her refugee status there.

“There were a lot of challenges,” Hadad said. “We did what was in our power.”

He added that it was too early to say whether there would be further such reunions involving additional soldiers.

“Personally, I would be happy to do other things like this, it’s moving and brings happiness,” he said.

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