October 13, 2008

Search and Rescue – On the Ground in Georgia

When the Russia/Georgia conflict erupted on August 7, JDC’s expertise and long history in rescuing Jews in times of crisis enabled us to mobilize our resources and respond immediately. We were one of the first agencies on the ground and, in some areas, the only agency present. Shauli Dritter, Director of Field Operations for JDC in the Former Soviet Union, was one of the eight staff members who arrived in Georgia on August 8 to join our local team already in the region. He was deployed to the Russian town of Vladikavkaz to seek out and assist Jewish refugees who may have escaped from Georgia and South Ossetia on their own.

Shauli recently gave a firsthand account of our rescue operations and shared what happened while on the ground in the war zone. The following is a summary of his report:

There was an initial 72-hour window in which to pull Jews out of the conflict zones and to areas of safety. During these first days there was much confusion, allowing JDC staff members to get in and get out of the area easily and without many obstacles from either Georgian or Russian forces. We knew we had to act quickly and efficiently to ensure that all Jews who were in danger were taken to safety.

Knowing that refugees would flee further into Georgia as well as into Russia, two JDC command posts were established, one in each country. Shauli and Yitzhak Averbuch were sent to the Russian city of Vladikavkaz in order to coordinate efforts from that side of the border. JDC-sponsored Hesed Assistance Centers in Georgia keep detailed records of Jews living in Georgia and split up those lists amongst staff members. Shauli and Yitzhak were given a list of the names of the 17 Jews living in the city of Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia near the Russian border, a city that was virtually destroyed by ongoing attacks from both sides.

Upon entering Tskhinvali, the two began questioning people in order to locate all the names of the elderly on their list. Shauli was speaking with locals when he heard shouting nearby. Yitzhak was taken into custody by members of the South Ossetia militia wanting to see his papers, thinking he may be a spy. Rather than leave his colleague to militia members, Shauli also turned himself into their custody. Both men were in possession of cell phones as well as satellite phones (a fact that did not help convince the militiamen that they were not spies but rather representatives of a non-governmental relief organization).

After what seemed like hours of questioning, both Shauli and Yitzhak were handed over to Russian intelligence agents, a fortuitous move for the fate of our directors, as the Russian government and intelligence agents are familiar with JDC and the work that we do all over Russia. After some more questioning, both Shauli and Yitzhak were released and ordered to leave the area.

Throughout the rest of that day, Shauli and Yitzhak searched throughout the refugee camps and Tskhinvali, and 16 out of the 17 people on the list were located, taken to safety and provided with basic necessities, including food, water, and shelter. However, one woman, Rosa Rivka, was still missing.

Rosa Rivka is a homebound 97-year-old woman who lives alone and relies on JDC's aid for hot meals and medicine. They knew she would not be able to survive on her own. After an intense search, Shauli and the rest of JDC’s rescue workers discovered her two days later, huddled in her kitchen—the only room in her apartment that had not been destroyed by the constant attacks. Terrified, hungry, and in need of her medicine, Rosa Rivka refused to leave her kitchen, where she had been sleeping for days. JDC gave her food, water, and much-needed medication and convinced her to move out of her bombed apartment and into a safer space. JDC staff will make certain that Rivka has what she needs as the days progress.

According to Shauli, this is the essence of JDC: one Jew was waiting for us and we were there for her in her time of need.

With their mission in Tskhinvali complete, both Shauli and Yitzhak returned to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi in order to assist with search and rescue operations in other areas of the conflict which lied within an hour’s drive from the capital. Their priority was to find a way to safely enter and exit the conflict zone in their search for Jews, particularly around the city of Gori, where it was almost impossible to gain entry. In order to find a way around this obstacle, Shauli worked with the Georgian Red Cross, which already had access to the conflict zones in order to distribute aid to refugees.

Because of our partnership with the Red Cross formed by Shauli, JDC’s search and rescue team had full access to the conflict zone around Gori. In fact, JDC had far more access than journalists and foreign correspondents trying to report on the situation. Shauli and his colleagues became a source of information for other relief agencies about what was actually happening around the city of Gori.

They traveled into the area with the Red Cross, transported the sick and wounded out of the area, and brought in doctors and other medical personnel to relieve those who had been working tirelessly since the conflict began.

JDC is currently working to help rebuild homes and relocate Jewish refugees, and is beginning non-sectarian humanitarian programs in the region to help those affected by the conflict.

No comments: