Chechen Jews* land in Israel as regional fighting escalates
By Alissa Kaplan
* Please note that there is no such thing as "Chechen Jews".
As the borders of the Chechen war expanded this week, Jews from the area continued to find safety in Israel. A Jewish Agency for Israel refugee camp in the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya closed its gates when its occupants left for Israel.
At the same time, in nearby Dagestan, another crisis was under way, with at
least one Jew reported to be victimized by the new round of fighting.
The crisis erupted Jan. 9 when a band led by a Chechen secessionist leader took over a hospital with 2,000 people in it in the town of Kizlyar. Chaim Chesler, the head of the Jewish Agency office in the former Soviet Union, confirmed that at least one hostage was Jewish. Additional information about the ongoing battle was not available.
In Chechnya itself, separatists have fought Russian forces since December 1994. As the situation escalated this week, Russian artilleray continued to assault positions this week in southern Chechnya. But the Chechen aliyah continued.
After Chesler "locked by key the gate" of the P'atigorsk refugee camp Tuesday morning, officially closing the site, he boarded an airplane - along with 31 Chechen refugees - bound for Israel. He spoke via telephone from Herzliya, Israel, just two hours after the plane landed outside Tel Aviv. The new immigrants had already gone to absorption centers.
"It was a very emotional departure," said Chesler, who, with the Jewish Agency, has helped 330 Jewish refudees from the Chechen capital of Grozny immigrate to Israel during the past 14 months. He said he would return to the region in two days.
Some Jews are still in the area. Between 20 and 40 elderly and sick people remain in Grozny, Chesler said. And about 40 people - who are waiting for needed documents - are with family members in other towns. They will be flown out to Israel next month, Chesler said.
"That will leave very few Jews," said Chesler, adding, "It's almost the end of the story."
At one time, Grozny had 5,000 to 6,000 Jews, most of them living there for generations.