A group of 52 refugees from war-torn Chechnya arrived here this week on a special flight organized by the Jewish Agency and funded by the Joint Israel Appeal of Great Britain.
The passengers — a group that includes 19 children and several people injured in the fighting — file off the plane from Mineralny-Vody on Tuesday, bleary- eyed and confused, unsure of how to react to the barrage of flashing lights and television crews that await them.
Obediently, they follow the instructions of Israeli Absorption Ministry officials as they carry their meager hand luggage.
An elderly woman is wheeled in on a wheelchair. Another is weighed down by a plastic bucket with its lid tightly shut. Some hold pink carnations in their hands; others are wearing new white and blue hats of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
The children clutch small, unopened plastic bags filled with sweets, looking around with curiosity.
The arrival of this group brings to 103 the total number of Chechen Jews who fled the war and were brought to Israel by the Jewish Agency.
According to Chaim Chesler, head of the Jewish Agency delegation in the former Soviet Union, some 50 Jews are still in Grozny, and efforts are being made to establish contact with them in order to bring them out.
For Tuesday’s arrivals, the flight took less than three hours, but the wait took almost five months.
These refugees escaped the shattered Chechen capital of Grozny shortly after the Russian army invaded the breakaway North Caucasus region in December to crush a three-years-old independence campaign.
But they were unable to leave the country because they did not have the appropriate documents.
Sergei Shipulin, a psychologist from Grozny, arrived with his wife and two adult children. He speaks a halting English, but is nervous and needs the help of a translator.
“We left Grozny on Dec. 13, 1994. The Russians were already attacking the town,” he says. “We left very early in the morning. We took my wife’s car – – she , too, is a doctor — and drove the whole day. We never ran into any Russian troops along the way.”
Shipulin says his family fled to Dagestan, a nearby republic in the Caucasus Mountains, where they lived as refugees along with some other 90,000 Chechen refugees.
They were unable to work, but had no papers so were also unable to leave, he says.
After three weeks of living as refugees, the Shipulin family found Jewish Agency officials who took care of them. They were put up in a hotel, received some clothes and waited for their papers to be put in order.
Now that he has arrived in Israel, Shipulin says he wants to live in Lod and work in his profession. He says he hopes his son can continue his higher education in computers.
Another refugee, Asya Raskin, sits down on a bench to rest. She was injured in the fighting, but speaks about it without emotion. Her teen-age daughter Lisa, clad in jeans, listens.
“The bombing of Grozny started in December,” she says. “On Dec. 25, our house received a direct hit, and I was wounded by flying glass and debris.”
She motions to her back, then pulls up her dress and shows some wound marks on her thigh.
“We were evacuated to Nazram, and stayed there for 21 days. But then they wouldn’t let us leave because we were Jews,” she says.
“Other Chechens helped us escaped to Piatigorsky, and there we found the Jewish Agency. We have relatives in Israel, from Grozny, and we’ll go to them first,” Raskin says.
As the journalists move away, Lisa Raskin asks for a telephone. She is shown to a free phone, where she makes a call to her cousin as she looks out at the sunny runway.
Before switching to Russian, her first word to her cousin is “Shalom.”