In the backseat of a car headed to the rebel-held city of Lugansk, I was feeling confident about my plan for getting in and out safely to report an article about how the city’s Jewish community is coping with the war ravaging the area.
I had a reliable route and crew, an Israeli passport and a good cover story to help me through the checkpoints spread across the 120 miles that separate the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don from Lugansk, where pro-Russian rebels have for months been fighting Ukrainian government troops.
For anyone that asked, I had come to visit my aunt, Julia Boxerman, with whom my family had lost contact when the fighting broke out over the summer. I was carrying 10 pounds of chocolates and handmade matzahs ahead of Passover.
The cover story was necessary since I work for a U.S.-based news agency in an area where several journalists have been held in the past. Entering from Rostov was another precaution because it had me entering rebel country from the friendly east rather than from the hostile west.
But despite these precautions, I could feel the anxiety level rise in the car as we neared the border. It was one of several signs of how local Jews prefer to put as much distance as possible between them and the separatists controlling the city.
I first realized my two-person crew — a driver and an interpreter translating from Russian to Hebrew — was on edge when the two passed up the opportunity to nap as we waited motionless for two hours in a long line of automobiles before dawn to cross the border. I asked my interpreter whether she was afraid of the militiamen who would undoubtedly inspect us when we crossed over from Russia.
“I’m not really afraid of them, I just don’t know what’s going on in their heads,” she told me.
As I reflected on her answer, a tense silence fell on us, disturbed only by the driver’s rhythmic tapping on the steering wheel.
Finally, we were waved through by the Russians and proceeded for inspection by the militiamen. I was ordered out of the car and ushered into a border post that looked like it had been burned with a flamethrower. The driver stayed in the car, and the interpreter came with me.
Inside, I met my interrogator, a burly man with gold teeth and Russian special forces tattoos. After a short chat, he dryly informed me I would not be able to enter Lugansk.
If this were actually true I would have been turned away already at the checkpoint, so I knew he was open to persuasion.
A few sob stories later, I was alone in the room with him while he proceeded to systematically look through my bag and coat.
He found one of my two bundles of cash — the second one was deeply concealed — and piled it up on the table. Then he called in my interpreter to explain that the war isn’t going to pay for itself and ask whether I was interested in making a $25 donation. He was also charmed by a 50 shekel bill I had and asked whose portrait was on it. I said it was Shmuel Yosef Agnon, hoping he would not ask where the Israeli author was born (the city of Buchach in western Ukraine, which is not exactly popular these days in rebel-held country).
The interrogator asked where I had served in the Israeli army. Pleased to hear I was a fellow special forces soldier, he gave me a high five and thanked me for my donation. We were let through but ordered to report to rebel headquarters for further investigation by a more senior — and less thuggish — officer named Vladimir.
The contact with the rebels was an unexpected treat because it provided an opportunity to interview them without blowing my cover. I pretended to be asking about the safety of Jews here out of concern for my nonexistent aunt. But the driver and the interpreter were clearly scared as we waited in the parking lot of the Commandatoria, the rebel headquarters in Lugansk, opposite a group of armed teenage rebels who were horsing around while unloading munitions crates from Russia.
My interpreter had never been to the Commandatoria before, and she sarcastically thanked me for bringing her there.
“They are not bad people, but they are young soldiers who have been through hell the past few months,” she told me. “And then there are the psychos, and war always makes them a little more crazy. But they are not worse than anywhere else in the world.”
Her defense of the rebels intrigued me. I had heard leaders of Ukrainian Jewry in areas controlled by the government offer passionate condemnations of the rebels, whom they called terrorists. I wanted to ask whether the community in Lugansk shared this outrage.
Most said they wanted there to be peace and described their situation as being “stuck in the middle” — a phrase I heard several times in Lugansk — between government troops and rebels. But others supported the rebels and criticized people like Igor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian Jewish oligarch and governor of the Dnepropetrovsk region, who is something of a national hero further west for bankrolling Ukrainian military operations against the rebels.
“Kolomisky’s actions will boomerang against the Jews,” Igor Leonidovic, the Lugansk synagogue’s caretaker, told me. Leonidovic said his grandfather had been killed by anti-Semitic Ukrainian nationalists during World War II. “And now I am being bombarded by their grandsons,” he added.
His view is no exception in a country where nationalistic zeal is so fervent that whole streets on either side of the conflict are covered with hateful graffiti wishing the enemy a slow death, and where many ordinary civilians are so emotionally invested in the war they write slogans with their fingers on the dirty chrome of their cars.
When it was time to leave, my driver, who lives in Lugansk and had driven all night to get me, passed up the paid assignment to take me back and referred me to another driver. The encounter with the rebel soldiers had left him too frazzled.
“I’m sorry, even after we returned I just couldn’t sleep a wink,” he said.