The JewishPress.com has sent Hana Levi Julian to the Ukrainian border with a United Hatzalah mission, to report on the refugees, the Jewish aid efforts and the situation in Ukraine. This is one of the reports in a series of diary entries of what Hana is witnessing.
March 15, 2020 – The personnel at Ben Gurion International Airport were clearly aware that Flight 9U548 was not a commercial venture.
No ticket to present with my passport and the simple word, “Kishinev” in response to the standard query about where I was traveling was enough to elicit a nod and “Good luck,” from security personnel.
The flight to Moldova was a great opportunity for a nap, since my phone battery was low. I was brusquely informed by the flight attendant, “You cannot charge your battery on this plane,” when I asked where the outlet was.
We traveled on an Airbus 320 – the airline’s second-largest plane – with a capacity of 162 passengers. Our flight maxed out at around 12 people, including the UH folks, a couple of volunteers, a rep from Israel’s foreign ministry and two journalists (including this writer).
We landed with a bounce at around 8 pm and were ushered down a metal staircase onto the tarmac and then to a bus in the freezing cold. The ride to the darkened terminal took only a few minutes.
“Welcome to Moldova” the sign said, but it was a cold welcome, warmed only by the UH team that arrived soon after.
The empty terminal confirmed what I reported days earlier: Moldova has closed its airspace and its airports were shut down in response to the war.
I learned from UH spokesperson Raphi Poch, the authorities gave special permission for Israeli rescue flights to enter and use the airport.
We were taken to an Irish pub, of all things, in the heart of the capital, Kishinev.
Poch said UH personnel rented the pub from its owners and spent about half a million dollars to kasher and transform the kitchen for Jewish use. “It’s the only kosher Irish pub in Moldova,” he grinned.
Dinner was served from huge trays and massive pots – it was clear they were feeding more than just the UH teams.
Hot soup, brisket, large-cut potatoes that tasted like a hot form of German potato salad and a fresh salad featuring multicolored peppers ensured no one went hungry. Bottles of Fuze Tea, Coca Cola and carbonated water graced the long trestle tables amid the typical Irish pub décor.
UH personnel who were currently stationed in Kishinev greeted the newcomers with smiles and hugs.
This is expected to be the final week for deployment of UH personnel, according to Poch, who said there was a concern about duplication of efforts, since many more aid organizations had arrived in the past couple of weeks, among them the JDC and IsraAID.
UH will continue its support with cargo flights carrying humanitarian aid – food, medicine and medical supplies.
“The ministry here has asked Israel to provide insulin in particular,” he said. “With thousands of refugees to care for, they have run out of insulin here in Moldova.”
Within the past week, Israel has sent more than 35,000 tons of humanitarian aid to the country to help. UH has been tasked by the Moldova government with coordinating that aid in the country. The State of Israel last week established a special organization – Matat – to coordinate the aid being sent from various private sources. A separate government body is coordinating the aid coming from government sources.
Tens of thousands of Ukraine citizens and residents have fled since the start of the war – up to three million as of Tuesday, according to the United Nations.
At least half have arrived in Poland, taxing that country’s capacity to the max. Tens of thousands have arrived also in Romania, Moldova, and Hungary.
“This morning at the border there were thousands,” said one of the UH first responders. “The Russians are bombing Mykolaiv – that is where most of them came from today.” A second medic added that he was told by one of the refugees the entire country is going into lockdown in a day or two.
“That will bring the flood of refugees at the border to a trickle, if any arrive at all,” Poch said.
Most of those that arrived earlier have “either found places to stay, traveled to Israel or just moved on,” leaving the UH team with little more to do, he added.
“Time to pack it up.”