Crisis on the border

Red Cross called in as pilgrims defy Covid orders to head to rabbi's grave

ULTRA-Orthodox Jews are causing a humanitarian crisis on the border of Belarus and Ukraine.

Authorities had begged followers of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov not to make the annual pilgrimage to Uman because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In a typical year, about 30,000 members of the Breslov chassidic sect make the journey to the Ukrainian city to visit Rabbi Nachman's graveside.

But Ukraine closed its borders at the end of August in a move widely seen as trying to block the pilgrims. But hundreds made the trip causing the Red Cross to open a temporary field clinic in the Belarusian city of Gomel.

"Nights are cold here, we sleep in our coats," said Avremi Vitman, who defied orders to make the journey on Monday after spending two weeks in Pinsk.

"There's little food, we share what we have and there are more people coming. Mostly we pray and we pray to be let in."

Belarusian soldiers are guarding the border checkpoint to stop the more than 1,000 chassidm who have amassed in Gomel.

Few of the pilgrims came with adequate supplies for a long camping trip. Some took their children. Now the road leading to the border checkpoint are dotted with suitcases.

With the temperature dropping to about 10C at night, some pilgrims have started bonfires for warmth. Families huddle together behind suitcases that block the freezing winds.

"It's unreal what's going on here," said pilgrim Nachum Klein, who travelled there with his nine-year-old son.

"What's happening to the children is particularly shocking.

"At around 3 am the wind started picking up, cold winds and children started shivering, and elderly people started turning blue."

The Red Cross has set up tents with heating for children and older adults.

The pilgrims are allowed to return to the Belarus capital of Minsk to fly home, mostly to Israel.

"Coming to Uman is like oxygen, fuel for the entire year," Klein said. "We're prepared to sacrifice anything for it."

According to Vitman, who said he is willing to risk his life to reach Uman this year, as many as 4,000 people had planned to leave Minsk, Pinsk and Gomel for the checkpoint.

He claimed some of the pilgrims had disguised themselves as secular tourists to get into the country, and he heard a few made it through, showing "there was discrimination against Orthodox Jews".

Klein said the pilgrims are willing to do what it takes to prevent spreading coronavirus.

"We're prepared to undergo three tests, if that's what's required, and spend as much time as necessary in confinement back home in Israel, if that's necessary," he said. "We'll also keep to social distancing rules in Uman. We're not different to any other tourist leaving Israel right now, but are being treated very differently. It's discriminatory."

But videos show the pilgrims near the Gomel checkpoint dancing while hugging - in violation of Covid-19 social distancing measures.

Klein said the Israeli government "left them in the cold" by not helping convince the Ukrainian government to let them in.

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