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‘I knew what I was getting into by moving here’ Israeli soldiers from Russia and Ukraine describe the start of a new war in the Middle East
On the morning of October 7, fighters from Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, launched an attack on Israel. As of Wednesday, more than 1,200 people are reported to have been killed and more than 2,900 people injured in Israel. And according to Palestinian authorities, at least 1,055 people have been killed and 5,184 people have been injured as a result of Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip. On Monday, Israel announced that it’s officially in a state of war and that it would mobilize 300,000 reservists. These draftees include people originally from both Russia and Ukraine. Here’s what some of them told Meduza.
Please note. This article was originally published in Russian on October 10, 2023. The following accounts have been abridged for length and clarity.
32 years old, businessman, originally from Russia
I repatriated in the spring of 2014. I had been given an incorrect diagnosis in Russia — I was told I had cancer. I tried to undergo treatment in Moscow, but after my first chemotherapy session, I realized I couldn’t take it, and I got on a plane to Israel. Once I was here, I realized I didn’t have cancer, and I just stayed here. That was when Russia was annexing Crimea. For me, that was another reason to stay in Israel.
About a year later, since I’d become an Israeli citizen, I was conscripted into the army. I served in the infantry, where I underwent training — I learned to fight. We were stationed on the border with Gaza, with Lebanon. Since completing my service, I’ve been required to attend military training every year — it’s kind of like a summer camp for adults. You carry out your combat missions, but overall, it’s pretty fun; the atmosphere is good.
Right now, we’re facing a real war for the first time in a lot of years, and they’ve called up everybody. In the current mobilization wave, they’re drafting reservists, meaning people who have already finished their service and are located here. Civilians can’t join the war, even as volunteers.
On the day of Hamas’s attack, I was woken up by an air raid siren in Tel Aviv at about 6:30 a.m. Pretty soon, explosions started rocking the city, because the Iron Dome shot down a missile.
After that, the news started coming out that Hamas fighters had broken through the border with the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli kibbutz of Re’im and that 260 people had been killed at a music festival there. Our army managed to make it there not long ago, and it all looked like Bucha: cars strewn about, bodies that had been shot. Really horrible. And the Hamas fighters posted videos of everything they were doing.
The Israeli army proved to be unprepared. It wasn’t until lunchtime [on October 7] that me and the other reservists were told to pack up and head out. By then, about six hours had passed since the start of the attack. Ideally, they should have reacted by 7:00 a.m.
From the early morning, everyone was packed and ready to go; all of the reservists were in touch with one another and with their officers. At last, they gave the go ahead, and at 5:00 p.m., we were at our deployment sites in the north, where we got our equipment, our assignments, and our combat objectives.
You always have a choice to go to war or not. By law, I’m required to go, but if I didn’t go, they can’t forcibly drag me to the front. But I don’t know a single person who didn’t go. I even know people who haven’t been drafted but are trying to join the army anyways. Altogether, there are 300,000 of us. It’s just unbelievable. There have never been that many before. And I hope there never will be again.
My unit and I are currently in the north, at the border with Lebanon. This is the part of the country that’s under constant threat of invasion by Hezbollah. Hamas did horrible, absolutely unfathomable damage to Israel in the south, but compared to what Hezbollah could do here in the north, it was nothing. Because Hamas is a terrorist organization, while Hezbollah is a full-scale army. They have Russian-made missiles provided by their comrade Vladimir Putin. And it’s Hezbollah, not Hamas, that has always posed the biggest threat to Israel.
We’re standing out in the open, and our main goal is to get to where we need to be as quickly as possible. And that could be a lot of places. There are a lot of settlements around us, as well as cities. There are civilians very close to us and to the Lebanese border, and God forbid Hezbollah manage to break through and slaughter people there. We’re here to prevent that. So we’re practicing our combat tasks and trying to stay alert so that we can react in time in case of an attack. We get periodic alerts about the threat of infiltration by Hezbollah into civilian areas from the north. Everyone is nervous. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring; we’re just waiting.
In northern Israel, there are military bases and fortifications. We’ll go there if necessary. But in the worst case scenario, fighting would be going on in Jewish settlements, while in the “better” scenario, it would take place on their outskirts or somewhere on the border with Lebanon.
It’s not clear whether Hezbollah is going to attack. On Monday afternoon, there was some kind of shelling attack from the Lebanon side, followed by an air raid alarm. Lebanon [Hezbollah] denies that it was involved, but we know the truth.
Everyone has always said there would be a war against Hezbollah one day. But of course nobody thought it would really happen. So far, it hasn’t happened — but it was also impossible to imagine what happened on October 7. We’re all in shock. It just shouldn’t have happened. I don’t even know what to compare it to. One of the country’s most secure borders turned out to have a leak. So I’m not making any predictions right now. We’re just dealing with the situation as it is.
My father is in Moscow. It’s possible that he doesn’t even know I’ve been called up. I’m going to call him and tell him soon. I haven’t gotten the chance yet. And my mom is volunteering: right now, she’s traveling here with things for me and for some of the other guys: shampoo, toothbrushes, and stuff like that. The fact is that everybody’s on edge, and a lot of us forgot to bring some important things with us. I took my army gear — my vest and my helmet (we try to have our own gear when possible) — and I forgot a towel and shampoo.
There probably aren’t any Israelis, or even any Jews, in the whole world who would stand idly by while this war is going on. Everyone’s very involved. Everyone who’s able to be here is here [among the draftees and volunteers], while those who can’t be here are donating or expressing their support on social media. Israel is a small country, so it’s easy for civilians to support the military from a logistical standpoint. People are constantly bringing food, toothbrushes, socks, and underwear. Yesterday they brought pizza, and today it’s sushi.
Israel is my country and I’m prepared to fight for it. To be honest, if Russia were a decent country and it were attacked (instead of launching its own attacks), I would defend Russia, too, for the same reasons. I have loved ones in Russia. That’s not some kind of emotional patriotism — it’s fully pragmatic. I’m defending my home because I live here. It’s not a hard sentiment to understand. Am I ready to die? Nobody’s ready to die. Nobody wants to die. But it’s not up to us. We’re just going to try not to die.
19 years old, private in the Israeli Army, originally from Russia
I moved [to Israel] in March 2022. I had repatriated two months earlier, in January; things were already getting tense in Russia by that point. After the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine, I moved here for good.
I’ve served in the army since May 2023. I’m a private in the Teleprocessing Corps. In my first 2.5 months here, I studied Hebrew and went through basic training, and then I found myself here.
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I learned about Hamas’s attack two minutes after it began. My parents and I live in Rishon LeZion, and the sirens there started going off at 6:30 a.m. (Editors’ note: Israeli conscripts are sent home on Shabbat). My room is in a bomb shelter, so the whole family came down there. Several hours later, martial law was declared, and I went to my unit.
[Here, I’ve] mostly been receiving and unloading equipment. There’s also a part of my job that I can’t talk about. All of my work takes about 15–16 hours each day. Since there’s a war going on, I don’t know when things are going to change.
I can’t say I didn’t expect war; I knew it was possible. It didn’t come as a shock for me. Defending Israel along with me are repatriated Ukrainians. Many of them have become my friends, and they know my views; we support each other.
Right now, I’m hardly thinking at all. Yes, I’m scared. First and foremost, I’m scared for my relatives and my loved ones who have no way to protect themselves. I have a helmet, an armored vest, a machine gun. I’m worried for myself too, but I’m overcoming this fear. I’ve long been thinking about how one should act in this situation, and I think I’m doing everything right. My fellow servicemen and I have been making jokes and trying not to lose heart. Even in the most difficult moments, it’s important to just be together and support one another.
There’s no question that I feel that Israel is my country. It’s my home, and I’m prepared to defend it. My parents are worried, but that’s normal. They have a good bomb shelter in their home. Not everybody’s so lucky — there are people who are in great danger.
26 years old, student, originally from Ukraine
I moved to Israel in August 2014. I’m originally from Kyiv, and at that time, the situation in Ukraine was getting drastically worse. Our family — religious Jews — had always wanted to repatriate. As my father puts it, the situation in Ukraine helped us make the decision.
Once in Israel, I asked to join the infantry and was put in the Golani Brigade. I served for two years and eight months, so I managed to get a bit of military experience.
I learned about Hamas’s attack at 6:30 a.m. [on October 7]. I found out that something was going on there, but at first I didn’t understand the scale of it. As soon as I realized, I started packing a bag and calling my commanders. At 9:00 a.m., they said that we didn’t need to do anything yet. Soon after, they said, “Guys, pack your bags — you’re probably going to get called up soon.” At about noon, they called us.
I’ve always been prepared to go fight. I had no illusions — I knew there would be a war, I just didn’t know when or how it would start. My things were more or less packed.
Since I first joined the army, I’ve generally understood what’s happening with Israel’s security and the security of the region overall. A lot of people realized there’s going to be a big war, most likely on multiple fronts. Because the enemy is here. It’s not a total stranger to us. It’s made no secret of its ambitions, it’s just been biding its time. I knew what I was getting into when I moved here. My family supports me in my decision to defend Israel. But even if they didn’t, I wouldn’t be too concerned.
I’m currently in the north of the country. The war is starting, and things here are gearing up. It’s hard to get a good night’s sleep right now — the situation is unfolding quickly and there’s no time for that. So I’m pretty fatigued, and I’ve been getting a little tongue-tied.
Altogether, my platoon has 25 guys. Having them around me gives me strength. Plus there’s an insane amount of support from the entire civilian population. It’s hard to even imagine: people are coming from faraway cities, bringing everything we need, asking what else we need, and bringing even more. There’s so much food! Support from my relatives is another thing that gives me strength. And, of course, there’s my hatred for these bastards.
As for what I’m seeing: our guys in the army are taking this very seriously. It’s possible, of course, that this will all be over tomorrow. It could also take three or four months. Over in Ukraine, it’s been going on for 593 days (Editor’s note: Dadu spoke to Meduza on October 9). So we’ll fight as long as we have to. I consider Israel my country and I’m ready to give me life for it without so much as blinking. I’m not trying to brag, it’s just something I’ve accepted.
Translation by Sam Breazeale
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