The body of a Jewish soldier who was killed about five weeks ago in the ongoing fighting against the Russian army in the eastern Ukraine was removed from the battlefield under fire nearly a month later by volunteers of the ZAKA emergency organization.
The soldier, Yevgeni Yatsina, was buried by the Ukrainian Jewish community in Kiev’s Jewish cemetery last Friday.
The ongoing battles between Russia and Ukraine are claiming Jewish victims as well. Yatsina’s body remained in the battlefield until last Wednesday, when final approval was received from the Ukrainian army to enter the battle zone. The ZAKA members, some of whom arrived especially from Israel, rushed to remove the Jewish soldier’s corpse from the area.
The night operation began with an 800-kilomter (500-mile) drive from Kiev to the battle zone around the city of Donetsk, where the soldier was killed according to information provided by the Ukrainian army.
ZAKA Chairman Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, who shared the tense moments in the Ukrainian fighting area, notes that “the entire operation took place at night, in complete darkness, with constant exchanges of fire between the sides in the background.
“We tried to locate the body in the dark according to information we received from the army, and after searching for about an hour and a half, it was found. At first we weren’t certain that it was him, as it was impossible to carry out basic identification on the ground. Only after moving several hundred meters away from the area, we were able to confirm that this was the Jewish soldier we were looking for.”
5 weeks of uncertainty
The journey to locate the soldier’s body and bury him in a Jewish grave began, according to Mesh-Zahav, more than a month ago. A concerned friend of Yevgeni Yatsina turned to ZAKA Sharon regional commander Israel Godlevski, told him that he suspects the soldier is no longer alive, and asked for the organization’s help in locating him.
“There is a ZAKA unit in Ukraine,” Meshi-Zahav says. “We tried to turn to the Ukrainian army and get initial information about the soldier’s fate, and it took a long time. At first they didn’t even admit that he is dead. Then they said that he was killed in battle and that his body was left lying there.
“For two weeks we asked to remove him, but were told that it’s a fighting zone and that no can even approach the area at the moment.”
Meshi-Zahav stresses that “according to Jewish Law, there is no room for endangering lives for the sake of burying the dead. But when the army finally allowed our team to enter the area, under their protection, and after the fighting reached a certain calm, we knew that we were willing to go in and get him out of there despite the conditions.”
ZAKA commander in Ukraine, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Asman, is the son of the country’s Chief Rabbi Moshe Asman. He was constantly in touch with military officials, trying to convince them to allow the soldier’s evacuation.
“I didn’t believe we would succeed,” he said at the end of the operation. “I gave up several times.”
He added that Meshi-Zahav was the one who asked him to continue the efforts “until the respectable and emotional ending, when we gave late soldier Yevgeni Yatsina a Jewish burial.”