Ukrainian officials said last month they would not allow foreign nationals to enter the country during September. Most of the pilgrims are from Israel. Last year, close to 30,000 came to Ukraine for Rosh Hashanah.
Coronavirus cases have risen sharply in Ukraine in recent weeks. On Thursday, officials reported more than 3,500 infections in the previous 24 hours, the country’s highest daily total to date. Israel, meanwhile, has introduced a second national lockdown in response to its own spike.
Videos released by Ukraine’s state border service show scores of pilgrims gathered at two locations, and Ukrainian forces with riot shields blocking their entry into the country. Most of the pilgrims seem to be sleeping on the ground or their luggage, but some tents are visible. An aerial shot shows a line of trucks backed up at one border crossing. Some trucks appear to be entering Ukraine.
“I understand your traditions and customs, I understand how important it is for you to be in Uman, but this year it’s not possible,” Serhiy Deyneko, chief of the state border guard, tells pilgrims in one of the videos.
The pilgrims say the situation is becoming critical. Haim Weitshandler said there were about 1,500 people on the border, including children and babies. (A Ukrainian border guard spokesman was quoted Thursday as saying that the figure was closer to 1,000.)
“This is very, very not good,” Weitshandler, of Israel, said by telephone from the border. “It’s cold, raining, all people are sleeping on the road, on the highway. There are no showers, no bathrooms, nothing.”
Weitshandler said the pilgrims were being fed “eggs, sandwiches, tuna fish,” but for the most part were receiving little assistance. “This is not normal,” he said. Ukrainian officials said the situation was “under control.”
The pilgrims remained hopeful that they would be allowed to travel to Uman for the holiday, Weitshandler said. He said he didn’t want to discuss what they would do if this wasn’t possible. He said returning to Belarus wasn’t an option.
The leaders of Ukraine and Belarus each blamed the other country for the standoff. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Belarusian authorities Wednesday of “creating additional tensions on the border with our country and spreading false and encouraging statements to pilgrims, which may give them the feeling that Ukraine’s border may still be open to foreigners.”
Kyiv has criticized Belarus’s recent presidential election. Longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in the vote last month, but the international community has largely refused to recognize the result amid widespread reports of ballot-stuffing and intimidation.
Protesters have led mass demonstrations in the weeks since, and Belarusian authorities have unleashed a violent crackdown.
In his statement Wednesday, Zelensky referred to the political crisis in Belarus, which he said was “provoked by the dubiously organized voting.”
President Lukashenko accused Ukraine of “shutting its border” and called for the opening of a “green corridor” to allow the pilgrims to travel to Uman. He claimed Ukraine and other countries were fomenting unrest in Belarus.
Israeli cabinet minister Zeev Elkin asked the pilgrims to return home. “Ukrainians have announced that they will not allow entry through border crossings or any limited delegation,” he tweeted on Thursday. “I call on our citizens to return to Israel and obey the isolation guidelines upon their return.”