Trapped between Two Wars, Ukrainians in Gaza Plead for An Exit

Loay Ayyoub for The Washington Post
A displaced Palestinian family gathers around a fire in a camp for displaced people, south of Rafah on Jan. 21.

Two years ago, with Russia pummeling Ukraine and nowhere else to flee, 24-year-old Yulia saw her husband’s hometown, Gaza City, as a sanctuary.

The couple moved to the seaside strip with their young son and built a comfortable life despite the hardships of a long-running Israeli blockade. Yulia became a manicurist and bonded with other Ukrainian women married to Palestinians. Her husband found engineering work. In Gaza, they welcomed a second child, another blue-eyed boy. Photos show the brothers smiling together on a sunny patch of grass.

Today, those boys – ages 5 and 1 – are displaced, hungry and terrified, their insides churning from contaminated water and their faces pocked with shrapnel wounds. Again plunged into war, Yulia, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used because of security concerns, said the main difference in Gaza is that, unlike in Ukraine, “there is no way out.”

Yulia is part of a once-vibrant Ukrainian community in Gaza whose remaining members are trapped between two wars, facing conditions so dire that they’re pleading to return to a country under Russian invasion, which is for now the “safer” option.

The Ukrainian government says about 300 citizens have left Gaza in staggered evacuations since war erupted on Oct. 7 with a devastating Hamas attack on Israel. Others have fled by private means or through aid groups. Dozens more Ukrainians remain trapped under Israeli bombardment, along with spouses and children, as evacuations dwindle and the death toll climbs past 27,000, according to figures from the Gaza Health Ministry.

As days tick by with no word on an exit, Yulia’s messages are increasingly despairing.

“I hear explosions, the walls are shaking,” she said via text when cell service flickered on one recent day. “I understand that at this moment someone is dying. And I’m waiting for my turn.”

Gaza’s Ukrainian population, estimated as high as 1,500 in recent years, emerged as an outgrowth of a Soviet-era program for Palestinians to study medicine in Ukrainian universities. Graduates often returned with Ukrainian spouses, a migration that has occurred for so long that many of the families are now multigenerational, including dozens of children. Some of those children have Ukrainian citizenship, but many more have no official recognition from Kyiv because, even before the war, it was difficult for families to travel to the Ukrainian consular office in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The lack of documentation is one of many snags for Ukrainian-Palestinian families who are desperately awaiting approval to cross into neighboring Egypt. Diplomats from around the world must navigate hurdles – chiefly from Israel – to get their citizens out of Gaza, a labyrinthine process that, for Ukrainians, comes with extra logistical and political sensitivities from the war with Russia.

Yevgen Korniychuk, Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, said embassy personnel are running evacuation efforts while Israel is still conducting military operations. At least four Ukrainians have died in Gaza and another six have been wounded, he said, adding that firm casualty figures are hard to come by. Ukraine is working closely with Israeli and Egyptian officials to get citizens out, he said, but there’s little recourse if the names submitted are rejected for security reasons.

“They are not necessarily providing a straight answer. This is their policy,” Korniychuk said of Israeli officials. “In some cases, they will say clearly, ‘Those people have been working with Hamas closely.’ In some cases, they deny even to speak about it.”

Korniychuk said 315 people – mostly Ukrainians, plus a handful of Palestinians and Moldovans – have gotten out through the government’s three coordinated evacuations. About half of them returned to Ukraine, he said, while the rest made their own arrangements in Arab or European countries. Several hail from Ukrainian cities that are now under Russian occupation, another wrinkle.

An additional 29 Ukrainian citizens who wanted to leave were not approved by Israeli and Egyptian security officials, Korniychuk said. A few other citizens were rejected twice, but on the third try were approved for crossing – subject to extra questioning inside Egypt, he said.

An Israeli military spokesperson deferred requests for comment to COGAT, the wing of Israel’s Defense Ministry that oversees Palestinian civil affairs. A COGAT spokesperson did not return a message seeking comment.

Typically, governments seek evacuation approval not only for citizens but also their immediate family members to leave Gaza, offering to rush or waive the necessary paperwork for spouses and children so that families stay together. But there are no guarantees about who gets approved and Korniychuk said Israeli officials are up front about prioritizing foreign nationals over noncitizen spouses, especially Palestinian men.

About 50 Ukrainians who were approved to join the evacuations did not go, mostly in cases where leaving would mean breaking up a family, Korniychuk said. He said he understands their distress but advises those who are approved to try to make it across the border and worry later about reuniting.

“I’m not a magician, unfortunately. I’m a human being,” said Korniychuk, with a note of frustration. “I’m trying hard but if they are not listening, what should I do?”

Ukrainian citizens and humanitarian workers in Gaza say that the diplomats aren’t pushing harder because they don’t want to upset their mutual ally, the United States, whose continued support is crucial for Kyiv’s fight against Russia.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky offered immediate and forceful support for Israel after the Oct. 7 attack, telling a NATO parliamentary assembly two days later that Hamas and Russia are the “same evil, and the only difference is that there is a terrorist organization that attacked Israel and here is a terrorist state that attacked Ukraine.”

Women and children account for about 70 percent of the deaths in Gaza, according to United Nations estimates. Zelensky, who has been outspoken about Russia’s assault on civilians, has kept quiet about Israel’s targeting, which some analysts interpret as a reflection of Kyiv’s precarious situation: Ukraine is trying to shore up U.S. support amid Republican-led opposition to sending additional aid.

“I can imagine how difficult this has been for the Ukrainian government – there’s a war at home, and then you also have to save people from a foreign war,” said Anton Naumliuk, a Ukrainian writer and humanitarian activist who has interviewed families stuck in Gaza.

Ukrainian officials have said privately that they’re reluctant to push back on Israeli counterparts given Kyiv’s carefully calibrated response to the Gaza war, said Amed Khan, a philanthropist and humanitarian whose aid network is assisting about a dozen Ukrainian families requesting evacuation.

“They’re beholden to the United States, and Israel is the United States,” Khan said. “I’m pretty sure they don’t want to ruffle any feathers. Human empathy is out the window – it’s all geopolitics.”

The State Department declined to comment. An Israeli spokesperson in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

Korniychuk rejected the idea that Ukraine was hamstrung because of the war in Russia, citing his own thorny record with the Israeli government as proof that he speaks up over diplomatic concerns. Early in the war, the ambassador said, he sent a note of protest to the Israeli government after a carefully coordinated evacuation effort was called off two hours before it was scheduled.

The chief difficulties, Korniychuk said, come from the reluctance of some families to leave, Israeli security rulings, and the complexities of trying to move a large number of people with missing or expired travel documents from a war zone.

“Believe me, I was going all the way up to the president with this question,” Korniychuk said, noting that he raised the need for more evacuations during a meeting in December between Israeli President Isaac Herzog and dozens of foreign diplomats.

“The answer was that they believed the evacuation is over,” Korniychuk said of the Israeli response.

Despite that position, Korniychuk said, “we are not giving up.” Ukraine is still pushing for approval of 90 names on the latest list – about 50 citizens, plus family members, he said. New requests continue to arrive, such as one from a woman in Kharkiv who claims her Palestinian spouse “kidnapped” their children a decade ago and took them to Gaza, where they’re now stranded.

“We received this request just last week and we’re working on it,” Korniychuk said.

Khan, the humanitarian, said the process is essentially paralyzed; weeks pass without movement on Ukrainian evacuations.

“The messages are all the same: ‘I give up, I can’t go on anymore, if it’s my time, it’s my time,’” he said. “They’re just trying to get through the day, live through the night and start again tomorrow.”

Many families have grown too scared to give interviews or personal details for fear that speaking out might harm whatever slim chance remains of getting out.

Naumliuk, the activist journalist, documented the story of Leyla, a 24-year-old beautician who was born in Kharkiv to a Ukrainian mother and Palestinian father. After her father graduated from medical school, the family moved to Gaza, where Leyla grew up and eventually married a Palestinian. Her husband was in Egypt when war broke out; she and the couple’s infant daughter were stuck in Gaza.

Leyla tried to get a Ukrainian passport in hopes it would help the family resettle together, but the process was delayed, according to Naumliuk’s report, “when it became clear that Leyla’s registration address in Ukraine is located on territory occupied by Russia.”

On Oct. 17, Leyla was killed in an airstrike where she and her daughter were sheltering with in-laws. The baby survived, sparking a scramble among relatives and humanitarian workers to get her across the border to be reunited with her father.

“The girl is alone, her family was dead, it was unclear how to get her out,” Naumliuk said.

Khan’s network helped the family obtain a birth certificate showing Ukrainian heritage and found a reliable escort – a physician – who agreed to accompany the child if approved to cross into Egypt. Before those plans could materialize, the girl was killed in an Israeli strike, days after her mother. She died, Khan said, in a nursery.

Leyla’s Ukrainian and Palestinian relatives declined to comment, saying through intermediaries that they were too devastated to be interviewed. Her brother’s public Instagram account memorializes Leyla and his niece with photos and heartbreak emojis.

Yulia, the only Ukrainian reached in Gaza who agreed to be quoted by name, said her family has “waited, waited, and waited,” with her husband making risky trips to other neighborhoods for internet access to check for updated evacuation orders.

In their many applications to leave, their names have never appeared together on the approval list, and the family refuses to be separated. One attempt resulted in the children approved for crossing, but without Yulia and her husband.

“Can you imagine? How are children of 1 and 5 years old supposed to leave separately, without Mom and Dad?” she said.

These days, survival is the only focus. Their home in Gaza City was destroyed; it’s now a pile of gray, dust-colored rubble in Yulia’s videos. They’re sheltering with distant relatives in the city of Deir al Balah, where the buzz of warplanes can be heard in the background of Yulia’s sporadic calls and voice messages.

Yulia said that weeks of explosions and the constant fear have affected her older son’s speech and sleep. She can’t find diapers for her youngest; the only ones left are marked up to exorbitant prices or too small for a 1-year-old. Both boys are sick, she said, from the lack of clean water and nutritious food. In one episode, the baby fell dangerously ill after drinking contaminated water.

“He was unconscious for four days. We couldn’t do anything, because there are no hospitals, no cars, no fuel, there’s nothing,” Yulia said. “You just had to sit there and cry.”

Yulia said it infuriates her to see strangers on social media casting judgment on trapped families, as if Ukrainians in Gaza were to blame for their plight because they traded one volatile place for another. She said her family had no choice. Her husband had been studying in Ukraine, first in Vinnytsia, then Dnipro, the site of some of the most intense combat of the war.

“Where could we go?” Yulia said. The couple had no family anywhere but Gaza. “We ended up here only because of the war in Ukraine.”