The guards at Military Prison No. 4 have seen many things, but nothing like this: The soldier who was just brought in was beaming with happiness. He sprawled on the ground and recited the full Shehekheyanu blessing. A stranger would think he had lost his mind, but the guards, who knew what was behind the story, were so affected that they began to cry. This was the closing of a circle, a miraculous, life and death story, a dramatic rescue operation that involved our Association. We are a family and we never abandon our children.
This story begins with a telephone call I got from Nati Morag, one of our soldiers: “I’m calling you because you are the person closest to me and also because I know that you will move mountains to help me, but I have to ask you not to get involved.” Then, another surprise: “In about an hour’s time, I am boarding a plane to Uman, Ukraine. I want to be at the grave of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov on Rosh Hashana and the IDF is going to charge me with desertion. I do not want you to take care of it. I’ll pay the price when I get back.” All attempts to dissuade him from these intentions were in vain. Nati Morag got on the plane and flew to Uman, making him a deserter. But he had no idea what kind of price he would have to pay.
On Rosh Hashana, the Ukrainian Police raided the apartment where Nati was staying and found no less than 80 grams of marijuana, a commercial quantity that mandates a charge of drug dealing. Alongside the bag of drugs was Nati’s passport. The material was not his and the arrest warrant was not in his name, but Nati was arrested nonetheless. He spent a week at the holding facilities in Ukraine and was then released. He was banned from leaving Ukraine and keeps being called in for many pointless legal deliberations that accomplished nothing except lengthening his time in Ukraine. He hired an attorney who promised him that the matter would be settled within a short time, but it only became worse and worse.
At this stage, he did ask me to become involved. At first, we appealed to the IDF authorities. We asked them to demand his extradition for desertion, but it turned out that extradition cannot be requested if the crime involved is not a crime in both countries. Clearly, desertion from the IDF is not considered a crime in Ukraine.
Matters became more complicated. At this stage, I contacted someone who has connections in the prisons and courts there. He told me that the prosecution and the courts had already made a deal in which Nati Morag would be sentenced to 8-15 years in prison. That was hardly surprising, as I began to understand. Incarceration in a Ukraine prison means a death sentence. Who can guarantee that one of the antisemitic prisoners won’t murder him or that the Ukrainian guards will protect him?
The truth is that the authorities expected us to practice the most common “legal procedure” in Ukraine – bribery. To placate the Ukrainian bureaucracy and courts and free him would require us to raise no less than $200,000.
At this stage, we appealed to the Foreign Ministry as well, but they informed us that officially, the State of Israel cannot cooperate with people who have open criminal charges against them.
The hourglass was running out of sand. One week before Pesah, I went to Ukraine with two soldiers who understood matters there and were friends of Nati: Roni Cohen, who also served as the Association’s coordinator for soldiers and Motti Asraf, who was nearing the end of his regular IDF service and had begun serving in the standing army. We met with a series of people, including Members of Parliament, Nati’s lawyer and others who could help. On that same trip, we decided that the only possible solution is escape. We examined all paths of escape from Ukraine and in consultation with colleagues in Israel, decided on our escape route.
Of course, we cannot say much about the escape itself. Several days ago, a few people traveled from Israel to Ukraine and arranged an escape plan that involved Ukraine, Jerusalem and Kiryat Arba. On the night between Wednesday and Thursday, Nati Morag left the accursed soil of Ukraine and flew to Israel. On Thursday at 6:00 AM, we landed, at Ben-Gurion Airport. excited and emotional about the experience. Several minutes later, representatives of the IDF who were informed of Nati’s impending arrival took him into custody and brought him to Prison No. 4. But that was only the first part of the campaign. The second took place for a full day—returning all the collaborators home safely, each by a different route, before Nati’s escape is discovered. At 8:00 PM, the last of them boarded a plane back to Israel. Thus ended one of the most important campaigns ever to involve our Association.
Nati will be tried for desertion. The IDF, we have been told, will take his unique circumstances under advisement. Nati will sit in jail for the specified time and then return to service. Now, he understands the miracle of our return to life, the true meaning of having a Jewish homeland, a state and a strong army that he is privileged to be part of. With such insights, his service in the IDF will be truly significant.