Chasing Jews on the runway. In‑depth account of the anti‑Semitic riot at the Makhachkala airport, as told by the passengers
Павел Васильев
Chasing Jews on the runway. In‑depth account of the anti‑Semitic riot at the Makhachkala airport, as told by the passengers
1 November 2023, 21:41

Photo: AP

On the night of October 29, anti-Semitic rallies in Makhachkala, Dagestan, escalated into a full-blown riot. A crowd bearing Palestinian flags breached the airport’s premises to halt the arrival of a flight from Tel Aviv. Predominantly women and children were on board, many holding both Russian and Israeli passports. The mob pursued the passenger bus fervently, demanding all Jewish individuals to disembark before hurling stones at it. The arriving passengers remained in the overrun airport building for several hours until they were evacuated to a military base by helicopters. We interviewed the passengers and reviewed their video footage to reconstruct the events of that night.

The bus carrying passengers from Tel Aviv meandered around Makhachkala airport’s runway before halting on a dirt road beyond its boundary. All the while, it was chased by an angry mob of locals on a quest to intercept “refugees from Israel.” One pursuer managed to latch onto the bus and clamber into the cabin through the unlocked rear doors—either jammed or forgotten to be closed by the driver in haste. The man demanded to halt the bus and for all Jewish passengers to disembark, and attempts to reason with him proved futile. “We were shouting that we were Russians, that there were many children with us,” recalls passenger Kristina Zaitseva.

Eventually, this man compelled the driver to halt. He leapt from the bus and obstructed its path. The bus was instantly surrounded by a mob who had managed to break onto the runway. “Hey, everyone off the fucking bus now!” someone from the mob yelled. “Please, let us go!” someone pleaded. The cries escalated, children wept within the cabin. “A child has fallen, wait,” a passenger said amidst the chaos on board.

As more rioters approached the bus, some activated their phone flashlights to guide others in the darkness. “You’re killing the children, you fucking bitches!” one of the attackers yelled. Those who had arrived at the airport on the evening of October 29 carried Palestinian flags and banners reading “Child killers have no place in Dagestan” and “We are against Jewish refugees.” Now, they stood by the bus filled with frightened passengers, talking about Palestine. “Our country is Russia!” came the response from inside the bus.

Trapped in the bus, passengers displayed their red Russian passports to the rioters, yet the mob did not step back. “We told them: ‘There are no Israelis on this flight. Would anyone in their right mind venture out in such a situation?’ I think all knew that well,” one passenger says. “They looked at our passports, but continued to storm the bus regardless. It was a wild mob, unstoppable.”

Initially, the blows were softer, but then the mob started hurling stones at the bus. One window was broken, and in the videos provided to Mediazona by passengers, the sound of shattering glass can be heard. “Someone, it seems, was hit,” recalls Kristina Zaitseva. “And we [she and her sister] and our parents remember. It was like the scariest moment.”

The first half hour in Russia

The Red Wings flight WZ-4728 touched down in Makhachkala at 7:18 PM. It was the sole aircraft arriving from Israel on October 29. According to Said Ramazanov, the Makhachkala airport director, the liner carried mostly women and children: out of 50 passengers, there were only five to ten men. However, the passengers interviewed by Mediazona cited a different figure—40 people—but corroborated that there were primarily women and children on board. Among them, for instance, was a wheelchair-bound child on a ventilator.

Zaitseva’s family still has many relatives in Russia. They planned to visit one of them, a gravely ill grandmother, at the end of October. In Makhachkala, they were supposed to catch a connecting flight to Moscow.

The family moved to Israel in May 2023, having lived in Russia for many years before. After relocating and obtaining Israeli citizenship, they settled in the northern city of Acre (Akko), near Haifa. Kristina, 27, is a graphic designer, currently also delving into programming; her sister Anya, three years younger, is studying to become a plastic surgeon.

The sisters say that many passengers on the same route held dual citizenship. Kristina herself, as well as her mother and father, carried Israeli passports; her younger sister had not obtained one yet. Also on this flight to Russia was an Israeli man, Shmuel—traveling to meet his fiancée in Makhachkala, he was the only one who didn’t speak Russian.

At Ben Gurion Airport, staff, possibly aware of the anti-Semitic rallies in Makhachkala, advised passengers to abandon the flight, shares Anya Zaitseva. But when asked about the safety of flying to Dagestan, they responded, “It won’t be more dangerous than here,” alluding to the situation in Israel due to the conflict with Hamas.

Upon landing, all passengers smoothly cleared border control. Outside, they were greeted by Hizri Abakarov, a Russian State Duma deputy from Dagestan. Later, as told by the sisters and other passengers, the deputy and his assistants would hold back the rioters and negotiate with them.

The airport management was initially at a loss about what to do with the arriving people, especially those needing to catch connecting flights—the majority of them. Part of the mob had already breached the airport building, while others, in search of the “refugees from Israel,” halted cars and police trucks. After a while, the crowd seized the runway; people clambered aboard a plane via its wing, while the previously inactive law enforcers fired shots into the air and beat those they managed to snatch from the crowd.

The airport staff decided to escort the passengers from Israel to their connecting flights, but the bus was ambushed by rioters and returned half an hour later with a shattered window and frightened passengers. “The protesters chased our bus, shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’, and waving flags,” one of the passengers reminisced.

As the sisters recount, their journey across the airfield and the standoff with rioters in the barricaded bus lasted about half an hour. The passengers were only let go after deputy Abakarov arrived at the scene. “He stepped out, talked to them about something. And they allowed the bus to return to the airport, but continued hurling stones at it,” says Anya.

Two helicopters to the military base

The sisters hid their Israeli passports in a candy wrapper. Other passengers tucked Israeli documents into suitcases or deeper into chest bags, Kristina recalls. The rioters made at least one attempt to enter the VIP lounge, where everyone was accommodated after returning to the airport.

The same Hizri Abakarov let two rioters who seized the airport into the lounge, accompanying the passengers. After verifying that the passengers had Russian passports, the men photographed them and left.

The lights in the lounge were turned off, and everyone was advised to stay away from the windows, as the mob continued to rage. There was sufficient food and water; they were fed with pies, recall the sisters. Men managed to find a bottle of alcohol somehow.

About three hours had passed when someone from deputy Abakarov’s entourage told the people to gather and prepare for departure. The evacuation plan was to transport the passengers out of Makhachkala on two Mi-8 military helicopters.

Everyone was loaded back onto buses and told to crouch down. A few minutes later, they were already boarding the helicopters, cordoned off by a large number of armed security personnel. “The bus doors opened. We waited for a minute, then we were told to run. They started firing into the air, presumably to scare off the mob,” Kristina recalls.

Around midnight, the helicopters carrying the passengers of flight WZ-4728 landed at a military base near Makhachkala. Among those evacuated was a mother with a child in a wheelchair. The passengers were greeted by several soldiers. They were instructed to turn off their phones, pack them in paper envelopes, and hand them over; the phones were returned the next morning.

People were accommodated in a building described by the sisters as a mix of a Soviet-era Dom Kultury, a community centre, a boarding house, and a dormitory. “We were given a pillowcase, we were given a sheet, but, by the way, the mattresses were not bad,” jokes Kristina.

For dinner, they were served military ration packs. “Curiously, the manufacturing date was February 24, 2022,” adds Kristina.

Everyone was awakened early in the morning. For breakfast—cold pizza, brought in by deputy Abakarov. Then, it was a couple of hours’ journey to Mineralnye Vody, a town in neighboring Stavropol Krai, again by helicopters. “And there was some lightness, upon landing. I once came here for holidays in my childhood. And now I felt joyful,” recalls Anya.

Upon arrival, local officials surrounded them. Some time was spent resolving issues related to ticket purchases, with some officials buying tickets for certain passengers. The flights offered to the family were not very convenient, as they needed to get to Moscow as soon as possible. In the end, they flew at their own expense.

“I don’t know, maybe it’ll hit me later, or maybe it won’t. God forbid it hits,” Anya Zaitseva muses about the events at the airport. “But we were just lucky that no one was injured, no one was hurt. And basically, I can forget this day as a nightmare. Well, I mean, I can erase it from life and pretend it never happened.”

“I am not angry at these specific people who were chasing us. I mean, I was scared. I was terribly scared that I would die there. I still have things to live for. And I had no anger towards these people. My anger is towards the situation itself,” Kristina adds.

Both women say that evidently, this won’t be their last trip to Russia. Friends and relatives live here whom they will visit again. But they will definitely not fly through Makhachkala anymore.

Editor: Dmitry Treschanin

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