The city of Chervonoghad (pronounce the ‘h’ as ‘r’) in Western Ukraine has the same size population as Torquay.
It was surprisingly busy last Saturday afternoon when the six of us, all from Brixham, drove into town. Crowds had been gathering, heading to church because it was Easter weekend. In Ukraine this year, Easter happened a week later than in UK because Ukraine is Orthodox Christian.
We watched as many family groups, each carrying small wicker baskets covered in crocheted cloths, converged on a large church which was right next to where we had parked to ask for directions. There were so many family groups that there was no way they could all fit inside the church, so priests were passing through the crowds blessing them with holy water as they gathered outside. But what really stood out was the lack of young men. Apart from a few chaps dressed in army fatigues, most families were comprised of grandparents, women, and young kids.
We had arrived in Chervonoghad to deliver ‘humanitarian aid’ for refugees displaced by the war and were homeless but still in Ukraine. Our contact, Janusz, worked for a Ukrainian life insurance company that had changed focus following Russia’s invasion and was now using its offices across the country and other resources, to organise and coordinate support for homeless refugees.
Janusz had informed us three weeks back, what they needed most. His list included tinned and other long-lasting foods, baby food, nappies, sleeping bags and blankets, medical provisions, toiletries, plus several other domestic essentials including pet food – essentially everyday domestic items families fleeing their homes (often with their pet dog or cat), would not have taken or would run out of. We had two transit vans full of this stuff.
Janusz had not been around to meet us on the Polish-Ukrainian border, where we had arrived three hours earlier, and there had been some confusion about his whereabouts, so we had opted to drive our vans across the border to his depot rather than wait for him and his trucks.
We had his address in Chervonoghad, but when we got there, we couldn’t locate the exact place because none of us could read the Cyrillic road-names. And English is not commonly spoken in this part of Ukraine. Yet, despite being a little lost and tired, we were feeling exuberant because we had arrived – more or less. We had made it to Ukraine! And besides, we had confidence in our leader.
We’d left Brixham 35 hours earlier, 1,315 driving-miles away. We had spent three days before our departure boxing up an amazing amount of supplies specified by Janusz and given to us by Torbay’s residents or bought with the money donated to our GoFundMe page.
Thanks to the extraordinary generosity of many individuals, as well as organisations like Brixham College and Galmpton Primary school, and the monetary donations on our GoFundMe page https://www.gofundme.com/f/torbay-lifeboat-crew-support-ukrainian-refugees, plus from mates both locally as well as further afield, such as Hampstead Rugby Club, we had managed to fill two transit vans right up to their peak-load capacity – an estimated £15,000 of highly relevant goods.
So, in the Saturday afternoon dusk, we trudged the streets of Chervonoghad asking for directions. Once it was clear we were English, as opposed to inquisitive Russians, local people were overwhelmingly helpful. One lady shoved her child’s pushchair into the hands of her bemused father and proceeded to walk us down the road to make sure we made it didn’t get lost again.
Once at their depot, we were greeted by some very enthusiastic teenagers and some rather tough looking older gentlemen. There was also another pair of English guys who had just arrived in their van with supplies from Bournemouth.
Despite the language barriers, our Ukrainian friends were clearly grateful for what we had brought and amazed that we’d made such an effort to come to their support. They certainly like the UK. They also thought one of us was related to Boris Johnson, which meant a lot of requested selfies.
Janusz suddenly showed up and we were soon being organised into human chains to offload and pass our many boxes from the vans into their depot, which turned out to be an old miner’s social club whose back rooms had been assigned as holding areas by type of product. We were told these supplies were being continuously picked up by their own trucks and vans and transported east to where they were needed. It was clear that medical supplies and food were especially important.
After completing our off-loading, we were asked to pose for group photographs. We then made our farewells and headed back to the border, escorted by Janusz who led in one of his vans. He had been called to meet another English van on the Polish side who had driven his campervan full of provisions from London.
After an extended wait as border guards, whom we had only met a few hours earlier, carefully checked our passports and paperwork, we crossed back into Poland where we helped Janusz upload the latest provisions from the English campervan. Then in the gathering dark, we headed for home.
It took 35 hours to get to Ukraine, four hours to offload (although that part seemed longer), and 50 hours to return to Brixham. The longer return journey included more breaks to indulge sit-down celebratory McDonald’s dinners and breakfasts in Germany, and a three-hour kip when nobody was able to drive safely out of sheer tiredness. On our return journey, we had empty vans to sleep in!
Once back home in Brixham, we found that we had clocked up over 2,600 miles in each van. We had shared the driving equally between us, attempting a rota of one at the wheel, one navigating and one sleeping.
In practice, that seldom happened. We were typically all awake chatting or using the walkie-talkies (until their batteries died), or listening to each other’s music selections, or singing, or staring at the many unusual sights we passed.
These included a lot of wind turbines in Germany, beautiful sunrises in Poland, armoured military vehicles heading east, and far too many big lorries. In rural eastern Poland, we came across quiet, lonely villages and small farmhouses surrounded by vast flat fields stretching to the distant horizon with few people visible and little going on, save for the odd ancient looking tractor pottering along at 20 mph.
There were many roadside cemeteries – a sight none of us had seen before. They were typically being well tended, presumably by relatives, and in the dark of night, they were all lit up by thousands of carefully placed candles and fairy lights.
Ukraine was similar to Poland. Similar looking people and villages. It’s probably just as similar across the Russian and Belorussian borders. But in Ukraine, we also passed improvised road checkpoints with metal tank traps alongside eight-foot high sandbag emplacements and camouflaged dummies. We also passed beaten-up, overladen, rather dirty looking cars heading West to the border, with women and kids whose faces, staring out, looked even more tired than we felt, if that was possible.
Would we do it again? We are considering it. We will certainly keep our GoFundMe page going. All money will fund the provisions Janusz has asked for and they will need as long as there are still refugees to support. We will either drive the stuff to Janus’s depot or we will find best alternative route to get it there.
After 89 hours crammed together in rather tight and perhaps smelly conditions, and despite some terrible jokes and the odd bit of snoring, I would like to think we would happily repeat the exercise in each other’s company.
But the loudest thanks should go to Torbay, whose help and donations made this trip to Ukraine possible.
Written by Torbay Solidarity with Ukraine
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