Two 36-hour days, back-to-back. My second Ukraine trip.

KeithDavies 100

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Tuesday morning. A rucksack and a steak, onion and pepper baguette sandwich made that morning by my wife. Not much can go wrong when she sends me out with one of those!

The taxi driver asked where I was going so I told him about EdenAid. He didn’t want to charge me the fare – said he'd feel guilty. Bless him. I told him we all still have to eat, and paid it.

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Above: Vehicles at Troels, loaded and ready to go.

We've been generously supported by schools loaning their minibuses: Stowe School, Cheltenham Ladies College, St Margaret’s School, Lady Eleanor Holles School, St George’s College. We also had a Polish rental going one way, back to the rental company in Lublin.

Introductions, a quick briefing, then photos before we set off. Troels would lead the outward leg then fly back from Lublin, with Geoff flying out to lead the team home. That was the plan, but things change, don’t they?

Compared to last week, the drive out was fairly incident free. A forecast suggested storms on the French side of the tunnel. It rained, but not badly. Troels’ wife had made tiffin, rich and chocolatey, a perfect boost when you’re tired and driving through the night. Thanks, Helene!

Somewhere in Germany, driving through the night, red lights hung in the air in pairs, like giant eyes. Eerie. Driving last week I couldn’t work out what they were. This time, I was in the passenger seat so could take my eyes off the road, and peering into the darkness could see that it’s a huge wind farm. Obvious, once you know, but otherwise the most surreal thing to drive through in the dark.

Around Essen, the convoy split, three of us heading to Bielsko-Biala to drop aid, the others to Poznan. From there, the Polish rental would head to Lublin and the rest of us would rendezvous at a hotel in Radom.

I’d been to Bielsko-Biala the previous week so this should have been easy, but apparently not! We got separated in traffic and I had the wrong fire station programmed into my satnav, so the others got there 20 minutes before I turned up! Hopeless.

Unloaded piles of supplies again, took photos, shook hands, cried (!), then mounted back up for the final three hours on to the hotel.

Worrying messages were coming through from the other team about Leah and a dislocated shoulder. Thankfully, Emma, also driving in that group, is an A&E doctor – useful to have around! Leah’s shoulder wasn’t quite dislocated, but was threatening. It had dislocated previously, and extended periods in the steering position were proving too much. She arrived in Poznan with her arm in a sling but spirits surprisingly upbeat. On Emma’s advice, she took Troels’ place on a flight home the following day, and Troels stayed with us for the home run.

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Above – hotel terrace, Radom, Poland, Wednesday night.

I woke on Thursday incredibly tired and dreading the day. Surely it would be too much. I showered and headed downstairs, searching for my positive side.

No-one in the breakfast room yet so I headed out to photograph the vehicles. Sarah was out there so we had a chat then went back inside. As the others joined us and we got food and coffee inside us, I felt my energy coming back.

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Sarah, early morning, Radom. Sarah is the transport manager at Cheltenham Ladies’. Not content with simply organising the loan of a minibus, she and some colleagues said: “Hang on, this sounds exciting! Can we come and drive?”

First thing, 90-minutes to a retail park on the south-west outskirts of Warsaw, where 35 Ukrainians would be waiting for us with everything they could carry. Sylvie and I asked our group if anyone spoke English. A woman hesitated, then said: “I speak little English but not very well I do not have good vocabulary but I understand what you say when you speak but I cannot always find words to say myself.”

We told her that was fine, she was now the interpreter for our minibus!

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Above – From left, Sylvie; me; Tatiana; her daughter, Dasha; Sasha, our nominated interpreter; Tatiana’s son Ilya. Warsaw pickup.

Sasha was travelling with father Volodymyr and son, also Sasha. She said: “This my father, Volodymyr. I think is hard for you to say.”

I said: “Volodymyr? Sure. Like Zelensky.”

They laughed. Yes, like Zelensky.

We also had Tatiana, with her children Ilya and Dasha, and Olga, travelling alone to her cousin in Scotland.

We waited 90 minutes for three delayed families then set off to drive to a McDonalds and buy everyone lunch, on the basis that everyone knows and recognises McDonalds. So, an hour later, 45 of us descended on an unsuspecting McDonalds, placing orders on electronic boards that ran into the hundreds of Zlotys! Chaos! I hadn’t had McDonalds for 30 years. (Might wait another 30 for the next one…)

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Above – “Someone order McDonalds for 45…?”

I’d made flapjacks the day before we set off, a pack for each minibus, so I distributed those, then we headed on.

The only lone traveller in our minibus, Olga, sat up front between Sylvie and me. She spoke no English. At one point, she facetimed her husband, an officer in the Ukrainian army. It sounded positive. She was safe and well! She tilted the phone so Sylvie and I could wave hello.

In Berlin, we stopped for two more passengers.

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Above – Kimmo getting his shot of the Stowe minibus, Berlin Airport. The loaned minibuses are hugely appreciated. We try and get photos that might be usable by the schools – it’s all we have to try and repay that generosity.

At a stop, Sasha rushed into the building, unwell. Sarah found some mints and some travel sickness pills. I said to Troels: “I hope it wasn’t my flapjacks.” He replied: “A combination of your flapjacks and your ****** driving!”

Sasha assured me it was neither. Perhaps the McDonalds?

That night as I drove through the dark, a siren blasted from Olga's phone. At first, I thought it was a novelty ring tone but it was followed by a man’s voice, recorded, speaking urgently in Ukrainian, and I think it was an air raid warning system for her home town. She fished it out of her bag and silenced it. I glanced at her and she shrugged. She rummaged in her bag again and came out with a large bar of chocolate, which we shared while the others slept.

In that middle seat, Olga had nowhere to lean to sleep. As I drove I was aware of her head dropping, then jerking back up. When I swapped with Sylvie, I wedged a pillow between my shoulder and Olga, and indicated she could rest her head there. I thought it may feel less intimate for her than leaning straight onto a strange man’s shoulder. At first, she was tentative, but after a while she went heavy.

We hit storms through the night and I did almost a whole stretch driving through rain.

At a rest stop in Germany, where there is a charge to use the toilets, Troels said to the one woman on duty: “I’ve got 35 Ukrainian women and children here all wanting to use the toilet. How do we do this?” She said just hold the gate enough for them all to pass through, so we did.

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Above – Heading into the morning mist, somewhere in the Netherlands, Friday morning. The dark Stowe minibus 4th ahead, then St Margaret’s, St George’s and Cheltenham Ladies’ - perhaps not in that order!

Belgium, and we hit rush hour traffic, and the driving experience was suddenly entirely different, the traffic manic, cars darting in and out, impatient to gain a few yards, inconsiderate of other drivers. A car with UK plates cut dangerously close in front of us and I used some vocabulary our passengers really don’t need to know.

The lead vehicle took a wrong turn somewhere near Gent. Our rule is to stay together, so if one goes wrong, you follow, and we’ll find our way back together. Two vehicles did their best to follow, but the last two vehicles, including ours, couldn’t make the turn safely so we were split.

Communication soon came through from the others that they’d gone wrong, were now back on the right road somewhere behind us, and would catch up. Unfortunately, a short time later our two vehicles went wrong and ended up crawling through suburban Gent, stuck behind a leisurely cyclist with insufficient room to pass safely.

An hour or so later, though, we were all back in convoy, heading down towards Calais, and the Eurotunnel home.

After our passengers left Ukraine and entered Poland, they’re in the EU. There's therefore no other border control point until Calais, to leave the EU and enter the UK. We gathered everyone’s passports. All in our bus were brand-new. Their first trip outside Ukraine, and they’d been through Poland, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and France in 24 hours, with the UK next. James reported the same on his minibus.

We loaded onto the Eurotunnel train, and I wandered down the minibuses. I asked Sarah how she was doing. “I’m really tired,” she said. Yes. There was that!

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Above, from left – me; my co-driver, Sylvie; Troels. Tired but visibly happy! Great team.

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Above – Olga, who occupied the uncomfortable middle front seat for 24 hours, and fed me chocolate in the middle of the night.

Half an hour later we emerged into the light on the UK side of the Channel, and it started to rain. We drove the half hour up to the Ashford International Rail Station, and parked up on the top floor for a final group photo.

A couple of people were being driven on to Oxford, or other points en route, but most boarded a train here, to St Pancras, for onward trains from there.

Because it suited our own homeward journeys better than driving all the way back to Oxford, James and I left the convoy here and escorted the group on the train. Thirty people, few speaking English, in a foreign country, with some incredibly heavy luggage!

At one point, I felt myself falling asleep standing up on the train, and shook myself awake.

At St Pancras, we got everyone off, trying to keep our charges together in one place on the platform while other passengers thronged around us. As the crowd thinned, we moved down the platform, James and I hauling heavy bags. At the exit, two Ukrainian volunteers waited to take over. I gave Olga a hug, and asked one of the Ukrainian volunteers to tell her I hoped she would be safely reunited with her husband as soon as possible. But we could have said that to any one of the women.

James and I waved goodbye, and left them to the next stage of their journey. He was insistent we should go and have a beer, but I think that would have ended with me asleep on a London street! In any case, my wife was in London so I was meeting her at Kings Cross shortly for the train home to Cambridge.

So that was that. Really, I wanted to drive each one of them to where they were going, rather than pass them on to others’ hands. Or just bring all 35 of them home and look after them.

I think what we’re doing is vital, and for these individuals this was a hugely important thing. But there are over 4 million displaced people already from this war. I hope there are others trying to help the rest of them.

I’ve got this week off. I've slept, reflected. It's messing with my head. I dream of roads and traffic and people lost. I’m back out there next week.

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Above – 5 minibuses, 10 drivers, 35 refugees, 1 dog, 1 cat, Ashford International Rail station, Friday morning. Sarah, Cheltenham Ladies’ transport manager, far left, then Sylvie, my co-driver, and fellow driver Mandy. I’m behind the Ukrainian flag. Our A&E doctor, Emma, who put Leah’s arm in a sling, is in the purple top in the centre of the photo, with Kimmo and James, in the orange top, immediately to her left. Olga in front of James. Troels, with the white hair, with his hand on James’ shoulder.
 

Kandinskyesque

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Wow Keith.

Two Scottish adults (Me and Mrs K) were greetin' like bairns here (an hour ago when we read this), at the power of the human spirit.
For only the right reasons, it is an utter privilege to have access to this window on events.

Look after yourself during your rest period.
 

Teletubbie

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The only lone traveller in our minibus, Olga, sat up front between Sylvie and me. She spoke no English. At one point, she facetimed her husband, an officer in the Ukrainian army. It sounded positive. She was safe and well! She tilted the phone so Sylvie and I could wave hello
That's the point where I cracked.
Again, can't overstate my admiration for what you are doing.
Make sure you take good care of yourself.
Cheers, Graham.
 

KeithDavies 100

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That's the point where I cracked.
Again, can't overstate my admiration for what you are doing.
Make sure you take good care of yourself.
Cheers, Graham.
It was surreal. He was there in combat gear - flak jacket, helmet - smiling and speaking to his wife and trusting she'd be fine. I just couldn't imagine what that has to be like.
 

Gene O.

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Thank you, @KeithDavies 100, and all those involved, for all that you have done. Will you eventually help transport them back after the war has ended?

I speak little English but not very well I do not have good vocabulary but I understand what you say when you speak but I cannot always find words to say myself

Substitute Ukrainian for English and that sounds like me.
 

KeithDavies 100

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Thank you, @KeithDavies 100, and all those involved, for all that you have done. Will you eventually help transport them back after the war has ended?

I speak little English but not very well I do not have good vocabulary but I understand what you say when you speak but I cannot always find words to say myself

Substitute Ukrainian for English and that sounds like me.
Wow - I would be honoured to, it that opportunity arose. I'd probably blub all the way there though!!
 

KeithDavies 100

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Got back on Friday from the last trip. I seem to have spent the 36 hours since sleeping, waking up, going back to sleep. Horrendous headache. Fatigue, not eating properly, stress, all combined, I guess.

The first group of refugees at the pick-up point this week were a family - a man and his wife, a daughter about 8, and a son maybe 18 months. They spoke no English. My vehicle was the first one to arrive, so I tried to explain using sign language that we were waiting for the others.

Gradually, more refugees arrived. The RV is a Burger King on a retail park. The crowd of people with bags and suitcases gradually grew, and the other vehicles arrived. We knew from documentation that somewhere in the group was a boy who was turning 8 that day. We found him and wished him Happy Birthday. I can't remember my own 8th birthday specifically, but I know it wasn't like that.

At some point, I noticed that the first woman to arrive was crying, and also trying to comfort the little girl.

Anyway, we worked through our lists of who was allocated to which minibus, and got everyone loaded up. I'd drawn a short straw - I was driving a minibus with a speed limiter on it. It was loaned by a school, and we're incredibly grateful for that, but the limiter does slow us down a bit and make it harder work. Also, though, it had the smallest luggage area of all the minibuses. We had to take two large suitcases and put them in another vehicle - explaining to the owners first what we were doing and why, before that freaked them out!

As we loaded everyone up, there were more tears from the woman who had arrived first, and only then did I realise her husband wasn't coming with us. He'd got them to this point, to hand them over to us, but he was heading back to Ukraine. I couldn't believe it. I could myself welling up, but that felt a bit self-indulgent - there was a job to do here, and me blubbing wasn't going to get it done. (I get ridiculously emotional over stuff, which can be a great motivator sometimes, and just an embarrassment at others!)

The man gave a last kiss to his wife and kids in the back of the minibus then slid the side door closed. My co-driver shook his hand and said "We'll keep them safe." I shook his hand and he looked me in the eye and said "Thank you." I said "Good luck."

He stood in the car park and watched us leave. Maybe they'll all see each other again, and maybe they won't.

I just can't believe that, as a species, we do this to each other on a regular basis.

Sorry, that's all a bit bleak.
 




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