24th February 2022.
Like most people across Europe and worldwide, I had been following the news closely in the previous few months with a feeling of increasing unease at what was happening in Russia.
Was Vladimir Putin really about to do the unthinkable and launch a full-scale invasion against a sovereign country with an established democracy?
On the 24th February, all hopes that his build up of troops on the Ukraine border simply represented a clever ploy of brinkmanship to strengthen his bargaining power with other states were dashed. The news came in quickly. Putin had sent in the troops to Ukraine in what he called a ‘special military operation.’
Europe, for the first time in 77 years, was at war.
I was born in the early 1980s. I had Grandparents who lived through the second world war and despite it feeling like something that happened way before my time, like many people my age I still had connections to it through families who lived through it, whether having been involved militarily or having suffered the effects at home such as the bombing of UK towns and cities and rationing. My wife’s Grandfather had been a Japanese prisoner of war and both of us had read through his diaries from his time in captivity (he would never speak about his experience) and it was very powerful to know what sacrifice his generation had made in order to create peace and stability in Europe in the decades following. I have always felt a debt to the people who fought so bravely against the Nazis, many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice to pave the way for liberal democracy to become the way of life in most of Europe.
I work in the food industry and immediately knew that the invasion of Ukraine was bad news, not just for Ukrainians, but for all of us. With the world economy having been turned upside down in the last few years by the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain issues were everywhere, leading to high inflation
and shortages of supplies for everything from car parts to cardboard. If there was a list of things that the world did not need in 2022 whilst already reeling from a major economic shock, an invasion of Ukraine would probably be at the top!
Ukraine is a major grower of wheat and other commodities and along with Russia supplies more than 30% of the world’s wheat and even more of some other commodities. It is not called the breadbasket of the world for nothing. This was going to affect the supply of everything from flour, bread, animal feeds, meat and dairy and many other things for several years to come. Throw in the reliance on Russian oil and gas in Europe and it does not paint a rosy picture.
My business buys its flour up to 18 months in advance, and we use a lot of it! I am straight on the phone to the mills. I am advised that prices are rising at £20 per tonne, per hour! I ask for a price until October 2023, and am told there is no chance, but they can offer me a price until March 2023. It’s already 35% over what we are paying now, but I snap their hand off. And good job I did, there would be no chance of fixing at any price just 5 weeks later!
At this point I feel I’ve protected my business as much as possible from what is going on and my attention now starts to focus elsewhere. I feel helpless, I feel this is the biggest threat to our way of life in my lifetime and I want to do something. Anything! We start to see more and more images of desperate Ukrainian refugees who have been forced to leave their country, families torn apart as men between 18 and 60 have been ordered to stay in the country whilst their families leave for safety. You can’t help but think of how this must feel and the surreal fact that this is happening in a country relatively close to us.
I start hearing about individuals packing up vans full of aid and driving across to Poland and other places to distribute to refugees. A business contact of mine gets in touch to ask if I want to help get something together and go across. The emotional part of me says yes, let’s do it tomorrow! And then the rational part kicks in. Yes I want to help, but God knows what it’s like over there and I’ve never done anything like this. How do we know what is really needed over there? Could we end up being more of a liability than a help?
There must be an organisation somewhere who knows what they are doing and are planning something. And it turns out, there was! I find a charity online
called Yorkshire Aid Convoy and I notice they have experience going to that part of the world which is detailed on their website. I fire off an email offering any help I can give and get a very quick reply from Mark, one of the trustees. We speak on the phone and I explain I am in the food industry and I am tasked with trying to get some food donations together through my network. I make several emails and calls to various people and gain support for the mission pretty quickly through a few different food companies, most of them in Yorkshire.
At this stage it looks like it will be going across on a plane, and I’m pleased to have been able to organise some donations for the trip. It’s not much of a contribution, but it is at least something.
Then Mark sends an email, the plane plan has fallen through and he’s looking into taking it across in trucks. Would I like to be part of the convoy, he asks? I don’t even hesitate before saying yes, and immediately start to prepare for the trip. Mark asks if I know any others who might be interested, so I start flicking through my phone contacts. Who can I put forward who I know I can rely on, who will be good company for 6 days and are good team players? I know how important it is that groups of people pull together in these situations and it doesn’t take me long to decide who I want to ask. There’s no room for big egos or those who may not handle the gruelling nature of the mission here. I call Rob, my next-door neighbour. I’ve known him for years and I know he will be the perfect person for something like this. Eternally positive, funny, great company and all-round good guy.
‘Rob, do you want to come to Ukraine with me on an aid convoy?’ I ask him.
‘Tell me when and where and I am there mate,’ he says.
Next, I call Dave. Another great guy, and someone I know I can spend a week with in potentially difficult circumstances. Calm and even tempered, he’s a driven and committed chap who loves a bit of action. Dave says he’ll speak to his wife Jen, and he rings me the following day and says he is in.
The next few weeks involve speaking with charity leader Mark on a regular basis to get more details, organise pallets to be delivered to the warehouse in Leeds and generally get prepared.
In this time, Mark and the others at Yorkshire Aid Convoy work like galley slaves to get everything organised, paperwork prepared, lorries loaded and everything else that goes into such a complex trip such as this. Plus we are going to a war zone, which surely has to add additional complications. I’m in awe of how quickly they got it together and the heart and soul that they all put into doing this, with the sole motivation of helping others.
The date is now set, we are setting off on Friday 18th. 16 volunteers and 8 trucks are in place to get the job done.
Rob and I go to our local village pub on the Thursday evening with our wives and children. We eat enough food to feed a whole Rugby team between us (Rob jokes it is the last supper!) and have a few beers together.
Friday 18th. 8am. Day 1.
Rob and I meet outside and set off in his van, intending to be in Leeds for 10am. The first curve ball of the trip came the day before, when P&O ferries decided to show just how heartless and callous large companies can be by sacking all of their employees and cancelling all sailings. Our Hull to Rotterdam journey was now out of the window and emergency replanning was in progress. Luckily the guys at YAC are on it and we secure free passage over the channel via the channel tunnel. Rob and I set off from our sleepy rural village accompanied by 619 teddies that had been collected by our local community to send across with the convoy. We pick up Dave 5 minutes away and the 3 of us set off down the A1 to Leeds.
10:00am. We arrive at the YAC warehouse and it is a buzz of activity. Introductions are hastily made and there are TV crews filming and doing interviews with various people which all adds to the sense of excitement we are all feeling. We have a brief briefing (and I do mean brief!) before loading our personal items (mainly confectionary in my case) onto our trucks and we are off.
I’m partnered with Becky, the only female volunteer in the group. I can tell straight away that she’s easy going and good fun and we get to know each other well throughout the trip. We have a fuel stop halfway down the A1 before setting off again. We then have another stop 3 hours or so later not far from London where we grab a quick bite to eat. Then it’s round the M25 before across the Dartford crossing to get to Folkestone and our hotel for the night. We park the vehicles up and check in. We have a few very welcome
beers and some food. At this point Keith, one of our fellow volunteers, handed out some wooden hand engraved coasters that his wife has made everybody. They are all individually engraved with our names and it was a lovely gesture that everybody really appreciated. They are a momento of the trip that I am sure all of us will keep safe and it really helped to break the ice between the group. During the meal, Mark starts to tell us stories about what may lay ahead. Almost vertical Austrian hills to get the trucks up (there must have been some serious erosion since he last went, as we never came across them!), nutcase Hungarian lorry drivers trying to run you off the road and getting shot at in Ukraine were all things he had encountered on previous trips! All things that slightly put the wind up us green aid convoy virgins. But we needn’t have been concerned. As Mark kept telling us, ‘You’re with the A team guys.’ And he was right! We finish our meals, have a few more beers and get to bed around 11pm.
Saturday 19th. Day 2.
We’re up early at 4:30am to be on the road at 5am. The plan today is to cross the channel, drive across France, most of Germany and stay the night at Max’s motel not far from the Austrian border. A long 600 mile journey.
It’s a few minutes driving to the channel tunnel crossing. The first hurdle arrives at border control. Becky and I are truck 2, behind convoy leader Mark. We see him go through the first barrier before a customs officer instructs us all to go and park up together nearby. It turns out we are missing some paperwork required for the goods we are taking abroad. God bless Brexit! I have heard horror stories about the complexity of moving goods out of the country after Brexit and it is clearly not an exaggeration. We were kept for more than an hour whilst some paperwork was hastily filled in and we were allowed on our way. We then moved into the queue to get on the train and through the tunnel. Clearly the P&O situation had increased the traffic at the crossing and we waited another 3 hours or so before getting loaded onto the train. It’s around a 40 minute journey under the sea and before we knew it we were in France. We had been directed to go to customs at the other side and so parked up and entered the customs office. Simon, one of the volunteers is a multi-linguist and dealt with the very friendly French border official (they were to get progressively less friendly the closer we got to Ukraine!). There was a minor disagreement about some paperwork after which the border chap agreed to let us go but advised that if we were stopped by the Gendarmes
there might be an issue. Mark’s response amused me. ‘That’s fine, we won’t be stopping for anyone’ he said!
We drive for several hours, have a quick stop for food and then back on the road. The delays at the crossing mean we are several hours behind schedule. We stop again around 7pm and I check google maps to see how far we have left to go. The answer is a bit sobering. About another 350 miles! At a convoy speed of 55mph that is a long way! We aren’t even in Germany yet by this point. I down a can of Red bull and it immediately picks me up. I’ve not drunk that stuff since I was in my early twenties, but I have to say it got me through the gruelling hours and driving during the trip. Several hours of driving later and we stop again at a rather insalubrious truck stop. Just toilets, no food here. I’m exhausted by this point and Becky agrees to take over driving for the last few hours. Most of the driving for the last few hours had been on the German Autobahn and you have to have your wits about you here as you get high spec German cars flying past you at 150mph and for some reason the German authorities have decided to paint wavy yellow lines over the lanes at points which after several hours of driving starts to make you mildly hallucinate! Finally we reach Max’s motel at 2:30am, which after 21 and a half hours of driving was a welcome relief!
Sunday 20th. Day 3.
Max’s was more of a hostel than a hotel and we slept in bunk beds, 5 to a room. Being someone who takes a while to get to sleep, I struggled to get off whilst the others in the dorm were straight off to the land of nod and snoring away within minutes. Given we were to be back up at 5:30am, it was only ever going to be a few hours of rest. But unfortunately, I did not get to sleep at all. I almost felt myself nod off at one point but was quickly woken by an alarm going off next to me at 4am. Someone had forgotten to reset their alarm for the later time, so I turn it off. Around 4:30am, I see a tall figure standing over me in the dark. At first I wonder if this is some horror movie come real and someone has got into the room with the intention of killing us all! I’m about to start preparing to fight for my life but thankfully It turns out to be Rob, who had no bedding on his top bunk and had improvised some bedding using 2 hoodies, putting his legs through the arms of one and the other over his top half! It’s freezing overnight and he’s woken up cold. I quickly realise he wants to get into my bed, so I open the duvet and let him in. Neither of us are small
and there is not much room, but it did warm us up! From there, another hour or so of trying unsuccessfully to get to sleep and we are up and away for 6am.
Becky took the first shift as I hadn’t had a wink of sleep and I did not feel safe to drive. My plan was to sleep in the van in transit before taking back over later. One thing I was to learn on this trip is that I cannot sleep in a moving vehicle! Sleep was to be the main problem to overcome and I became very frustrated at my lack of ability to go to sleep as I knew unless I did I would not be safe to drive later in the day. We get to a rest station and have some breakfast. Back on the road a short while later and I’m still trying unsuccessfully to get to sleep in the van. It’s getting to me now as I’m feeling like I am letting the side down by not being able to drive, but I feel so drowsy that I don’t want to take any risks. We stop again inside Austria, by which time Becky has been driving for several hours and needs a rest. I’m in a quandry, I want to take over but just feel it’s too risky. This is where I realise how good a team we have on the trip. A chap called Rich offers to take over from Becky, despite having already done a long shift and suggests I get into a larger truck to try and get some sleep. I jump in with Justin, a guy I instantly like and he reassures me that if I don’t feel up to driving today I don’t have to. I immediately feel the pressure removed and although I can’t sleep, I enjoy having a good chat with him through Austria and into Hungary.
I’m shocked at the change in scenery and atmosphere as we cross the border from Austria into Hungary. The change is stark and you immediately feel like you are in a much poorer country. Buildings look dilapidated, the roads become worse and more dangerous. At one point Justin and I are behind a van pulling a large trailer. It’s all over the road and suddenly starts fishtailing right in front of us. Justin backs off from it and both of us watch in horror as we watch it sway to the left, then the right in increasingly large swings like an out of control pendulum on a Grandfather clock. We fully expect it to wipeout completely and are amazed when somehow the driver gets it back under control. The motorways in Hungary are only 2 lanes and there is a large 10ft deep ditch at the side of the highway so it is not a place you want to come off the road. It’s a bit unnerving to say the least but once it has got itself back under control Justin puts his foot down to get past it as quickly as possible and we don’t see it again thankfully!
We arrive at the Hungarian town of Nyiregyhaza around 10:30pm after a 17 hour journey. We are staying in a 4 star hotel tonight which is a welcome
change from the previous few nights accommodation. We’ve arranged to meet a Ukrainian contact of Mark’s called Andriy. He is a businessman who has close links with the aid effort in Ukraine and he gives us a very warm reception. We sit down to dinner and are given menus to choose from. We are all ravenous and don’t take long to decide what to eat. Before long the food arrives and we wolf it down. It’s simple Hungarian fare but tasty and it hit the spot after a long and tiring day. After we have eaten, Andriy makes a speech formally welcoming us and talks about how much it means to him and his country that we have travelled from England to help them in their plight. It’s very moving and it made us feel that the journey had been worthwhile. Andriy then orders shots of vodka before we all drink them together. I’m well aware we have a long day again the following day and having not slept for 2 days, I am keen to get to bed so I am as fresh as possible for the next day’s challenge of getting into Ukraine and delivering our cargo. I sneak off to bed a little earlier than some others and go to sleep.
Monday 21st. Day 4.
This is it. We’ve driven 1500 miles on very little sleep to do what we are going to do today. Today is the day we drive into Ukraine before being escorted to our drop off destination to unload the 120 tonnes of aid we have brought with us. We anticipated being in Ukraine by early afternoon, before unloading the gear and crossing back across the border before then driving across Hungary to stay in Austria the following night. Little were we to know that the 2 gruelling days we had just experienced were mere warm-ups! A light appetiser before the main meal!
Before we set off from the hotel, Fergus, a former Major in the Parachute regiment had asked me if he could quickly interview me and record it on his dictaphone. He is an author with an interest in history and wanted to document everybody’s thoughts and reasons for coming on the trip. I agreed and we walked over to a corner of the car park to start. To be honest I had not thought much about anything since agreeing to come, I just knew I wanted to do something. I’m not an overly emotional person and tend to just get on with things without thinking too much. He starts asking me a few questions.
‘What made you want to do something like this?’
‘Do you think it will be something your family will be proud of’.
I answer the first few questions coherently and then it hits me. Suddenly I have a huge rush of emotion like I can’t remember ever feeling before. I struggle to answer any more questions and it hits me for six. I still don’t quite understand it but it clearly hit a nerve somewhere! Fergus was brilliant and put his enormous arm round my shoulder, telling me I was brave for considering doing something like this. I didn’t feel brave whilst struggling to speak but I appreciated his kind words. I later find out after the trip that Fergus himself had some quite big reservations about going into Ukraine and believed that Russian intelligence would have been well aware of where we were and what we were doing. I’m quite glad I didn’t know that at the time!
10 minutes later, I’d recovered a bit and felt totally ready to go. Despite what we were doing and the potential risks, I’ve never felt more ready to do anything and there was such a buzz within the team about what we were about to do. There was no hint of backing out now and it felt amazing to be part of a group of such driven and motivated people who all wanted to achieve the same thing together.
We set off, I am driving and Becky is in the passenger seat. We blare out some loud music to keep the energy up and it’s a beautiful morning. In fact, the weather has been fantastic all the way since we set off from England, which made things far more enjoyable. The roads on this stretch are fairly quiet and we have around an hour’s journey to the border with Ukraine. This went quickly and the adrenaline was starting to pump its way round our bodies. There’s very little to look at along the way here, it’s mainly scrub land interspersed with the odd rather run-down village here and there.
We arrive at the Hungarian border control. And it’s deathly quiet! There’s nobody here, save the border guards in their bright blue uniforms. We were prepared for a large queue and potentially lots of traffic, so this is a great start. We should be through in no time, we thought.
Mark is ahead of Becky and I and after a few minutes of conversation with the border guard at the first checkpoint, he appears to be waived through. We pull up to the booth and speak to the guard. He asks for passports and driving licences which we both hand to him. He then asks for the registration document for the vehicle. Ours is hired so we don’t have this, but we have a letter showing the registration details from the hire company. He disappears for some time before returning to tell us we need the original V5 document or cannot get through. We explain the situation, we are delivering aid and must
get through but have hired the vehicle to do the trip. He’s having none of it and asks us to park up at the side before checking the other vehicles. He then realises that all the V5 documents for the other trucks are photocopies and not originals. By this point some other trucks have arrived at the border and some drivers are getting irate at the fact we are blocking the way through and begin to remonstrate with some of our trucks at the back of the convoy. It threatens to get heated and the guard tells us to go through the checkpoint and park up in a car park just beyond. We do as directed and drive through, parking up together.
Mark at this point is getting increasingly agitated about the fact we are being messed around and a quick google search determined that we did not need original V5s to gain entry to Ukraine. It felt like there was something else going on. We were also a little unnerved when 2 very expensive vehicles, both with blacked out windows suddenly appeared at the border and parked near us. They looked very out of place and we began wondering if our presence here was not welcome. Mark phoned a contact who spoke Hungarian and asked him to attempt to negotiate with the border guards. This proved fruitless and the same message just kept coming back. No V5, no entry! So for now we have no choice but to wait it out, remain patient and continue being politely persistent. We had had our passports and driving licences taken from us at this point which felt a little unnerving. We had no idea of their intentions or what they were doing behind the scenes. Mark was making calls to various contacts and our ‘fixer’ Andriy was busy making calls to various departments in Budapest to try and secure our passage through to Ukraine. We had been sat in the car park for 5 or 6 hours when a border guard came confidently striding over. My first thought was that we had been given the all-clear as his body language seemed friendly and positive. But the news was bad.
‘We are not allowing you through. Here are your passports and driving licences and we will escort you back out,’ the guard says.
They claimed they had a warehouse nearby where we could unload our aid and they would arrange to take it across to Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, given the hostile reception, we were less than pleased with this suggestion and after another hour or so, they escorted us back round towards the Hungarian side and let us on our way. We later found out it’s common for aid to be sold to local gangs who then sell it on for profit, so it was a wise decision not to accept this ‘offer’ from them.
Mark made some calls to Andriy to decide what the best plan would be given we were not being allowed through to Ukraine. Another drop off point was proposed, but it was far from ideal. Given the complexity of loading and unloading the aid, which had all been hand-balled onto the trucks to get as much on as possible, this presented some real challenges in getting it to where it needed to go as quickly as possible. We were very deflated and for the first time, I saw my convoy partner Becky get upset. She was gutted to have got this far and not got across. I tried to soften the blow by saying that as long as it got there eventually, it didn’t matter how. But I didn’t believe my own words and I don’t think she did either!
We are parked up on the side of the road, trying to process everything and get a plan together when suddenly someone shouts that the border police are running towards us. We see a few of them come running over and say something to Mark. It turns out that Andriy has been making calls to several officials in Budapest and someone somewhere with enough authority has sympathised with us. The border control have been overruled. We are to be let through after all!
We’re elated but also still suspicious.
We’ve been treated with a fair bit of hostility and had lost all faith in the Hungarians at this point. But we have no choice but to accept what we’ve been told and take it at face value, so we are instructed to turn around (again) and go back to border control. 2 minutes later we are at the same checkpoint we started at 8 hours or so earlier in the day but this time are waived through in minutes. Brilliant, we are making progress and will be in Ukraine in no time!
The Hungarians had one final parting shot for us however. They instructed us to park back in the same car park we had been stewing in for hours earlier. On the way, one of them comes up to the trucks individually and demands to know our Mother’s full names. This was clearly for no other reason than to try and intimidate us. Sour grapes after being overruled about letting us through we suspected.
‘Why do you want to know that?’ I ask him.
He mumbles something before I start spelling out a name to him (not the correct one) and he clearly has no idea what I’m saying anyway. It’s just part of a mind game and once I give him a name he waves us on. We then sit in the car park for another few hours, still no idea what is happening. Is it all another
game they are playing? Are they intentionally slowing us down to tip people off on the other side? Who knows. But we are accustomed to waiting by now, and if it means waiting a bit longer to get there, we are willing to wait as long as it takes. A few of the customs officers come out of a nearby office and start staring us out. They are clearly not happy with us being there and are going to take as long as they can to progress us through the next stage. Finally, we are waived through to the next checkpoint, asked to open to back of the vehicles for a brief check inside and then instructed to go into the office for processing. I am first to the window and am told to hand over the customs documents we have for each vehicle. I notice they have the blinds down halfway so you can only hear their voices and see their hands and torso, not their faces. The guy takes a long time stamping things, then stamping them again (I am sure he stamped the same bit of paper with the same stamp at least 3 times!) before finally he gives me the papers back and barks at me to go back to my vehicle. The rest of the convoy have to go through the same process but we are eventually all waived through around half an hour later. Strangely, a lady customs officer smiles and waves at us as we eventually make it out of the border control. A strange end to a strange experience!
By this point it’s almost dark. And we still have to cross a bridge over the Tisza river before meeting Ukrainian border control. We get the whole convoy onto the bridge before coming to a sudden stop as there is a queue ahead of us. We hear a sound. The unmistakable wail of an air raid siren. It’s a sobering reminder of where we are going and what we are about to do. But there’s nothing we can do now. We are on the bridge and not moving. A few of us get out of the trucks and have a mini picnic on the bridge. It passes a bit of time and we are getting hungry by now. It’s now pitch black and we still have a lot to do before even thinking about getting to bed.
After an hour or so we get to the first Ukrainian border checkpoint. There’s a young soldier there holding a gun that is almost the same size as him. It immediately feels different to the Hungarian territory we have just left and we are in no doubt we are entering a war zone. We are through relatively quickly and are then escorted into yet another car park where we are told to park up and make our way to another customs office. We walk over together and 16 of us cram into the small holding area before the official asks us for our documents. There are 3 of them working in the dingy cramped office that has no windows. It’s a nasty shade of tobacco yellow/brown and I wonder if it’s the colour it was painted or whether it has been turned that way through thousands of cigarettes being smoked within its 4 small walls. I suspect it may have been white at one stage! It takes another hour or so for everyone to get the required stamps to proceed and we are told we can go!
The next sight is a welcome one. A police van with its blue lights flashing whose job is to escort us to our unloading destination. It takes a while to get there. We are advised not to mention the destination or post anything about it on social media so as not to put ourselves or the people working there at any risk. After passing a checkpoint manned by soldiers, we are escorted to where we are unloading and a team of 30 or so people start to unload one of our trucks. It’s a labour-intensive process as most boxes were hand-balled on and have to be similarly hand-balled off individually. But we are taken to a mini kitchen
where there is some bench seating and some food. The food is some kind of lukewarm meat stew in a plastic bucket. My food safety training tells me to avoid it but I’m too hungry to care and end up eating 4 bowls of the stuff. It tasted great although I suspect that was more attributable to tiredness and hunger more than the culinary skill of whoever prepared it!
The Ukrainians kindly tell us to relax and they will unload everything. But we take a look at their progress whilst we’ve been eating and realise we will be here all night if we don’t muck in and help. We’ve already had a 14 hour day and still have to negotiate our passage back through the 2 border controls that lie between us and another hour’s drive to our beds! We offer to help by bringing another truck in and unloading it ourselves whilst they continue with the one they have started. This doesn’t go down well and it’s clear we are messing up their system, but Mark tells us to do it anyway. Things get a little heated but we need to get unloaded as quickly as possible and this is the only way to do it. We bring a few vans in, form 2 human chains and start unloading at the speed of light! We work together, throwing boxes to each other, some light, some heavier and we pile the stuff up on the warehouse floor. I look across to the other line from the one I’m working on and see that they are throwing the boxes into a pile without stacking them. It messes with my head and I have to ignore it. It’s taking up way more space than it needed to and people are tripping over boxes left right and centre. It all feels a bit frantic and we are sweating buckets but there’s little time to organise properly and we do our best in the situation.
It takes around 4 hours to unload everything and the Ukrainians have sent someone out to get some hotdogs for us. They were eagerly wolfed down after the exertion of unloading and they tasted amazing!
Finally we are unloaded and ready for the next stage of our mission which is to get back across Ukrainian and Hungarian border control once again! We drive along the dusty road from the unloading destination, passing the soldiers at the check point who give us a cursory nod and see us off. Our police escort reappears and we park up waiting for the rest of the convoy to catch up. Becky and I begin talking about how things might go on the return journey when suddenly something in the sky catches both of our eyes.
‘What was that?’ she says.
‘Er, a shooting star?’ I suggest.
We both know it’s not a shooting star and when we later hear about a Russian cruise missile strike not that far away from where we were we suspect that is what we saw. It was another reminder of the gravity of where we were and what is happening there and we felt glad to be leaving shortly. The convoy is finally together and the police escort leads us out onto the main road and back to border control.
Next comes one of the most bizarre moments of the whole trip. We turn off the main road into a potholed back road that leads to a booth. There are some steps leading up to the booth in which sits a uniformed man. I leave the vehicle bringing my passport and other documents to show him. He has half a bottle of vodka on his desk and is watching the film Black Hawk Down on a small television screen. He starts barking at me in Ukrainian and I have no idea what he is saying. I hand him my passport before he throws it back at me and starts shouting again. I ask him if he speaks English and to tell me what he needs from me. He becomes increasingly agitated before grabbing a piece of paper and a pencil and slamming it down on the ledge in front of me. I have no idea what he wants me to write down. My life story? Are we playing hangman? I decide to get our multi-linguist Simon to try and interpret. He speaks fluent Russian which we were a bit wary of using in Ukraine, but I had no other ideas about what to do given the guy’s increasingly unhinged manner. Simon is there quickly and starts conversing with him. I turn to him and ask him what this madman wants. Simon just tells me to drive through, so feeling rather relieved I just get back in the van and drive off. I later asked Simon what it was that he said. He told me that all he wanted was for Simon to repeat the phrase ‘Putin is a lazy whore!’ I found this hilarious and if only I had learnt this phrase before we had set off, I thought to myself. I will ensure to learn this phrase if we ever go back!
We have a little difficulty getting through the next checkpoint and come across another irate guard who demands paperwork that as far as I could tell didn’t exist! Mark is a reassuring presence at this point and has dealt with these situations for many years. He shakes hands with the guy whilst slipping him a few ‘beer vouchers’ and suddenly his demeanour changes. He’s shaking my hand, laughing and joking and stamps my documents with great enthusiasm. I’m conditioned by now to respond with delight to having any document stamped, a bit like a bizarre Pavlov’s dog experiment.
We move on and are over the bridge again with no hold ups this time. We get into Hungarian border control and tentatively make our way to the next check point. By now it’s a familiar pattern. Get to an irate guard, argue about paperwork that may or may not exist, wait until they wave their hands at you either through being bribed or just getting fed up with you before making your way to the next guy and repeat the process! But this time it’s completely different. The Hungarians seem far happier to let us into their country than they did letting us out of it several hours earlier. We are through in minutes and very relieved when the final green light appears and the barrier lifts. I tell Becky to put her foot down before they change their minds!
It’s now 2 O’ clock in the morning and our original plan to drive to Austria is now completely unachievable. We have no other accommodation booked and just drive away from the border whilst Mark and Gary try to get somewhere sorted for us all to sleep. We pull into a trucking hotel about 30 minutes drive from the border. It doesn’t look appealing and we are slightly relieved to learn there’s no room anyway. Mark thinks on his feet and a call is made at 2:30am to the same hotel that we stayed at the night before. Remarkably, they answer the phone and even more remarkably they have enough spare rooms to accommodate us. It was a big relief to learn we had found somewhere to stay and somewhere we knew was comfortable. Another 30 minutes of driving saw us arrive at the hotel, take our clothes off and collapse into bed. I managed a few minutes of reflection before going to sleep to think on what we’d done and there was a sense of relief that we had delivered our cargo and made it back across the border without being shot, bombed or kidnapped and conscripted into the Ukrainian army!
Tuesday 22nd. Day 5
We rise at 7:30am to be on the road at 8am. A quick buffet breakfast of scrambled eggs and orange juice sees us ready for another long day of driving. We set off from the hotel and begin the 500 mile journey to our next stop. As we were so far behind schedule, all accommodation was having to be replanned on the go and after driving across Hungary and into Austria, a suitable rest stop was found near Linz. After a motorway fuel stop I swapped vehicles and had a stint as a passenger with my good friend Dave. I had not had much chance to speak to him during the trip and it was nice to catch up with him. We chatted about what we had done the previous day amongst other things. Dave is someone who thinks very intelligently and I always find his
company stimulating. We both run our own businesses and always have plenty to talk about. The time passed relatively quickly and we arrived at our Austrian hotel around 9pm. Next to the hotel was a Turkish run pizza restaurant. We all met at the restaurant after getting to our rooms and dumping our bags and ordered pizzas and beers. Compared to previous days it was still early and it gave us some time to sit together and chat. Around 10:30pm the owners wanted to call it a night and we were asked to drink up and leave. It still felt early and a few of us felt we wanted to carry on chatting through the events of the trip so far so 6 of us bought several bottles of beer to take away with us before going back to the hotel and cramming into Keith’s small twin hotel room. I had not had much chance to speak to Keith during the trip. He was one of the 4 ex-military guys in the convoy, very softly spoken and with a generous manner, always offering others food and drink and asking how you were doing. He is also hard as nails and not someone to be on the wrong side of, as a rather rude German man staying in the room next door found out when he rather aggressively asked us to keep the noise down. However we did not want to cause any aggravation and I suggested we move to another room where we encountered no further problems. We had a good chat between us, told some stories, finished our beers and eventually decided we needed to get at least a few hours of sleep before the early start the following day.
Wednesday 23rd. Day 6.
Becky and I were due to be back in the van together for a 6am start the following morning. When she hadn’t appeared with just a few minutes until we were due to set off, I rang her. She answered with a voice that was determined not to seem like she was still in bed, but the late night and beers had clearly taken their toll.
‘We’re about to set off, are you coming’ I said.
‘Er yes, I’ll be there in a minute’ came the reply.
She appeared within a few minutes bleary eyed and jumped into the van. We set off onto the Austrian motorway for the next leg of our trip back home. She rested in the passenger seat while I drove through Austria before making our way into Germany. We stopped at a rest station mid-morning for some breakfast. To get into the service station you had to show your passport, Covid
passport and some other documents and I couldn’t be bothered getting them all out just to go into a service station.
‘F-ing Germans’ I said in the car park outside.
‘You might want to say that a little more quietly’ said Becky as several heads turned towards us! Whoops!
So whilst the others went in to get some food, I went and sat in the van. Keith had saved some of his pizza from the night before and shared it with me. It fuelled me well enough and I managed a half hour doze in the van which refreshed me a great deal for the next part of the journey through the rest of Germany and into France.
We hit a large traffic jam a few hours in which sets us back at least 2 hours. It was actually the first hold up we had encountered in thousands of miles of driving but it was still annoying. We were stationary for what seemed like an eternity. It was a hot day and we started getting quite hot and bothered whilst not moving. We passed the time by listening to some comedy sketches which lightened things up. Eventually we got through the worst of it and drove through Germany before crossing into France. We were aiming for Riems and arrived there at around 10pm. We were keen to try and get a beer with it being our last night together, but we were not in luck. There was one bar near the hotel which we were advised was about to close. Rob volunteered to sprint there and try and persuade them to serve us at least one round of beers. But they were having none of it. They probably did us a favour, as we had yet another long day ahead the following day. So we went to bed and got some well needed rest.
Thursday 24th. Day 7.
We are on the road at 5am, and on our way to Calais. The sun rises over the French countryside and we make steady progress. We get to the outskirts of Calais at around 9am and it’s clear it is going to be a long wait. In front of us is what looks like endless queues of lorries trying to make their way across the channel. The situation with P&O a week earlier is still causing issues and it’s dispiriting to feel we are so close to home but with such a long wait ahead. Mark, our convoy leader somehow gets away with pushing into a queue of truckers and we follow. The red crosses on our vehicles with the words ‘Humanitarian aid’ perhaps soften the attitude of the truckers who must also have been frustrated at the long lines ahead of them. Several hours of waiting
follow before we inch closer to French border control. At this point, we start to see gangs of migrants wandering in and out of the lorries. Keith, who is in a line next to us sees a group of them climb onto a bridge before one of them jumps onto the roof of the truck right in front of him and manages to sneak into the truck. Keith beeps his horn to alert the driver in front of him to the fact that he has a stowaway. It quickly turns ugly as the migrants start throwing rocks at Keith’s truck. Unfortunately for them, they picked the wrong truck to mess with as Keith jumps out and runs towards them shouting ‘come on then.’ The sight of him has them scattering and the situation calms down. We follow the truck with the stowaway into border control. The area is patrolled by rather scary looking guys with big dogs and the dogs are soon onto it. They bark aggressively at the truck and know straight away that someone is in there. We watch as the truck is instructed to pull into a separate area before the doors are opened and the migrant is removed and taken to a cabin. I spot that there are at least another dozen of them in there who have been detained. Despite it being a bit of a spectacle to watch, I can’t help but think what desperation these people must be going through to even consider doing what they are doing. You have to be getting away from something pretty awful to think that your best bet is to risk your life by climbing into a truck on a hot day and travelling for an unknown amount of time. Although we have all heard on the news about what happens at Calais, to see if for real in front of us was a real eye opener. Finally, we pass through passport control and eventually onto the train where we start the journey back under the channel and home to Blighty!
Once we are all across, we reconvene at the nearest services and get some food. We have a group photo before setting off again and back to Yorkshire!
I jump in with Mark for the final leg to Leeds. Although we spoke a lot on the phone before the trip, we didn’t get a lot of opportunity to speak during the trip and it was nice to have some time with him on the 6 hour journey back up North. Mark is a really interesting character and I get the opportunity during the journey to ask him in more detail about why he does what he does with Yorkshire Aid Convoy and the story behind where it all started. It was a nice way to finish off the trip and we finally arrive in Leeds at around 9pm. Some trucks had arrived earlier and people had already left for home by the time we got back, others who live outside Yorkshire had been dropped off along the way. But there was time for the majority of us to say our goodbyes, hug each other and go home to our families. Dave’s family had all come down to meet him and I got a slightly jealous moment as his children piled out of the car
shouting ‘daddy, daddy.’ I was desperate to get home and see my wife and children but there was still an hour drive to go before I did. Rob and I got into his van and started the journey back to North Yorkshire. It went quickly and we got back home just after 10pm. My youngest 2 children were in bed but I gave my wife Lindsay and oldest son Jack a big hug which felt incredible. It had been a gruelling and very tiring trip but an unforgettable one. My head had barely hit the pillow before I went to sleep and I slept like a baby before my youngest two children came in bright and early to welcome me back. I hug and kiss them before taking them to school and back to normality.
It took me a few days to properly re-adjust after getting back. The day after returning, I took the kids to school with my wife before meeting up with a few of her friends and going for a walk with the dogs. I was exhausted but enjoyed getting some fresh air and exercise, two things that I had not had much of in the previous week. I was really interested to see what the dynamics of the group were like after we returned. It had felt like we had bonded strongly and pulled together as a team. But would it all die down as we all returned to our normal lives? The answer was definitely not! There was more chatter in the group Whatsapp then ever. People recounting stories and being very honest about their emotions after returning. For many of us, it was the first time we had ever done anything like this and it was a powerful bonding experience to have gone through such an intense experience together whilst relying heavily on each other to get us all home safely. We watched out for each other, made each other laugh, pulled together through some tough siutations and learnt more about each other than we ever would have done in normal life. It was a very pure and honest experience in that respect and unlike anything I have ever done before.
The emotions many of us felt afterwards were conflicting. Yes on one had we were proud of what we did, never giving up until we had completed what we set out to do, but on the other hand well aware that we went back to comfortable lives that are a world away from those that we were helping in Ukraine. Immediately talk started about going back to do more and I am sure it will happen. I would jump at the chance to do it again, despite the gruelling nature of it.
A few days later, Mark sent me a text asking how I was feeling after it all. I replied that I felt very different to before we left. I felt a strange sense of calm and I think going through such an intense experience that was out of my comfort zone cleared out a few things inside me emotionally. I spent the weekend feeling very ‘in the moment’ and enjoyed relaxing with the family more than ever.
I went on the trip because I felt I needed to do something to help, however small. I came back not only feeling like I had done something, but that I had also changed for the better. I felt like I deepened my friendship with two already good friends in Rob and Dave as well as making 13 new friends who I will always feel connected to through our shared experience.
I am in awe of Mark and Gary as well as the rest of the team at Yorkshire Aid Convoy. Their passion, commitment and drive to help others is exceptional. To pull off the trip in such a short period of time, negotiate the huge curve balls that kept coming their way, replan things on the go and ensure 16 people got back safely was a remarkable effort indeed.
Let’s hope that this terrible war comes to an end soon and that Putin’s warped vision fails sooner rather than later. There is a long road ahead even when it does end both for Ukraine and for much of Europe. But I have faith that the future will eventually be brighter, lessons will be learned and that we will move towards a more secure future that values freedom, human rights, equality and democracy. History shows that tyranny fails eventually, but it will fail much more quickly when everybody plays their part in fighting against it in whatever ways they can. Myself and 15 others all felt like we had to stand up and do something and I am proud and honoured to have met such a committed group of people who began the trip mostly as strangers, but ended it as good friends.