Driving to Poland with Ukrainian Action…A Volunteer Experience
8 Sept 2023
The weekend looms, a glass of wine is winking at me and it is time to put down my pen but first please allow me a few more words on what I experienced last weekend. It was something very, very special.
The weekend began in a garage in South London where a band of volunteers gathered on Friday afternoon; we had nothing in common bar an interest in doing something to help Ukrainians at war. The weekend ended with the same group of 7 people having had such a powerful common experience they had formed long-lasting bonds. Our group comprised Natasha, Jeff – Natasha’s husband and her co-founder of Ukrainian Action (“UA”), Per - a Swede living in the US who had read about UA in “Car and Driver” and had promptly given up two weeks of hie life to help; Rob, a Canadian living in London who is an old friend of Jeff, my son George and me. We picked up a seventh person, Tom, in Belgium: Tom is a professor in education and cultural studies at Jeff’s alma mater in Ohio and had also read a piece on UA that had prompted him to fly across the world to help. I was amazed just at the commitment of people to fly so far for the cause.
Jeff started by promising us there would be unforeseen problems and he delivered on this promise almost instantly. Jeff and Natasha had ordered about £25k of kit for us to transport - principally winter clothing and boots and useful electrical devices. We started by opening the boxes, counting the contents, repacking, sorting the boxes into their five ultimate destinations then and loaded our 4 pickup trucks. One truck failed to start and we spent 2 hours fixing it. I say “we” but it was largely Per – the Man and Van chap who usefully knew more about engines than I know about powerlifting, knowledge that was put to the test almost constantly over the weekend. We eventually got away, drove to the Chunnel, took a freight train with lots of truck drivers then drove across France and into Belgium reaching our hotel at 3am.
Our first task on Saturday was to consume the most delicious waffles I have ever tasted. If you have ever wondered about whether to visit Belgium, waffles are definitely a good reason. Then we had to drive to and fix a 5th truck that had broken down in Belgium on the last trip. Per the Repairman’s skills came to the fore again. The truck fixed we hit the road and drove some 7 hours across Belgium and Germany reaching our destination around 10pm in time for a surprisingly tasty kebab and beer. In the morning the newly fixed truck decided to breakdown again. It was my turn to do the “climb-under-the-truck-and-hand-pump-the funny-pump-there-connected-to-the-fuel-line” thing and George’s turn to do the “keep-cranking-the-engine” thing whilst Per did the “really-clever-fixing-the-engine” thing. All went well until the engine fired up and George took his foot off the clutch not realising the engine was in gear – reverse gear. Again lady luck was on our side and George realised what was happening quickly enough to not run over his father.
So far so good. A story of late nights, service station food, long days of driving and awesome companionship. Sunday was where the rubber hit the road. After the truck was fixed we had a few hours of driving in Germany and Poland before arriving at our destination where we met the second part of the convoy: a group of volunteers that meet UA’s trucks each time and take them onto the Ukrainian border before returning home (they got back at 4am that Sunday). Suddenly the real purpose of the trip began to sink in. We were playing a role – a very small role – in a very real and very scary reality. But that awakening became far more real an hour later. Jeff and Natasha had arranged for us to meet a Ukrainian tank battalion commander called Konstantyn. Konstantyn had been in the Soviet army in East Germany in the 90s (bizarrely only a few years after our Canadian friend, Rob, had been serving in the Canadian army there for the opposing side). He left disillusioned with the Russians and became a banker. But when the Russian invaded the Crimea in 2014, Konstantin enrolled in the Ukrainian army and has been fighting ever since. Today he is 52, a father and grandfather. One day in May he was walking between a British jeep (like the trucks we were delivering, the army seem to find such trucks critical in the war) and one of his battalion’s tanks. Apparently, this is common – to protect the tanks, they send first the jeep then someone on foot to check for mines. Konstantyn didn’t explain why he was out there himself - I suspect it was due to his commitment as a leader. But he was tired that day and suffering from flu. He lost concentration and missed a mine. That cost him his right foot and damaged his left leg so badly the Ukrainian hospital couldn’t manage it and he was sent to Poland for expert medical help. I couldn’t tell if he’ll keep his right leg or not – his wounds were horrific. We spent about an hour and a half talking to Konstantyn about the war. It was truly harrowing. The brutal reality of that war is dark. He told the son of one of our hosts “never go to war – you have a sound mind. No-one in that war has a sound mind”. He spoke of both sides shooting to kill and not taking prisoners, such was the intensity of their hatred and sense of injustice. At the end as we all shook his hand and said our goodbyes, Konstantyn turned to Natasha and pleaded – with a tear in his eye – “Please do not forget us – we need you”. If any of us had needed to know why we had given up our weekends to support UA, there was the reason right there in that moment.
My final congratulations of the week is to Natasha and Jeff. To date they have delivered 93 trucks and hundreds of thousands of dollars of humanitarian aid which is literally saving lives and giving vital support to the Ukrainian people. If any of you would like to support UA in any way I would wholeheartedly encourage you to do so www.ukrainianaction.com/donate or @ukrainianaction on Instagram.