July 04, 2024

Humanitarian Aid Trip with Freezer Van to Ukraine May 2024

As Nick Milne and I approach the Budomeriz crossing point from Poland to Ukraine, luck seems to be on our side - there is only one vehicle ahead of us and very soon the traffic light goes green beckoning us to the Polish checkpoint. However, there is an air of nervousness, will we have the right paperwork for the mountain of cargo we have in our ancient Mercedes Sprinter freezer van?

It’s been over 2000km and 3 days since we left Oxfordshire, and the van is filled to the gunnels. When I say filled, I mean completely crammed with boxes of medical coveralls, mattresses, 40 sets of crutches, 10 wheelchairs, 200kg of dog and cat food, boxes of old laptops & phones and a warehouse trolley. A twenty-something Customs Officer approaches the van, and we learn quickly that her looks conceal a steely interior as she explores the inside of the van & gasps: “ah too much stuff”.  She pauses and points to boxes almost completely hidden under a mountain of crutches and barks: “boxes – open.” She then turns to Nick - “unload those” - and points to a forest of wheelchairs with three bags of Skinners’ dog food piled on top.  I make of point of blocking the road as I unload some boxes and crutches. It does the trick, as Lt ‘Poe Face’ decides she has made her point and now the Brits are just being annoying, so she orders us to pack up and move 20m forward to the Ukraine border & customs post.   

 

As we leave Poland I spy a few dribbles of oil on the tarmac, a reminder that the Sprinter van has motored over 300,000 miles since birth in 2016 and is now leaving her mark despite having a new head gasket fitted before we left. The key test will be if the paperwork Dr Oleksandr Yatsyna has provided does the trick. On my last visit back on a cold January day with Paul Parsons (then his 6th, 4 x 4 delivery run), the paperwork had been done for us by Ukraine native Oleh Nayda so I’m apprehensive as I’m now running solo. A Customs Officer has a quick look inside the van and then the passports and paperwork disappear through the hatch. Astonishingly, 10 minutes later a smiling Ukrainian Border Officer hands it all back and humorously barks “You go Ukraine” as he gestures to the border gate. 

The van was kindly donated to me by Bidfoods, so thank you to Jim Gouldie and his team. Bidfoods are a great supporter of Ukraine with Jim having had the pleasure of being shelled by Vladmir and his diminishing band of invaders on his last food delivery. The van’s contents are destined for the Mercy & Health Foundation in Kyiv and the Sprinter’s new parents will be the Border Brigade.

The grim reality of this war is that the freezer van will used to transport bodies. Our drive was long but generally uneventful with nights in Dortmund, Gliwice in Poland and the beautiful western Ukraine city of Lviv. Before departure there was a certain amount of discussion on how much Bruce Springsteen Nick would be allowed to listen to - I suspect he has seen ‘The Boss’ more times in concert than any other living soul in these isles. An orange engine warning came on as we entered Germany necessitating us to get it checked out by a very helpful Mercedes garage in Dortmund.  The diagnosis, something to do with the air intake, was a worry but not enough to stop our progress. In Lviv, Nick and I were much moved when visiting the military cemetery known as the ‘Field of Mars’. Inevitably the rows of graves had increased since my previous visit and, on my way back home, I joined around 2,500 mourners for the funeral of 26-year-old medic and social media personality Lt Irena Tsybrukh: another young life and family destroyed by the whims of a despot.

Once in Kyiv we went straight to the Mercy & Health Foundation warehouse and linked up with the whirlwind of energy that is Dr Oleksandr Yatsyna. It was a delight to meet his team of volunteers who are constantly moving vital medical and humanitarian aid supplies to hospitals and army units across the country. As I mentioned, part of our cargo was 200kg of pet food generously donated by Skinners and another local supplier in Norfolk. The Mercy and Health Foundation will deliver the pet food to frontline army units to feed all the pets that the army units, as has been the case over centuries, collect whilst in combat. Dogs and cats continue to have a leading role as a psychological support to civilians and soldiers scarred by this terrible and unnecessary war. Cargo unloaded and we race, and I mean race, off in Oleksandr’s ambulance to visit his first of three planned rehabilitation centres.  

The first centre caters for 20 patients a day and has been open for a few months now. Here we meet Oleksandr’s wife Katia and her mother, both doctors working at the clinic. A considerable proportion of the funding for this centre has been donated by Mail Force, a charity launched by the Daily Mail parent company DMGT.

The following day at 05:30 hours, to ensure Nick saw it before his 06;10 train departed, we visited the second designated site in central Kyiv that will cater for up to 200 patients a day and which Oleksandr hopes to have up and running by the end of the summer. Nick then safely on his train, Oleksandr and I set off in convoy north to Chernihiv, the scene of intense fighting in the early days of the war, to deliver the van to the Border Brigade. I was hugely impressed to see broken bridges were already being replaced, the motorways resurfaced and the occasional natty parking areas for use by the long-awaited F-16 fighter jets.

In Chernihiv, we were met by the deputy Oblast leader and the deputy Border Brigade commander and handed over the Sprinter as well as some very impressive trauma medical packs that Oleksandr had procured: yet another example of how this remarkable man and his team are a vital cog in the machine that I’m confident will eventually thwart Putin’s bellicose action. For me it was then home via a train to Lviv and a never to be forgotten, but also repeated, overnight bus to Krakow.  There I met up with my brilliant travel companion Nick, who had spent the intervening time exploring Krakow, and presented him with the medal awarded by the Border Brigade.

Before heading to Ukraine, I was not immune to the horror of this war – it is impossible to be given footage of the devastation is spattered across social media apps, broadcast on televisions and etched in newspaper print. However, both Nick and I both noted that it’s the Field of Mars which really brings home the really brought home the tragedy of this cruel and  unnecessary war. It’s the rows upon rows of graves; flags rocking in the wind; and photographs of young faces on crosses that rip your heart.

 

Charlie McGrath is raising £17,000 to buy a freezer van to donate to Ukraine. The van will be filled with medical and rehabilitation equipment.

https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/freezervantoukraine

Charlie McGrath

Objective Travel Safety Ltd



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