A road trip to the East, or: 3,000 kilometers in over two days. (23–03–22) (By Peter van Stigt)
So, I’ve just gotten out of bed. It’s Noon now. About six hours ago, my girlfriend Lidia and I arrived back home here in The Netherlands. She’s still very much in touch with Mr. Sandman, so I’ve left her there for now. It’s a well-deserved rest that she’s enjoying. And honestly, so have I. But hey, I just accidentally woke up. Still tired, sort of groggy, body aching somewhat. With a head, and heart, full of impressions. Stuff that both Lidia and myself will never ever forget. We came back from Przemysl.
Przemysl is a border town in East Poland. If you forget to put on the brakes in your car you will end up in L’viv, in the tormented Nation of Ukraine. Last Monday morning, at 7AM local, my girlfriend and I jumped into my Opel Combo, stuffed with humanitarian goods, and made our way to this border town, some 1,500 kilometers away. After a staged drive we arrived there at roughly 9PM. Drove around a bit, trying to MacGyver our way through Przemysl and Medyka, and found a hotel.
Now, what is so special about Przemysl? Well, we did not do sightseeing at all. So, I couldn’t tell what the town looks like. No, the reason for driving up there was a different one from mere enjoying the sights. So, the only things we saw were our Hotel, the Castorama shopping center and the goal of our journey, the Tesco shopping center across the street. “Former”, because in a few weeks time, this facility has been rebuilt into an entire “village”, harbouring thousands of Ukrainian refugees. Wow!
Yesterday we woke up in our cozy Gloria Hotel room at 8AM, got some breakfast and spoke to some other guests. Lidia noticed some folks there wearing orange vests and suspected that these people were refugee supporting volunteers, and they were. So, first contacts were established. Take it all step by step, I say. Driving up there knowing virtually nothing, make inquiries, receive no help from the Police who are around in masses, then talk, receive names, phone numbers, and a location.
At 9AM we check out of our hotel, drop our humanitarian stuff, canned food, clothing etc., at an assembly point at the hotel lobby and make our way to the Tesco shopping mall. Everywhere in Poland you will find these makeshift donated goods assembly points. Everywhere you will see signs of solidarity with the Ukrainians. We saw this even on those large highway matrix traffic signs. We saw a lot of blue and yellow. And then we saw this makeshift Ukrainian refugee staging area: Tesco.
Parked the car on the parking area in front and walked up to the shopping mall. Various tents everywhere, containing all kinds of services from all over the world. Dozens of nationalities present, judging the parked cars and buses. Well, the Dutch have arrived as well, and we’re it, LOL. Scanned the Tesco. Two entry lobbies, on the left and right. People all over the place, wearing yellow and orange vests as well as plenty Military. But most of all civilians, carrying and towing their luggage.
After entering both lobbies, we learn that we need to register. Registering through the proper channels is imperative, if your goal is to pick up Ukrainian refugees and take them out of Poland and into another country. And this was our main goal. After dropping off those humanitarian goods, Lidia and I had room for three refugees in our car. Refugees who have left behind their entire lives and possessions in their war-torn Ukrainian Nation, and seeking a new life. A life in freedom. Свобода!
After registering and being inducted into the system we make our way to the right-hand Tesco lobby, armed with a QR-coded wrist band and the phone number of Michel, a German refugee coordinator, also doing the honors on behalf of the Dutch organisations. We call Michel, having no idea at all that he is no more than two feet away from us. Lidia could hear him physically answering my call. Now the waiting game begins. The weather is beautiful. A soothing 15 Degrees Celsius. Then, a phone call.
“Hi, this is Lucy. I understand that you are Dutch and you want to take three refugees with you?” “Yes. Where are you?” “I’m walking outside towards the right entrance, I’m blonde and waving a yellow vest.” “OK, I am with my girlfriend Lidia here and I am wearing a standard military flight jacket with patches.” Within three minutes, all of us found each other among those thousands of people. This incredibly colorful circus, this multinational village, it turns out to be a well-oiled machine.
While waiting, I already had some lengthy talks with some young Polish Military, just about the only Polish folks capable of speaking English or any other language besides Polish. While talking I saw those halls and former shops, stuffed with entire families on their bunk beds. Crammed together, no privacy whatsoever. Children running and playing, as if there is no trouble in the world. It’s surreal, I tell you. Tragedy, joy, ugliness and beauty, all in one. Lidia cried. And oh boy, I do understand that.
Lucy: “So, this is Svetlana, and these two are a sister and brother, Diana and Artur.” We shake hands. “Svetlana wants to come to The Netherlands. She has an address in Heerenveen. Diana and Artur have an address in Hamburg in Germany. Are you willing to make an in between stop in, say, Bremen train station, enroute to your country?” “OK, we’ll take them along.” Lucy was overjoyed. They had a hard time finding drivers in that direction. Svetlana, Diana and Artur looked tired but oh so grateful.
Svetlana was in her mid-forties and came from Mariupol. She had been on the road for about three weeks, trying to get out of Ukraine. Diana was in her mid-twenties and her brother Artur must be about 13. They came from the vicinity of Kyiv, been escaping the war for about five days now. None of them spoke anything other than Ukrainian, or Russian, which they refuse to do for obvious reasons. Communications relied on remarks spoken in Google Translate on their mobile phones.
When saying goodbye, volunteer Lucy, herself being a Ukrainian living in Canada, had teary eyes. Plenty of hugs back and forth. A bond had developed apparently between all of them. She was so incredibly happy that we took the three along. I would have loved to show you pictures and name full and last names, but hey, safety first. So no, just because even abroad, they still must be careful. If not for themselves then for the possible family and/or friends left behind in a Russian-bombed Ukraine.
The five of us make our way to my old, trusty Opel Combo diesel workhorse and settle in. Then, the journey back begins. Again some 1,500 kilometers in Western direction. Beautiful weather. Lidia and I up front, switching driver’s seat in 4-hour stages. In the back three very tired, sometimes sleeping, sometimes softly chatting in Ukrainian and constantly checking and apping on their mobile phones genuine refugees. Music on, blasting the car over the Polish highways with no rules, apparently.
The obligatory tank and sanitary stops along the way. Grabbing some bites and drinks as we go, on our tab. Least we can do, right? Hampering communications, even with spoken Google Translate. Me using English, German, hands and feet. So does Lidia. We all seem to understand each other in some weird way. A sympathetic glance with the eyes, a small smile, all of those carry very far. “Berlin” visible on the traffic signs, then entering Germany. All that seemed to be a big deal for our guests.
Delays enroute are bound to happen of course. Mainly because of the many accidents and traffic jams due to, I’m sorry, lousy driving skills of the Polish both personal and truck drivers. Step on it and put the brakes on with no warning, and nothing in between. Mirrors, blinkers? Why? Just be a Polish Kamikaze in your car. Just use your truck as a nervous mountain as you suddenly start to overtake and do this with no more than a 1 MPH speed difference. Causing those Kamikazes to brake like hell.
So, Germany was a relief. However, those delays caused the urgency to alter some plans. For Diana and Artur we were running out of time. They were supposed to take a train from Bremen where we were to drop them off. To an address in Hamburg, way up North, and not enroute for us at all. However, according to the invaluable friend Remon who acted as a back office for us, the last train would have been gone before all of us would arrive at Bremen train station. Thus, change of plans.
Well, we diverted to downtown Berlin in order to point the nose to Hamburg, not Bremen. No way, Lidia and I were going to be responsible for two youngsters left to their own devices in a far and away train station during night time. We decided to drop them off at their ultimate destination in Hamburg. Traffic jams and roadworks from hell in Berlin as well as the reroute cost us an additional two hours expansion of our trip. But hey, it’s for the greater good, and we were already on night ops.
So, we pressed on to the North. After arrival in Hamburg came parting ways. Very, very emotional. Many tears, many blessings, many thanks. Diana and Artur, Lidia and I will never ever forget you! This is your chance to start over. In freedom and safety. And maybe, who knows, you may return to your beloved Ukraine some time in the future. This sister and brother are true warriors! No parents left. On their own, doing this. We wish them all the luck and good karma in the rest of their valued lives.
This leaves us with sweet Svetlana. After wave-off we disappear into the night again. Next stage: getting Svetlana to Heerenveen, in the Dutch Province of Friesland. By no means this was a walk in the park. Pitch dark, no street lights on those highways, mist. Add to this that both Lidia and I were beyond tired, it becomes a challenge to conduct a remainder of a safe journey. But, all of us arrived in one piece in Heerenveen. We dropped off a crying and immensely thankful Svetlana. So sweet.
Mission accomplished. Because that’s what this was: a mission. Born out of a larger Plan A, this was a Plan B that was to be carried out no matter what. Lidia and I have proven a few things. 1) we are a helluva great team. 2) No plan can be too bold. It’s a matter of “can do”, a mindset. Put your money where your mouth is. It’s not that hard. Just do it. Just like the motto of a famous RNLAF squadron: “Don’t talk but act”. 3) We as individuals can truly make a huge difference in other people’s lives.
One hour-drive left for Lidia and me in order to get home in Almere. Arrived here at 6AM. Unwinding for an hour, freshening up a bit. Let it all sink in for the first part. Get the adrenaline levels down in order to get some rest in mind and body before crashing down in bed and get into a coma. This was a day of about 23 hours. But every single minute was precious. A life-long lasting experience. Was it all worth the effort? YES! Would we do it again? YES! Sweet Svetlana, Diana and Artur: Slava Ukraini!
So, Lidia and I came back from Poland yesterday, but I’m still pretty worn-out. Not so much only from pulling a 23-hour day of journey after having travelled those 1,500 kilometers in the other direction and having a good sleep there, but because of the impressive experience of it all on more than one level. The Russian-Ukrainian war and the resulting exodus of Ukrainian refugees are now more than ever part of both of our lives. Images on television and on the internet are a total deja-vu to us now.
Reflecting on the entire experience, reflecting on our personal lives, comparing it with the lives of Svetlana, Diana, Artur or any other refugees, it all makes you realize that we here in The Netherlands may have our issues with our economics, our Government and problems in our society as a whole, but that we are fortunate enough to have the luxury of complaining about all of that. Those issues are still there but fade away to virtually nothing compared to the issues that all those refugees face.
We have a great life here. The trick is not to forget that…
Try to imagine suddenly being uprooted from your very existence because some despot decided to bomb your country to oblivion. Your entire life that you have built there, everything that you have achieved, all your possessions, your culture, your traditions, in short your foundation, all of that left behind. Simply because you want to live in peace, safety and freedom. Try to imagine being that huge Amazon tree being yanked out of the very soil where you grew from a small seed to maturity.
That is unsettling to say the least. I saw all this in the eyes of these people in Przemysl with their hand luggage and wheeled suitcases. I saw it during the entire drive back. In the eyes of our three Ukrainian guests. How it warms the heart when they express in rudimentary ways that they can hardly express how thankful they are to us having taken them along. How it warms the heart their hugs, their smiles and their tears when finally reaching that far away, alien but safe destination.
If all of the above doesn’t humble you, then what does..?