A couple of weeks ago I left the Polish Ukrainian border at Medyka and moved a few hours north. Still in Poland, I have joined another aid organization which concentrates on delivering food and medical supplies inside Ukraine.
Last week my boss and I headed to one of the larger nearby towns, with a list of goods required by several groups within Ukraine. From specialty shops to larger retailers, we combed the stores for the things on the list, stacking the car full of boxes, bags and loose items. Squeezing ourselves into the front seats, we headed for the border, and my first trip into Ukraine since leaving Medyka.
Compared to the busyness of Medyka, and its sideshow of aid tents and volunteers, the border crossing was low-key and quiet. A line of internationally-plated cars several kilometres long sat stationary, waiting to enter Ukraine, a consequence of the recent scrapping of import duty on vehicles. We pulled around the queue and motored up towards the first boom gate, taking our place in what was thankfully a much shorter line.
It took us about an hour and a half to cross into Ukraine, where the border guard recognised my boss. He smiled and greeted her, checked our documents, and wished us good luck. Although delivered in a cheerful manner, it semed a little ominous.
At several points on the road to the city we snaked through barricades, passing reinforced positions, road spikes and tank traps. We were stopped at one of the checkpoints, and after inspecting our documents, a soldier again wished ‘good luck’.
I had been in the city during my time visiting Ukraine last year. Superficially at least, things seemed pretty much the same; the streets were busy with people and cars, restaurants and cafes were open, and customers milled about the shops. Being remote from the fighting, it had received relatively few attacks since the Russian invasion.
We met our contact, and a Ukrainian lady he was helping to leave the country, in a shopping centre carpark. While his ‘order’ was loaded into his battered 4WD, I set off to meet a car rental agent in the underground carpark (their airport office had, for obvious reasons, been closed). I signed all the necessary paperwork and paid for the mid-sized station wagon that would be my delivery vehicle for the next three weeks. After meeting up again with the others, my boss headed off to another meeting, the contact left to distribute his newly acquired gear, and the Ukrainian lady and I started for the Polish border.
She told me she was from a town west of Odessa, where air raids had made staying at home untenable. After leaving the carpark, I mistakenly turned down a one-way street. Oncoming cars flashed their lights, but my passenger reassured me: ‘Don’t worry, nobody really follows the rules anymore’. On our way back to Poland we passed long queues of cars waiting outside the service stations to buy their rationed fuel allocation. At one stage we were chatting when the sound of an air raid siren wailed from my passengers phone. ‘There is an air raid warning in my town. I just have to call my parents,’ she said. A short converstion ensued whilst she ensured her mother was aware of the possible incoming strike.
We arrived back at the border sometime around 2100. I was tired and hungry, and my passenger had been in transit far longer and had barely eaten all day. We joined the small line of cars, and edged our way to the first window of the Ukrainian border guard office. An bloke in uniform appeared and motioned for me to get out of the car. I stepped out and around to the rear of the wagon, assuming he wanted to check what I was carrying. Instead he took out a torch and switched on the modest beam. He didn’t say a word. I looked at him. I turned to see what he was looking at but couldn’t make out anything noteworthy. He stood some more. I stood some more. Then he waggled the torch. I looked again. ‘Mate what are you doing?’ I thought. Then he pointed with his finger at a stop sign. Then looked at me, then back at the sign. Apparently I had pulled up two metres past where I should have. He looked at me again. I nodded to show I understood, whilst thinking ‘It’s been a long day you patronising dickhead. Why didn’t you just walk over to the fucking sign in the first place?’
We handed our passports and papers through the first window, they were returned shortly after, and when our turn came, moved the car up to the second. We gave our documents to a very stern-looking woman dressed in a 60s-style blue uniform which made her look like a soviet officer from an old James Bond movie. She took them with disdain, and after a while started speaking to me in Ukranian as I looked blankly at her. She turned to my passenger and explained that she needed a document which featured my name and a specific car-related identification number. I passed my rental agreement through the window which clearly did not satisfy her. A long and sometimes heated discussion ensued between my passenger and the officer. She was determined that the vehicle would not be permitted to leave Ukraine without the mysterious document.
I rang the car rental agent and asked her about it. She told me that there is no such document, and that I had all the required papers to take the car into Poland. She agreed to speak to the border officer, however the border officer did not agree to speak to her. I waited impotently while my passenger, growing more exasperated, pleaded our case. I don’t know what happened but after another wait our documents were returned and we were told to proceed. As the barrier opened, my passenger urged me to drive through quickly before they changed their minds.
My first trip back into Ukraine had turned into a long day. Although I was pleased with what we had achieved, I was glad to cross back into Poland. It was a far longer day for my passenger, who was too tired to eat, and fell asleep within minutes of us arriving at the apartment.
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