On the return ferry crossing from Rotterdam to Hull the team of ten sat at one of the large circular tables to enjoy what was our best meal in ten days and to reflect on the experiences we had enjoyed and endured during the convoy. We had just completed the 1500-mile journey from Belarus in the past three days. Holdups in the customs at both Brest and Kukuryki then a two-hour traffic standstill due to a major accident in Germany meant that it was a ‘bit of a chase’ to get to Europort before the doors closed on the ferry. We made it with minutes to spare.
Preparation for the aid delivery took several weeks during which a wide range of aid had been collected, prepared and loaded at Stockton on Tees, Buxton in Derbyshire and Selby in Yorkshire. Our major sponsor Campeys Haulage of Selby who provide ongoing support with warehouse space and maintenance on our vehicles also loaned an artic unit and trailer for the convoy to be driven by father and daughter team Andy and Emily Wardle.
This large trailer was loaded on a Saturday in early April at Selby (Thorpe Willoughby) on the Campeys estate by over thirty volunteers that included 17 staff colleagues of Aidan from the offices of Telefonica O2 in Leeds.
We have worked for several years with the International company IKEA taking surplus stock from their distribution depots at Doncaster and Peterborough. This stock that includes bedding, mattresses, furniture, crockery, kitchen units, refrigerators, microwaves etc. has made a massive difference to the organisations that cater for the needs of the disabled and poor families in Belarus.
As on a previous convoy four years ago IKEA provided funds to support the considerable cost of making this delivery and, after an internal competition, chose two of their co-workers to be part of the convoy team. So, Jo Lander-Brown and Maciej (Magic) Wroblewski joined the convoy team. Jo and Magic drove the pickup and trailer kindly loaned by Alan Wade who with Bob Beech made the team for their large 18 tonner and Aidan and Mike for the 7.5 truck.
A third first timer was Malcolm (Mallie) Earless from Hillam in Yorkshire. Mallie provided his own van that carried almost a ton of incontinent pads, with a value of over £5000, targeted for Vikov and Zuravichi both institutions for the physically and mentally challenged children and adults. Jen Allison was co-driver of the van and the social media co-ordinator for the convoy.
Leaving base in Selby on Monday 10th April we drove to the IKEA depot at Doncaster for a photoshoot and to collect Jo and Magic and then to the ferry at Hull docks. The journey across Holland, Germany and into Poland was uneventful apart from heavy traffic and we made our overnight stop at past 10pm. Similarly, the crossing of Poland was long in duration and meant another 10pm finish. On the third day (Thursday) we crossed the border through the customs exiting Poland and the EU and entering Belarus. As the time passed it was obvious that we would not be able to reach our onward destinations of Gomel and Rogachev that night so we stayed at the new hotel just outside the customs exit in Belarus. The food was chicken and chips, beer and a vodka, the rooms good with en-suite facilities and the price just £10.
Alan Wade and Bob Beech stayed with a family they knew in Brest just a few minutes from the border and set off on the following morning (Good Friday) for the local customs at Pinsk. Once cleared they drove south to make their delivery in the town of Stolin just a couple of miles from the border with Ukraine. Their delivery of 8 tons was for ‘The centre of young disabled people’s support.’ Half of this organisation’s committee of 16 are disabled adults and very active in the best interest of their young people.
Customs cleared and unloading completed during Friday enabled Alan and Bob to visit and view where a previous delivery was made last year. They held a meeting with eight organisations who separately support the disabled and from the ‘shopping list’ they were given we plan to make another delivery there later this year. Also in that area the local churchman, Papa Sergie, is building a hospice for sick children. The walls are completed, the roof partly finished but they are struggling with the finances to complete the whole building. Our job will be to provide items of furniture, fabrics, paint, beds and bedding, pots and pans etc. so we will hopefully be able to include these on our next delivery to that region. Alan and Bob had a positive visit and are keen that we continue to help in that area.
The other four vehicles travelled over seven hours in a North Easterly direction to the town of Rogachev where three of the vehicles were to unload at the ‘Rogachev Public Association of families with disabled children and adults’. A long title but it demonstrates that we are supporting organisations that are active in helping their own less fortunate people. It was another long journey of almost seven hours across the country.
The local customs procedure took the day late into the evening. After a meal, vodka and toasts with the association members we split up to spend the evening with families in their flats. A good experience for the new members and an opportunity to see the generous hospitality of their hosts first hand.
The Rogachev association had agreed to accept and pass on the aid for the institutions at Zhuravichi and Vikov. Despite the number of members increasing the organisation is struggling to meet the costs of their centre which has been reduced in size to just two rooms. State aid does not exist for them. They are keen to get a sponsor for the rent as without this help they will have no premises by the year end.
After unloading the three smaller vehicles the team made visits firstly to ‘Rodni Kut’ (translated as Cosy Corner) a home for four severely disabled young adults. They were ‘rescued’ from an institution when they were just young children by the charity Chernobyl Children’s Project UK based in Glossop. The charity converted the premises, extended them, trained the staff and continue to fund and manage the operation which provides 24/7 care for the young adults. One of our team seen here propping up a radiation sign in the forest, Harold Jackson, joined us in Rogachev having flown from UK to be part of the convoy. Harold, a qualified joiner, has been a long-time member of the CCP charity and spent several months in Belarus on the building of this centre. He also convoyed with me in 1999 to Belarus. Travelling with Harold by air was another aid team member, Bryan Selkirk from Catterick who went directly to the town of Gomel where we were to meet later.
We visited the institution at Vikov deep in the forest and the lady director toured the facility with us. The whole premise has had a big ‘face lift’ in recent times and is much smarter in terms of fabric and decor than a few years ago. It is an institute for physically and mentally handicapped adults – in UK we used to call them Asylums. Most of the population of Belarus will not be aware of the existence of this or similar places! The director explained that the smarter building was not important. What was important was that the people living there felt secure, were fed and their medical requirements attended to.
Back to the vehicles and Rogachev. We had a parcel from a lady living in UK called Valya. In 1941 when the Nazi troops were retreating from Russia they totally destroyed the town of Rogachev. Valya, as a young girl (now in her 90s) spent two years in the forests to escape and eventually came to live in England. We had an address and phone number and with the help of Alexie, our friend and interpreter in Rogachev we met her cousin and his wife and exchanged presents – all done in fifteen minutes but a nice experience.
We drove to the city of Gomel and Andy and Emily in the Campey vehicle went into the local customs for clearance.
The rest of the team met with Bryan at our Hotel and enjoyed a coffee, buns etc. We were summoned to Dobrush to where the Campey vehicle was to be unloaded with over 12 tons of aid for ‘Territorial centre of social services for the population of Dobrush’. Another long title but another organisation that supports the poorest and those in need.
It was early evening and we faced at the least three hours of unloading. The messages from the customs was that they would definitely clear the paperwork that evening and release the vehicle but when?! We got the message that the vehicle was cleared at 8.30pm and was making the forty-minute’s journey to the warehouse for unloading. By now we were ‘on our chin straps’ no food and another late night. Our morale was rescued by Bryan’s unsolicited demonstration of his Morris dancing in the darkening yard. Well done Bryan.
We were now a team of ten. The Belarusian’s team was about similar and we started the handling of 1500 boxes of all different sizes and weights. The teamwork was tremendous and the hard work by all, especially Emily, Jen and Jo attracted the comment on completion from the main Belarusian man “I think that the English men are tremendous but the English ladies are even better”! On two occasions during the unloading they provided slices of cheese and sliced sausage and one bottle of vodka. We finished the task at just past midnight. They had arranged a big meal for us but it was not now possible and we left the big vehicle in the compound and were taking back to the Hotel in cars arriving at 1am.
Easter Sunday: The one task for today was to collect the big truck from Dobrush and make the final delivery to the Diabetic Association in Gomel. We decided to transfer the delivery from the large trailer on to the 7.5 tonner as the DA is in the town and the smaller truck would be more suitable. Aidan, Harold and myself made the delivery to this association, had a quick unload then a really nice meal and meeting with their team including Riesa the chair person. Gomel, as a result of the Chernobyl explosion, has by far the greatest incidence of diabetes of any city in Belarus and the association has 700 members with 40 new additions this year. Care from the state is minimal and our aid really helps as they, the families, spend much of their income on medicines leaving little for the basics in life.
Jen took the rest of the team on a walking tour of Gomel that included the park and the church there which is spectacular and has a very splendid interior and well worth a visit. Prior to the cessation of the Soviet Union in 1989 such churches fell into disrepair as religion was oppressed by the government. It was Easter Sunday and a service was being held. The girls wore headscarves and mingled with the worshipers as all were standing with no chairs available. The team had coffee in the park and enjoyed the relaxation.
In the afternoon with the team together over a burger and coffee we met with Ludmilla Volkova who visited Hillam annually for 17 years as an interpreter when the Belarusian children came for a month’s respite holiday. She was in great form and her comments and information regarding the situation in Belarus, her own life and that of her family was interesting especially for those making their first visit to the country. Ludmilla has had Thyroid cancer and carries a ‘Chernobyl certificate’ which allows her a pension of just $150 per month! She sends her love and greetings to all who knew her in Hillam and local villages.
Liena Fedorchuk is our team member in Belarus and has always been very involved over the years in all our work supporting the preparation of visa information, manifests and the year around communication with the receivers of our aid. This convoy was no exception and much of our success in making the deliveries is down to the support of Liena. Carole Samuel of the Rotarians at Downham Market near Peterborough had completed work at a school at Rechitsa in the Gomel region where they had provided the funds to install new toilets etc. for the children. Liena was involved with all the various stages and the Rotarians asked me to deliver to Liena a plaque for the school wall and a certificate and personal gifts for her in recognition of her support to the project. It was a pleasure to do so.
In the evening, we had a meal of pizza and a couple of beers in the premises we call ‘Liena’s Bar’. Lots of laughs and more of Bryan’s Morris dancing which the Belarusians just did not understand – not sure we did but it was great entertainment.
Aidan and Mallie walked with Bryan and Harold to the nearby rail station to catch the overnight train to Minsk for their home bound flight to UK and we all made our rooms before 10pm. Up at 6am on Easter Monday morning and on the way home by 7.15am.
Leaving the Hotel for home just after 7am we met Alan and Bob on the border and with the convoy complete again we made the crossing into Poland.
On reflection, it was a hard 10 days with only the last day, Easter Sunday, with a work finish before 10pm. We could have stayed an extra day for R&R but some of the team had commitments at home and others had done it all before so we stuck to the original plan. Jo, Magic and Mallie were excellent team members. They worked hard throughout with lots of laughs. We enjoyed their company and participation.
Our grateful thanks go to all our wider team at home and our supporters without whose constant help we could not manage.
Our task was to deliver aid – to help people in organisations who were helping their less fortunate children and adults – it was not a ‘cooks tour’ – not a holiday – just a job. Job Done!
Mike Allison April 2017