March 2019 Convoy to Belarus

Convoy report March 2019.

Chernobyl Aid UK  

“We have a fridge on the truck that is not on the manifest”.  Bob’s radio call made from outside the X-ray shed at the last stage of clearing the Belarusian customs was a shock as our experience told us that this meant a massive problem and very long delay!

Our three trucks and a small van had made the journey across Europe without mishap and having endured a lengthy delay, almost seven hours, to clear through Polish customs at Kukuriki we had added another five hours in the Belarusian side. Three vehicles were now cleared to leave the customs area and we were waiting for Bob Beech and Harold Jackson to get similar instructions with their vehicle – no such luck as the X-ray identified the fridge that had been omitted from the manifest – just an error but a serious problem.

Bob was informed that his vehicle would be impounded overnight and that he should report to the desk at 9am the following morning. (Friday). He and Harold were given a ‘pass out’ and escorted to the gate to be met by Bob’s Belarusian family with whom they were to spend the night as planned.

The rest of the team:  Andy Wardle, Emily and Jim Bailey, Bryan Selkirk, Ian Savage and Mike Allison stayed, also as planned, at the hotel adjacent to the customs planning for an early start on Friday morning across Belarus to the city of Gomel 350 miles away and just 40 miles from the border with mother Russia. I will come back to Bob’s adventures later.

The build up to this and any convoy is over a period of several months with the collection and preparation of aid,  acquiring and loading of the vehicles, the detailed administration needed to produce the manifests in English and Russian, port documents and CMRs and then the choice of the convoy team – all volunteers prepared to give their time freely and pay their own expenses and spend almost two weeks away from their families and jobs. An important task is the raising of sufficient funds to meet the considerable cost involved.

We make three of these convoys each year and it is only made possible by the efforts of our remarkable teams in all areas.  Barbara and David Cox in Longnor, Buxton With Roy and Ann provide over 7 tons of specially selected aid each year including over a ton of ‘Baby packs’ – knitted items specifically for newly born babies produced by Sue Smith and friends.  The Buxton group are also active in staging events that raise considerable funds each and every year.

In Stockton on Tees, Vera and Alan Wade with Bob, Ian and Veronica similarly attract many tons of aid across a wide range of items including white goods, toilet and bathroom fittings, furniture as well as many walking aids and wheelchairs. Their fund-raising events, often supported by the Stockton Rotarians again are a main part of the charity’s income.

In the Selby Area we have considerable support from the transport company Campeys of Selby over many years. Not only do they provide a trailer for our convoys and warehouse space for our aid stock they maintain the 7.5-ton vehicle, make any necessary repairs and prepare it for its annual MOT. All at no cost to the charity.

Our major fund raiser in this area is our participation in the annual ‘Proms at the Pavilion’ organised by Jen Allison and colleagues at which Campeys   provide two large trailers to be used as the stage. We are very grateful to Paul Campey and ‘Big Mick’ for their support.   In their warehouse at Thorpe Willoughby many items of furniture, household goods, walking aids, wheelchairs, clothing, incontinent pads and hygiene goods are stored.  In Hillam we have additional storage space and truck parking at Sherburn Rubber in Austfield Lane kindly donated free by Mrs Atkinson and Bryan.

On this and previous convoys the large Campey trailer was loaded just two days prior to leaving for the port of Hull and the ferry.   This quite tremendous task – all ‘handball’ – was achieved with the help of a huge contingent of volunteers (commandeered) by Aidan Siney from Telefonica Ltd. Many thanks guys – a great effort.

In the administration detail we deal with foreign procedures and language and Belarus is not the easiest country to deliver to with a culture that still embraces much of that of the Soviet years.  Without the work of our team member in Gomel, Liena Fedarchuk none of this would be possible. Liena co-ordinates the communications from our office with the receiving associations including visa applications and manifest checking and all the work that follows the receipt of the aid delivery.

All was in place for departure however our eight passports for the team did not arrive on the Friday as requested and the Embassy in London, when questioned, informed that they would be posted on Monday – too late we leave on Monday!  A misunderstanding on their part entailed a 6am start on Monday to catch a train London bound from Doncaster – taxi to the Embassy – taxi back to Kings X and the train back to Yorkshire.  Sat on the Selby train to be informed of a cancelation meant a dash to St Pancreas and a train to Sheffield. Andy Wardle with Emily and Jim were travelling North to Selby for the convoy and Andy’s call to me solved a major problem as they collected me from the station in Sheffield and we reached base with very little time to spare before leaving for the port.

The convoy was based on the delivery of aid to three organisations, the organisation for those with impaired sight in Ivatsevichi just over two hours north east on the M1 motorway and to where Bob’s vehicle would deliver. The 7,5 tonner and the small van would deliver to the Diabetic Association in Gomel and the large unit and trailer to the social centre in the town of Dobrush just to the east of the city of Gomel.

These associations are known to us and are run by volunteers, formally and by committee registered by the government who then provide very little in support but like to have the control. As usual our aid is of a wide range but all gets used whether it is a personal item such as clothing and footwear or furniture and equipment that can be used in the centre or their poorly equipped centres.  On our subsequent visits we are shown items delivered on previous visits and there is a real pride by the receivers in how they have made use of the aid.

Our three vehicles having made the long journey across Belarus arrived at the Gomel customs around 5pm on Friday night. Our paperwork is now in the hands of the associations receiving the aid and they have to go through the lengthy customs procedure.  So, we made it to our Hotel in Gomel got cleaned up and were taken to the Diabetic Association office situated in the basement of a block of flats.  Riesa, the head of the association, gave us a presentation on their activities and how they had used the aid we had delivered in October last year.  It is stated that the incidence of Diabetes in Gomel is 100 times greater than in any other city in Belarus. Their help from the state is minimal and Riesa related that once a child reached 18yrs the State interviewed them to examine their living standards with the view of ceasing any further support!  Recently the regional authorities wanted the premises occupied by the Diabetic Association for other purposes and put the pressure on them to move out. Riesa, a formidable character and passionate about the work of the association contacted the President’s assistant who visited the premises with the regional official. After listening to Riesa’s presentation, he instructed the regional authority to ‘back off’ and provide the association with decorating materials and items for the centre.  A big win for Riesa!

The association has over 750 members affected by Diabetes either directly or in the family.  Incomes are minimal and our aid enables what is left to be spent on medicines etc.

Saturday.  We spent the morning in Gomel just relaxing waiting for a call to collect the vehicle from the customs.  We got that at 12 noon but still had to wait another four hours before clearance was given and we could proceed to the unloading in the association’s warehouse.

It is difficult to explain how our paperwork takes almost 6 hours to be cleared at the border customs then another 8 hours in the Gomel customs. So, I will not try!

The result of course is that by now it is late afternoon – Emily and Andy with the Dobrush people headed to unload at their centre while the two smaller trucks went to the Diabetic’s (DA) – teams were waiting at both places and the unloading was rapid.  To call these places warehouses gives a picture of what we know as a typical UK storage place.  Heavy boxes are carried up uneven stairs that would be the delight of the ‘elf and safety’ people here. No toilets, no wash basins. In fact, just ex-soviet, unused slums with rusting iron doors.

Having unloaded the two vehicles at DA we were transported to help with the large trailer at Dobrush. The car driver hit 70k after a few yards in the centre of Gomel. I enquired if they called him Louis Hamilton whereby, he didn’t speak English but understood and passed me his police driving licence! Say no more!  Arriving at Dobrush we were surprised, but delighted to be met by an empty trailer. Job done. It was dark by now and we were taken to their new centre that they are so proud of. We delivered here two or three years ago and our aid stimulated the equipping and opening of the centre that caters for many people with a wide range of physical and mental handicaps and their families.

Again, we had an evening of slide presentations of their work and an excellent table of food plus, of course vodka.  At both the DA in Gomel and here in Dobrush Bryan got dressed up to perform his Morris Dancing complete with many bells around his ankles. To the complete bewilderment of our hosts (and us) he tried to explain the tradition of MD in the UK.  I am sure that there are people in Belarus that now believe that millions of UK residents like nothing better that prancing about in long john’s with bells on our lower legs.

Full marks to Bryan as he showed great courage and received a big round of applause at both venues.  As Bryan had ‘broken the ice’ as it were and possibly the vodka had loosened our British resolve, we teamed up to give a rendition of Old McDonald’s farm.  We brought the house down but as in years ago that should have been the end of it as it was a closed audience and once only event. Not in this day and age as the phones were out and our performance recorded. I am told that it was on Facebook or similar within 24 hours – maybe there will be royalties to come but future such events will have to be restricted.

Just to recap – these people are to be admired. They have very little themselves and work for the less fortunate – they are so grateful for our help – almost frightened to ask for more but just hoping that we will come again.

Sunday in Gomel.  After a late morning rising – well 8am, we met for coffee. Ludmilla Volkova came to meet us for an hour and Liena, our team member in Gomel and Elena from DA came with us to the park where we had a splendid lunch.  Back to the hotel for a rest then off to Liena’s bar, under new ownership, for a pizza meal and beer.

Monday. During the past few days I was in regular contact with Bob and Harold some 350 miles away to monitor their progress and today we were hoping to drive to meet them on the border to make the Wednesday ferry in Holland.

Bob’s and Harold’s story

Thursday the week previous:  Fridge found not on manifest – told to report Friday at 9am which they did but on reporting as instructed they were told to report on Saturday at 9am so they stayed overnight at the hotel we had used just outside the customs complex.

Saturday 9am.  At last they were on the way north east for a four-hour drive to Baranovichi customs for clearance but with a blue light police escort in front to make sure they got there! Their vehicle was unloaded into a large secure warehouse by customs staff and Bob and Harold told to report at 10am on Monday.

That is the day we are leaving for home!  At the customs Evan the head of the association for those with impaired sight and Sasha his interpreter had met with Bob and Harold to conduct the paperwork proceedings. They all returned some two hours back towards the border by Evans’s car to Ivatsevichi where Evan made his house available for them to stay for the two days.  During this period, they were able to visit the proposed centre of the association. It is a typical broken-down building that the local authorities have no plans for and no funds to repair it so they gave it to the association on condition that they repair and maintain it.  Bob reports that the roof is sound but there is no water, no heating, no electric light as such and damaged walls and ceilings. A major task, almost impossible for a local charity but they are very excited about the work and are asking for help. We will look at just what we can do as we already have several items that will be needed such as toilets, bathroom sinks, paint, wall boards and general furniture.

Monday:  Today Bob and Harold are returning with Evan and Sasha to the customs at Baranovichi hoping to clear quickly, reload the vehicle, pay the fine, return to Ivatsevichi, unload and head for the border, however late.  In my call to Bob 350 miles away the plan was that all the vehicles would meet at Ivatsevichi, unload Bob’s vehicle and head for the border together.  So, we set off from Gomel on the M10. Any description of the road as a motorway is rather overstated. About 1pm we reached the P6 to head north to Ivatsevichi. Asking Liena, by mobile, where we would meet up with Bob, she said to make our way to Evan’s house – the key will be under the mat!  How trusting is that? Well, we have stayed there before but it was a nice touch.   Half way up the P6 and a call from Bob to say that the customs refuse to start the reloading and clearance until Tuesday morning at 10am!!  Decision time.  It was decided that the large unit and trailer and the small van should go for the border and the Wednesday ferry in Holland as planned and that Ian and Mike stay with Bob and Harold to assist in the drama that was delaying us. Within five minutes of the decision being made Andy, Emily, Jim and Bryan left for the border and the three-day drive for the ferry.

Evan brought Bob and Harold back to his house, where we had a meal and they left early so that we could relax.

I was pleasantly surprised at the demeanour of both Bob and Harold who could have been well stressed but to the contrary they were quite relaxed almost saying “well this is Belarus!”  “What do you expect?”

Tuesday.  We returned to Baranovichi customs and reloading commenced. I was asked to make a declaration of why the fridge was not on the manifest indicating the manufacture’s name and serial number of the machine and the value. It was a brand-new fridge among eight donated by IKEA – when asked what value would be acceptable as it was donated free to us and free to them – they agreed £80 – a lot of money out there. Written on letterhead, signed and charity stamped.  An hour later they returned from the office to ask to increase the value to £100 but it had to be written again on new letterhead signed and stamped.  This time the document also got a customs stamp!  Another hour and I was again asked to rewrite the whole thing on my last piece of letterhead and put the value to £350!  You don’t argue you just do it!  Later, just prior to leaving a very smart customs officer asked the interpreter to read four full pages of typed detail to Bob that Bob had to sign many times to admit his ‘violation’ (smuggling) and that the customs themselves had carried out their role professionally at all times.  I think Bob would have signed anything just to get out of there. They, the customs officers were polite throughout but there was not a chance of them making an exception for our error or the fact the Bob was just the driver carrying out instructions.  They just follow their systems and if that takes time – so what?

It was after 4pm when we drove out of the customs for the 2 plus hour drive to Ivatsevichi and almost dark when we got there. At 7pm we had made a record unloading of the vehicle into Evan’s warehouse. Evan asked if we wanted refreshments – he got a hug instead and within minutes we had said our goodbyes and were heading for the border which we had decided to cross into Poland that night with a plan to get the Friday ferry. We could not risk a similar crossing as the inbound one.  Despite our vehicles being empty the procedures took a long time and we made it into Poland reaching our hotel Dukat some 30 minutes later at 4.30am. That had been a long day but we were now in Europe with time to spare.  Leaving in the early afternoon of Wednesday the journey was routine we were in contact with Andy and the other vehicles each day and they were pushing for their ferry tonight at 8pm latest.

They made it with minutes to spare.  We had confirmed with the port that two of the vehicles needed to travel Friday instead of the booked crossing on Wednesday so the pressure was off.

Thursday: Andy and the early team docked in Hull returned the Campey trailer to Thorpe Willoughby, collected their cars then travelled home South returning the hired unit to Kings Lynn and the van to Leek on the way.

We made the Friday ferry and docked in Hull the following day, two days later than planned,  Very tired.

Job well done!

Since returning we are already receiving comments and requests from the organisations who send their many thanks and greetings to their friends in UK.  Their task now is to check the aid items and present documentation that has to be accepted by the customs and other authorities to allow clearance and distribution hopefully within a few weeks.  To them it is the norm – to us?  Well, after all these years we have come to accept it but we certainly do not understand it.

Many thanks to all who have contributed in whatever way to enable us to deliver much needed aid to so many people less fortunate than ourselves.


Mike Allison

Chernobyl Aid UK

April 2019