Two evenings ago, we arrived back from our trip along the Romanian border, from Isaccea in the South to Siret in the North. When we arrived in Siret to deliver our final pieces of equipment to our friends there, they were already getting ready to drive a convoy of trucks across the border to Cernauti (Chernivtsi), which is something they have been doing almost daily since the war began. After helping them load their trucks, Liviu suggested that, if they needed a driver, we could help – indeed, they needed a reliable driver, and before we knew it, we were driving a small truck in a humanitarian convoy into Ukraine.
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be in a humanitarian convoy, we can tell you, it’s fun! It goes something like this: Drive, wait, drive, drive, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, drive, wait, wait, drive, drive, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait – unloading action – and repeat on return. It was basically a lot of waiting, with small bursts of action in between.
The stream of refugees walking in the cold, carrying pets, suitcases and children in their arms, was seemingly endless. Some were wrapped in blankets, some were trying to wrap themselves in heavy carpets to shield from the icy wind.
The border at Siret was by far the most emotional sight of them all. The stream of refugees walking in the cold, carrying pets, suitcases and children in their arms, was seemingly endless. Some were wrapped in blankets, some were trying to wrap themselves in heavy carpets to shield from the icy wind. At this moment, we felt, more than ever, like our efforts are just a drop in an endless ocean. On the Ukrainian side of the border, we saw the long queues of cars and people that we’ve heard about and seen on the news. It’s something quite different to see it in real life, so close to home. Both Liviu and I felt guilty about the comfortable layer of merino wool we were wearing under our clothes, and talked about how we could bring some to these freezing people who are made to wait for so many long hours in the cold. That might be something for another day.
Cernauti (Chernivtsi) is a town just about 38 km (24 miles) from the border. The road was terrible, so it took us about 50 minutes to drive. We arrived first at a large hospital, and after waiting there for some time, we were redirected to a large sports hall on the other side of town. It was a strange feeling in this place. While people were out on the streets, going about their business as usual, there was a cloud of heaviness, grief, fear and uncertainty that was almost tangible, looming over the entire city. The sports hall had been transformed into a temporary emergency reception centre, and there were constantly trucks coming in and trucks going out. Darkness fell and we waited some more. In the waiting, we got to know some of the military guards who were on duty. We received an incredibly warm welcome, everyone wanting to make sure we knew they were thankful for our support. It was all very emotional and humbling.
Liviu, who speaks a little bit of Russian, befriended a guard who spoke a little bit of Romanian. His father was Romanian and his mother was Jewish, but he hadn’t practiced his little Romanian for years, so he was putting one word of Romanian amongst a hundred Ukrainian. Somehow, Liviu’s experience with Russian from a few years of living in Chisinau, helped them carry a conversation. Just how meaningful the interaction was transpired a few hours later when, in the evening, the guard found us again to say goodnight and to thank us, giving Liviu a big tearful hug. Liviu’s unique gift of making people know they are loved, seen and respected, is extremely valuable in these situations that we are now finding ourselves in.
It took us a few hours to unload the four trucks in our convoy, which were filled with wheelchairs, beds, crutches, walking chairs, and other medical essentials, some of which was brought all the way from Sweden. From time to time, we went into the sports hall to take a break and warm ourselves. The club café was a resting place for the soldiers and the volunteers there, and they served hot tea and coffee, sandwiches and biscuits. Knowing how little they have, we were hesitant to accept anything from them. Instead, we (mostly Liviu) spent the time getting to know some of the people there. Some of the faces and the conversations will be etched into our memories forever.
When we were finally done unloading the goods, we hurried back into our trucks to make it out of the city before curfew. We hardly managed to keep up with the other truck drivers, who were apparently accustomed to driving big trucks on broken roads at high speed, and saw no good reason to wait around for us. With hazard lights on, we drove out of the city and towards the border, but before making it that far, we made another stop at a pastor’s house.
Even if I spoke perfect Romanian, I wouldn’t know what to say, so we just stood there and looked at each other, tears in our eyes, unspoken understanding resting between us.
The lady of the house had prepared a feast for us, which we accepted with gratitude, and which lasted for exactly 7 minutes before we again had to rush back into our trucks. The lady, speaking Romanian, never stopped crying, as she talked about her country, Ukraine, and what nightmarish news she had received from friends and family in other cities. Even if I spoke perfect Romanian, I wouldn’t know what to say, so we just stood there and looked at each other, tears in our eyes, unspoken understanding resting between us.
We rushed back to our trucks, and drove in the convoy, hazard lights on, back to the border with Romania. Another round of waiting and watching the Ukrainian refugees, who were still waiting outside in the cold, and still waiting in their cars to cross the border. Our waiting was nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to theirs. It was past midnight by the time we got back to our own van. There was no place to sleep in Suceava – every single hotel or pension completely full – but we managed to get the last room available in the next town. It was close to 3am before we got in bed, thankful for a warm place and clean sheets, and our hearts and minds filled with everything we had experienced that day.
The next morning we started another full day of driving back to Cluj. The closer we got to home, the more our exhaustion and emotion was coming to the surface. We took turns praying, crying, talking and being silent, and, before we knew it, we were back home.
Yesterday we worked, rested, and took one of our new Ukrainian friends out for dinner – the lady who came with her three dogs. Her father and husband are still in Ukraine – her father refusing to leave and her husband unable to. Her hometown, where her father still lives, is being bombed daily by Russian missiles. Knowing there is nothing for her to go back to, we’re now looking for a more permanent place for her, her mother, and her three dogs.
We’re soon expecting another family, an elderly couple, who’ve just made it across the border today. We look forward to welcoming them when they arrive. They were supposed to come together with an elderly sister (90 years old), and a young lady who’s seven months pregnant, but unfortunately, we received the painful news yesterday that they’ve decided to stay in Ukraine.
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