To Poland and beyond…

David Hamilton started with EDA nearly 30 years ago as a driver in Bosnia. He is on the management committee of the charity and a serving police officer

Here he blogs about his experience on his EDA recce into Poland.

The purpose of this trip was to do gather information and do a recce to see what was going on in Przmsyl , Poland, (the largest of the Border Crossings from Ukraine to Europe and make recommendations to the Management Committee).

Accompanying me on the trip was Rachel Watson, a journalist with the Daily Mail and Scottish Sun, but who also had a real interest in helping and who took some leave to join me.

On Sunday 13th March 2022 Rachel and I left Edinburgh for Krakow. The 2.5 hr flight was followed by a 3 hr car journey to our accommodation. We chose a quiet holiday lodge 40 miles west of Przemysl so as not to take up accommodation that might be needed by refugees. The other lodges were occupied by journalists.

On Monday 14th March, we left our accommodation and travelled to the refugee reception centre in Przmsyl. The car park of this disused shopping centre was full of Charites and NGOs  from across Europe. There were buses and many many refugees. We got there early and the  Drivers Reception Centre was still full of beds- all cramped together.
Rachel and I registered as drivers and “learnt” the system.

Przmysl Humanitarian Aid Centre

Refugees were taken to the centre from the border by bus and then asked where they wanted to go. There were different shop units in the shopping centre that corresponded to countries. Ashamedly the UK was not one of them. Your country reception would then match you to a bus or a volunteer driver.  The volunteer drivers had to be registered and you couldn’t leave the centre with a refugee unless you were accredited. This basic safeguarding process was to prevent the increasing number of people traffickers from exploiting the system.

One chap we met from The UK had driven 1800 miles and had taken families to the Baltic states, Gdańsk and was offering to take people to England as he returned home. Unfortunately he couldn’t guarantee entry.

The atmosphere in the shopping centre was the same as I had felt in Tuzla, Bosnia 30 years earlier.  Calm, somber, dignified and purposeful- but sadness too. In the car park children played with toy cars while mothers registered for free SIM cards. Perhaps predictably there were piles of donated goods around the site. Some had been rummaged through -but most will be landfilled.

We then drove  to Medyka, right on the border. There we saw that  buses had replaced the earlier work Maggie had been doing shuttling people the few miles into Przmsyl. Surprisingly there were quite a few vehicles travelling into Ukraine.

The site was well managed and police, military and fire were present in numbers, marshalling the crowds on to buses.The paved walkway to the border was not dissimilar to a market with stalls on either side of an avenue. Again we witnessed piles of donated clothes etc just sitting out in the open unwanted.

There was a constant buzz at Medyka, a constant stream of refugees, visibly relieved to be ‘safe’ . Again very few tears, in fact you frequently forgot that there was a war, people just walking with their bags. Their entire lives in them.

Almost all the refugees were women with children. Very few single women and of course no men. It was also notable that there were very few old people. I fear there must be many who will not/ cannot leave. We also saw many dogs, and there was even an animal charity with on-site vet.

The most notable group we met were a charity called “Siobhans Trust”, a charity that has been active in feeding programmes in Dundee, run by the wonderful David Fox-Pitt MBE.

Siobhans Trust have the same ethos and values as EDA, which is why frankly I felt so at home. Driven purely by their mission to help, they are 100% volunteers. They sleep in their vehicles/ in tents and are operating 24/7. They provide soup, porridge, tortillas, chocolate, tea and coffee. Oh how Ukrainians love their ‘chai’!

But their real coup was the the two pizza ovens they had and team of volunteer pizza chefs that churned out dozens  of pizzas a day. The absolute delight in the faces of children as they were offered Pizza yards after crossing the border really was magical.

Pizza Delight

We found the Ukrainians at times reluctant to take things, and one woman even tried to pay for her cup of coffee. We also found a dog being swaddled by its owner- apparently with a broken hip. We were able to get her Vetinary assistance from the animal rescue charity.

Animal Charity distributing Pet food, Leads and providing vet care
8 week old pup being Puppy-sat by the vets while Mum takes a break

And then there was  Vassa aged 13 and ‘Jobba’ his rat like creature (I have no idea what he is)  aged 6. We were able to give Vassa, his  brother and mother a seat and some fresh pizza. Meanwhile Jobba got an apple! Rodentarian Aid alive and well.

Vassa and Jobba
Jobba gets some Rodentarian Aid

The opertion is continuous, day and night. Soup, rolls and my speciality- scrambled egg and red pepper frittatas. A constant supply of welcoming food for refugees. One American journalist called those at the stall “The Ambassadors of the World”.

Siobhan’s Trust Tent

In the evening when the sun goes down the temperatures plummet and we knew that the queues on the Ukraine side were big. David Fox-Pitt had managed to get across earlier in the day with some food and we decided to run constant humanitarian aid “convoys” of shopping trolleys containing vats of soup.

David Fox leads Convoy 2 with David and Rachel Driving Trolley 3

It was odd going across the border, a Ukrainian stamp on my passport wasn’t on the agenda but in this type of situation you go with the need and there were 100s of women and children queuing in the freezing night.

It was a long push to the border and the border guards waved us through relatively quickly. In Ukraine it seemed almost business as usual at the border-painfully slow! You’d never know there was a war until we passed the foreign legion recruitment tent.

The Ukrainians were delighted to see us, even those who didn’t want soup. It certainly raised a few chuckles when they heard some daft Scots shouting “soupa” in appalling accents. A kilted David Fox even put on a Scottish dance lesson for some kids.

We must have served hundreds of people and got the chance to share a joke with some. There’s always a place for humour in these situations- even when you don’t speak each other’s language.

Whilst in Ukraine we met another NGO who were giving out tea to the crowds. Ukrainians love their chai (not sure if I mentioned that!). They may not be able to stay much longer and are looking for someone else to take over. I left my card.

Once we had dished out all our food we returned through the border, but the queues were going so slowly.  One woman we met had been waiting 7 hours to cross. We can’t see any need for this, as the Poles were only operating 2 booths and it was painful slow.

Returning to Poland with our trolleys we felt both happy that we’d found and fed people, who didn’t know how long and cold a night lay ahead.

Ukranians love their “Chai”!

After a few more pizza deliveries Rachel and I made our way back to Pzrmysl where I had arranged to catch up with a friend David Pond ( who was working at the station. David is a retired Naval Commander who helped coordinate Relief  logistics in the Balkans in the 90s. He has been running mother and baby units at various reception centres in Poland. Trains come in regularly and another 3000 refugees disembark, he’d been exhausted over the last week but getting asleep away from the station had helped. It was a bit quieter than normal so we were able to exchange thoughts, experiences and ideas on the back of which I will be contacting our Minister for Ukrainian Refugees Neil Gray MSP. David’s “quiet” night was however to get turned upside down and he was later to be looking after  21 babies and their exhausted mothers when another influx came.

David Pond and David Hamilton, grab a quick chat

We drove back to our lodge late and talked through what we’d seen and felt. I find that kind of decompression with people who have shared such an unusual experience so important. Although Rachel and I are professional communicators it can be difficult to put this kind of experience into words. Emotionally and physically shattered but still more to do.

Posted in David, In the Field.