By Brian Dooley
When Russian troops invaded Ukraine, 38-year old Marek had just passed his driving test. He is from eastern Poland, and wanted to help with the humanitarian crisis of people fleeing the war.
He immediately bought a small old car with his savings, and has since made many trips back and forth across the border.
Travelling from Poland into Ukraine, Marek brings medical and other supplies into the country, then crams as many people as he can into his white Fiat Punto for the return trip to the safety of Poland.
“I try to take those who can’t afford to pay, always women and kids,” he says. “I take them either to an official reception center in Poland or, if they want, a railway station where they can take trains further into Europe.”
Marek’s not part of an official operation, and no one pays him for this work. He has to fundraise to cover the costs of gas. The car is old and sometimes breaks down, and he has to find money for repairs.
He’s taken off time from his regular job to do this, and after weeks of ping-ponging across the Poland-Ukraine border, he has lost count of how many trips he has made or how many people he has ferried to safety. It’s exhausting, tiring work. Occasionally he works with a few friends who have a truck and can bring more stuff in, and more people out. Much of the time he takes his own car and is on his own.
“I use a small border crossing where they know me now — it’s quicker to get through, and they know I’m bringing supplies in, and people out.”
Marek is a determined, if inexperienced, driver. He takes me across the border in his car crammed with medical dressings, diapers, sanitary products, bottles of vitamins, various medicines, and soft toys for small kids. I’m bringing some protective gear and medicines to human rights defenders in Ukraine that Human Rights First has worked with for many years. Many have scattered across the country. Some are working as medics in cities being shelled and bombed, and asked us if we could get them some supplies.
“I give the gear I bring into Ukraine to people I trust to distribute it,” he says. “But there is a curfew at night and I try to get into Ukraine, across the border to the city of Lviv, drop off the medical supplies, pick up people who want to leave, and I drive back out into Poland before it’s dark.” Sometimes he doesn’t make it in time and has to spend the night in Ukraine.
“People donate all this stuff, getting supplies isn’t that hard, it’s getting them into Ukraine that’s the challenge,” Marek explained as Ukrainian soldiers wave us through a checkpoint. The country is under martial law, into its fourth week of invasion by Russian troops, and military checkpoints punctuate the main roads, with soldiers examining IDs.
He drops me off, and turns around to head back west into Poland. Marek is a part of a huge humanitarian effort under way across eastern Europe. Thousands of volunteers are driving, making food, helping with transport and advice, offering medical help and shelter, and providing humanity in war.