Cork convoy diary: Cork volunteers to return to Ukrainian border

Caitríona Twomey felt the journey had also worked well as a fact-finding mission and, now that the volunteers knew their way around the border area of southeast Poland, they intended to return in the coming weeks and would be using the lessons learned to streamline their next visit.
Cork convoy diary: Cork volunteers to return to Ukrainian border

Volunteers cleaning waste ground beside the Medyka border crossing in Poland. Picture: Donal O'Keeffe

“WHEN we were unloading humanitarian supplies at the Redemptorist Centre in Leżajsk, a van pulled up and a man jumped out and said to us, ‘I’m from Ireland.’ When I went to introduce myself, he said, ‘Sure I know who you are, Caitríona. You used to feed me in Penny Dinners.’”

For Caitríona Twomey, it was a sign that the members of Cork Humanitarian Aid Ireland had come to the right place in Poland.

“He was a man who had fallen on hard times a few years back and he had come to us for help, and now that he was back on his feet, he had come to Poland to help people fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”

The Irish group, which is made up of six volunteers from Cork City Missing Persons Search and Recovery (CCMPSAR) and four volunteers from Cork Penny Dinners, set out from Cork last Tuesday with a convoy of five vans, carrying 15 tonnes of humanitarian aid donated by the people of Cork.

On Saturday evening, at the border crossing at Medyka, a full day after they were initially turned back, five volunteers from CCMPSAR loaded almost 7 tonnes of aid into a container in a yard in the no man’s land between Poland and Ukraine.

Dr Anastasia Koloka, a Ukrainian cardiologist who had driven from Kyiv to meet them, had waited overnight in her truck in the neutral zone, in freezing temperatures that dipped as low as -10C.

Initially on Friday night, Polish border officials had refused the Irish volunteers entry to the neutral zone, telling them they could instead enter Ukraine itself but might not be allowed back into Poland.

A day later, after queuing for almost nine hours, the CCMPSAR members were told they would not be allowed in as the Ukrainian government would insist on seeing the original logbooks for their rented vans, rather than photocopies of documentation that was back in Cork.

Caitriona Twomey with the Cork Humanitarian aid Ireland convoy leaving from Cork , included are Donal O'Keeffe, Christy O'Donovan, Dan Kerins, Tony Gardiner, David Feeney,Tomas Kaliinauskas, Filipe Pombino, David Shine and David Varian Picture Eddie O'Hare
Caitriona Twomey with the Cork Humanitarian aid Ireland convoy leaving from Cork , included are Donal O'Keeffe, Christy O'Donovan, Dan Kerins, Tony Gardiner, David Feeney,Tomas Kaliinauskas, Filipe Pombino, David Shine and David Varian Picture Eddie O'Hare

At this point, Dr Koloka contacted the Ukrainian consulate and border officials were persuaded to waive this requirement. Soon, the three vans were bouncing across frozen dirt roads to a freight yard behind the border crossing, where the volunteers loaded the aid from their vans into a container bound for Kyiv.

Dr Koloka told The Echo that there was a critical shortage of medical supplies and baby food in Ukraine, with orphanages being particularly affected, and she said the aid from Cork was desperately needed.

“Our friends from Ireland have saved many lives with the supplies they brought to us,” she said. “They have brought a lot of baby food and that is needed badly but the medical supplies will also be very appreciated in hospitals and medical facilities across Kyiv.

“We are very thankful to all the people who travel thousands of miles to save the lives of Ukrainian babies,” she said.

An hour’s drive away, Ms Twomey and four other volunteers were unloading a further load of aid, similarly almost 7 tonnes in weight, at a centre operated by the Redemptorist order in the city of Leżajsk.

“When we arrived, they had lemonade and sandwiches waiting for us,” Ms Twomey told The Echo. “Fr Gerry O’Connor in Blackrock had made the connection with Fr Krystoff for us and he has colleagues, fellow Redemptorist priests, working all across Poland and Ukraine.

“They were delighted to see us, especially when we showed up there with two vans packed like Mary Poppins’ bag. They were particularly happy that we had brought sleeping bags and tents, things which are badly needed in Ukraine.

“The Redemptorist organisation is formidable here and, within an hour of our arrival, the vans had been unpacked and the humanitarian aid was in an artic and on its way to Ukraine,” Ms Twomey said.

“Fr Krystoff told us the aid we had delivered would help many people in Ukraine and that is all down to all of the people in Cork who supported our appeal and who volunteered to sort donations and to pack boxes, and everyone who contributed in any way.

“Bishop Fintan Gavin gave us the use of the visitor centre at the back of the North Cathedral, and it was just so heart-warming to see so many people who came to the visitor centre because they wanted to help the people of Ukraine. And, not to be outdone, Bishop Paul Colton sponsored the price of getting our vans over and back on the ferry to Cherbourg. So we were an ecumenical mission.”

Ms Twomey said once the volunteers had completed their delivery to Fr Krystoff at the Redemptorist Centre in Leżajsk, they returned to Tarnów, where they purchased €2,000 worth of nappies, baby food, pot noodles, tinned food, packets of soup, chocolate and protein bars, crackers, and other foods, which they then delivered to the refugee reception centre in the train station at Tarnów.

Volunteers from Cork Humanitarian Aid Ireland Chris O’Donovan, Kieran Coniry, Dan Kerins, Dave Shine and Dave Varian after loading six tonnes of humanitarian aid for delivery to Kyiv. Picture: Donal O'Keeffe
Volunteers from Cork Humanitarian Aid Ireland Chris O’Donovan, Kieran Coniry, Dan Kerins, Dave Shine and Dave Varian after loading six tonnes of humanitarian aid for delivery to Kyiv. Picture: Donal O'Keeffe

“When the young women working in the shop discovered why we were buying so much, they wanted to help and they insisted on giving us their discount cards, which meant we were able to buy €2,000 worth of goods and only pay €1,300,” Ms Twomey said.

As Ms Twomey was speaking to The Echo, CCMPSAR treasurer Chris O’Donovan interrupted to say that the €700 saved by using discount cards was spent on Sunday morning on a further supply run for the reception centre.

“We absolutely cleaned that shop out. They couldn’t believe how much money we spent there,” Mr O’Donovan said.

He said the volunteers, who are due back in Cork toward the end of this week, intended to make further shopping trips around the area to stock up the refugee reception centre at Tarnów station.

“We were told on Sunday that they just cannot get enough nappies, baby food, baby clothing, and baby bottles, which tells its own story about who is arriving every day at Tarnów station.

“What is happening in Ukraine is an atrocity and the people who are fleeing to Poland are arriving with nothing, so if we can do anything to help them, it’s the least we can do,” he said.

Ms Twomey said the trip to Poland had been a success and had been particularly heartened by the response of Fr Krystoff and Dr Koloka, both of whom had said the work of the Irish volunteers had saved lives in Ukraine.

She said she felt the journey had also worked well as a fact-finding mission and, now that the volunteers knew their way around the border area of southeast Poland, they intended to return in the coming weeks and would be using the lessons learned to streamline their next visit.

“We will fill two artics with humanitarian aid and hopefully get the drivers sponsored by their employers, and they would then drive to the Redemptorist Centre in Leżajsk and then we would fly out to meet them there,” Ms Twomey said. “We would then hire vans and distribute the aid to where it is needed. It would be a more cost-effective way of helping people and we would be able to do greater good with people’s donations.

“We did some good this week and hopefully that work is only just beginning.”

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