On Saturday 20th April, “Convoy 14”, of the Ukraine Freedom Company (UFC), consisting of three vehicles loaded with vital humanitarian aid, departed a loading base in the South West of England on the first stage of its journey to the Donbas region of war-torn Ukraine.

Three hours earlier, the crews, a diverse mix of British volunteers drawn from all walks of life (including an HGV driver, an insurance fraud investigator, an accountant, a retired head teacher, an entrepreneur and a young web designer) met for the first time to receive a briefing from the UFC Operations Officer, who explained what they were going to do and how they were going to do it – in a speedy but safe manner.

Convoy 14’s mission was to convey vital humanitarian aid to Ukraine in order to alleviate the suffering of a people oppressed by an illegal invasion by the Russian Army. The team – led by a charismatic and no-nonsense veteran of 34 humanitarian trips to the area – immediately gelled and set to work preparing the vehicles for the planned 1875-mile journey to Ukraine’s fourth largest metropolis of Dnipro, a former Cossack city originally called Novyi Kodak.

By mid-morning, the vehicles were packed and fully prepared and (after a strong cup of coffee or two) so too were the driver volunteers. The team departed in high spirits against the peaceful backdrop of a sunny but chilly English pastoral landscape – a far cry from the region to which they were heading.

The intended route was expected to take the best part of four days and so each vehicle was manned by two volunteers who would take turns driving to maximise alertness. The vehicles, to which each volunteer would come to develop a certain fondness, were linked by secure radios with Ian and John in Call Sign Victor 1, Mark and Sam in 2 and David and Graham “tail end Charlie” in Victor 3.

The next four days were long and tiring, broken only by overnight stays at hotels in Holland, Germany and Poland, before arriving at the Polish-Ukrainian border crossing point at 0543 hours on Tuesday 23rd April 24. It was here that the wheels could have come off the plan as first Polish and then Ukrainian border police scrutinised every aspect of the documentation with a dogged determination that was perhaps slightly overly zealous. Three hours later, the team were cleared to enter Ukrainian territory and sent on their way eastwards: Convoy 14 was now in theatre.

 

 

The convoy stopped briefly for a photo opportunity in front of a large road sign displaying the Ukrainian national flag of azure blue on yellow adorned with the ubiquitous symbol of a golden trident or Tryzub and bearing the word YKPAЇHA [Ukraine], before continuing eastwards. At the first opportunity, the group stopped at a shop where they were served by a very friendly and extremely helpful shopkeeper who, unflustered by the groups unintelligible attempts to speak Ukrainian and assisted by other equally welcoming but slightly bemused Ukrainian shoppers, sold the group refreshments and local mobile phone sim cards.

Travelling along well-kept highways (almost totally devoid of litter) through scenery alternating between forests, gently undulating hillsides, occasional rustic villages and seemingly endless fields tilled by very small tractors, the convoy continued onwards according to a tightly planned schedule. It arrived at its first drop off point in central Ukraine at mid-day on Tuesday.

There, they were met by an eager and very articulate self-employed Ukrainian man who coordinated the local distribution of civil aid in his spare time. He welcomed the team with a sincere and genuine warmth of spirit (something the crews were to experience in all of their dealings with the Ukrainian people) and after checking the paperwork took receipt of the aid allocated to his region before bidding the team a heartfelt farewell.

The convoy then took time to rest overnight at a local hostelry in preparation for the delivery of aid the next day at prearranged rendezvous points in eastern Ukraine.

The devastation caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24th February 2022 and the ongoing war fighting in the Crimea and Donbas regions occasionally makes front page news, but the ever-present threat and reality of Russian missile strikes

throughout Ukraine rarely elicits media attention here in the UK. Nonetheless, the Ukrainian people – united in spirit against a Russian army intent on their destruction – casually still go about their daily business to keep the economy going. It was against this backdrop that the volunteers slept that night and failed to be woken by an early morning air raid warning!

The Convoy’s next task was to deliver pharmaceutical aid to an undisclosed location in Dnipro. It was here that the convoy was met by a group of aid coordinators who guided the group into a walled compound, where the supplies were quickly unloaded and transferred into a nearby store in readiness for onward distribution. The Ukrainian coordinators were visibly moved by the donation of the much-needed hospital supplies, but they were equally grateful for and reassured by the knowledge that the British people are supportive of their struggle in time of war.

Flying the Flag

Over the next couple of days, the Team delivered aid at other locations in the Donbas region, all of it received with the same generosity of spirit and heartfelt thanks. It was in Dnipro that the Call Sign Victor 2 duo had to say a fond farewell to their steadfast green van, as it was being left behind to transport vital supplies in the local area.

With the mission nearly complete, the convoy headed to Kyiv. There they handed over one of the 4x4s before half of the team took the overnight train to Poland before flying the last leg back to the UK.

The remainder set up camp in a rented apartment near the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, close to the city centre. This intrepid threesome was tasked with handing over the last of the vehicles to an Army unit from the Kharkiv region the following day.

The Ukrainian unit duly arrived, but only after a delay caused by the need to take an alternative route because of Russian bombing. They were warmly welcomed, and after an inspection of the vehicles and a formal handing over of the keys, they presented the trio of volunteers with a Ukrainian banner, signed by each member of their party and emblazoned with their regimental details. The banner now has pride of place in the UFC Head Office.

The Kharkiv soldiers then mounted up and departed in the direction whence they came.

The remaining group now set their minds to task of soaking up the local culture and visiting places of interest. One of the three who remained is married to a Ukrainian, and so he has a real and long-standing link to the country. Indeed, he still mourns a close friend called Oleg Lebedev – a successful lawyer who answered his country’s call and fought with honour until he was killed in action in December 2022.

Spirit of the People

The trio visited various key points over the next few days, most notably, the awesome Motherland Statue [a 102-meter-tall metal statue which depicts a ‘woman holding a sword and a shield, symbolising the courage and strength of the Ukrainian people’], the frighteningly high Klitschko Glass Bridge over Saint Volodymyr Descent and the beautiful gold domed Saint Michael’s Monastery, where two of the group briefly attended a service and the adjacent square where destroyed Russian hardware is exhibited.

R & R

The group later visited Taras Shevchenko Park where locals play chess for money. It was here that one hopeful member of the party challenged an elderly man to a game. The man’s chess set was old and chipped, but his mind was sharp, and he quickly beat the English volunteer!

Wall of Remembrance

The most important and poignant of all the places visited was The Wall of Remembrance, which runs along Trohsvyatitelska Street just off Mykhailivs’ka Square. It is here that Ukraine’s fallen are commemorated with a photograph and service details. Oleg, pictured wearing combat fatigues and carrying an AK74 rifle, was one of them. It is one thing to read about war losses in a newspaper or on the web, but quite another to see the faces of Ukrainians who, until recently, had their whole lives ahead of them.

The next day, the three remaining volunteers, accompanied by a friend of the group, took the Metro to Лісове кладовище [Forest Cemetery] situated on the northern outskirts of Kyiv to pay their respects to Oleg, now interred in a military plot called The Alley of Heroes. The Alley of Heroes is a large plot containing the graves of hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers killed defending their country. Each grave is marked by a large wooden Ukrainian Orthodox Cross and a photograph of the deceased.

Remembering

Oleg Lebedev (Oleg’s surname means Swan in Ukrainian and so his comrades called him ‘The Swan’) was a cheerful, sociable and very charming man who warrants remembrance, and so the team took time out to consider Oleg’s life and the manner

of his passing. They then left The Alley of Heroes mindful of the fact that all of the graves were recent and that more were being prepared.

The last members of Convoy 14 arrived back in the UK on Wednesday 1st May 24.

All-in-all it was a very successful mission, that was well organised and superbly led. Well done the Ukrainian Freedom Company – roll on the next trip.