From Spain to Ukraine: a journey in a caravan of solidarity that crosses Europe

The miles that separate other countries from the Ukrainian border have not dampened the immense outburst of support from those watching the war from afar. We accompanied one of these expeditions on a round trip of aid.

Published 30 Mar 2022, 11:02 BST
On their way east, caravans leaving Spain have to travel more than 3,000 kilometres (1,800 miles). ...

On their way east, caravans leaving Spain have to travel more than 3,000 kilometres (1,800 miles). Here, one of the solidarity caravans travels along the road near Prague in the Czech Republic.
 

 

Photograph by CRISTINA CRESPO GARAY

The walkie-talkies chirp, giving warnings from kilometre to kilometre while I type on my laptop in a van where there is barely a centimetre to spare. The boxes of donations collected in the last 48 hours total more than a ton on wheels: seven other vehicles in front and a 50-seater bus behind are also on their way to the Ukrainian border.

From the city of Przemysl, in Poland, we are receiving messages intermittently but hurriedly. Another fellow journalist is there, at the border refugee centre, making his way through the chaos after crossing Europe in another solidarity caravan. "Above all, we need children's things, coats, nappies, baby food, as well as bandages, tranquilisers, cans of food, sleeping bags and inflatable mattresses," he tells us from the Polish town of Medyka, which is just this side of the Ukrainian border.

We were loaded down with it all. As we organised the donations, I researched the myriad forms that solidarity in my local Spain had taken in recent weeks. I was inundated with messages about more and more caravans, including this one that I had joined thanks to the NGO Juntos por la Vida (Together for Life), about twenty volunteers and the company Lastlap. All the initiatives started the same: "We have to do something". Social networks, collaboration and the Spanish spirit of solidarity do the rest.

(Refugees fleeing war face racism at Europe's border.) 

Travelling the roads of Poland towards the Ukraine border.

Photograph by CRISTINA CRESPO GARAY

The roads are quiet after crossing the Polish border, heading for Ukraine.

Photograph by CRISTINA CRESPO GARAY

The other side of the war

Juntos por la Vida, an organisation that has been working with Ukraine for more than 25 years, was born as a result of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, from where they set up a family foster care program for children who go to homes in Valencia. However, this is one of the only NGOs actively working on the ground in this field. "Here, it's society that has stepped up," says Franzesca, a volunteer at the centre.

Supermarket chains, cab groups, youth organisations, private transport companies, groups of friends and even people who get together through social networks, get in the car and set off to help. An unbridled and, at first, disorganised solidarity, on which some NGOs place part of the responsibility for the increase in human trafficking and mafias. But they all agree on one thing: "Society is pulling out all the stops, we couldn't even fit all the donations into three more caravans," says Andrea, the organiser of a convoy of friends who left last Thursday for Warsaw.

"The risk of human trafficking increases in war contexts," says Caritas Spain. "The continuous flow of women, girls, boys and adolescent war refugees fleeing Ukraine is a breeding ground for human trafficking networks."

Like the caravans leaving Spain, many people are offering assistance at the Ukrainian border with transportation and accommodation. These factors, "coupled with the fact that many of the refugees frequently arrive without documentation, and without anyone being able to report them missing, are key elements to take into account for the risk of being captured by mafias."

"The problem of drivers is real," warns Claudia, a volunteer with Juntos por la Vida. "We only operate with buses, there have been too many cases of missing people and rapes. Now, if you don't come with an association, they are very unlikely to accept you. We have been contacted by people saying they thought they were not being taken to Spain".

“Society is pulling out all the stops, we couldn't even fit all the donations into three more caravans.”

Andrea

Crossing Europe

While the broken white lines on the roads begin to become monotonous, we are still pressing on with the NGO to bring back the refugee families who have already been accepted in Spain. After more than a month of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, already has more than 3.5 million international refugees.

Solidarity with the displaced is reaching levels never seen before throughout Europe. Shelters have also sprung up in numerous cities in our country. Spain's Refugee Reception Plan aims to quickly implement mechanisms to provide immediate protection for families and resources to offer them a future.

After several hundred kilometres, that night the French city of Dijon welcomes us after a long delay caused by an intense line of traffic, but time is money and, at six o'clock, the caravan sets course for the German border. We still have almost 1,700 kilometres to go.

On the way I contact an old German friend who confirms that they are also organising thousands of donations and solidarity convoys that arrive continuously at the border. The number plates we come across further on, in Poland, prove it.

Left: Top:

At the refugee centre, volunteers collect the material brought from Spain.

Right: Bottom:

Along with blankets and coats are the remains of bonfires and pallets surrounding the refugee centre in Przemysl, Poland.

photographs by CRISTINA CRESPO GARAY

Prior to this, the Czech Republic welcomed us at night, with a huge red moon peeking out from behind the treetops that snake along the roadside. "Don't get lost now," the voice of the advance party of the caravan says crackles as we pass a road junction near Prague. Shortly after, we are making our last stop before entering Poland.

As we cross the border, there is an uneasy calm on the road to Medyka. The sun is shining as if oblivious to what is happening a few kilometres further on, where Lviv, less than 90 kilometres away, has just been bombed. The busy traffic that has filled the roads all over Europe has ceased.

Przemysl, Ukrainian border

"The war is already here," is heard from the walkie talkie. A large convoy of tanks and military vehicles is driving in the opposite direction. In our direction there are only a few cars, humanitarian aid convoys and ambulances.

Arriving in Przemysl, the city welcomes us with an unusual look of everyday life. There, a large supermarket has been converted into an improvised refugee camp and a collection point for all donations. Stuffed animals colour the place, hanging from the hands of children and their mothers, trying to restore some joy stolen by the war.

"From here, only volunteers go into Ukraine to carry all the material, it depends on them that it reaches its destination," explains Fernando Darder, president of the Valencian NGO Esperanza Sin Fronteras, which received in 2009 the UNESCO insignia for merits and distinction of Protector of World Peace and International Cooperation.

At the doors of the centre, a couple of musicians try to liven up the harsh reality. Inside, a long queue of refugees - mostly very young mothers, babies and children - waits to be registered.

"Today is a quiet day, tomorrow they will open the border and 40,000 more people will arrive from Lviv," says a Ukrainian volunteer at the centre. Inside, the huge shed is full of makeshift beds and blankets on the floor. In front of us crosses a teenage girl with a one-month-old baby crying in her arms. Her face, full of dirt, is the portrait of sadness.

"Most of them have been travelling for three or four days on trains or on foot to get out of Ukraine," says Mirón, our group's translator. "Many will have encountered the shelling while in Lviv, others come from Mariupol [more than 1,300 kilometres from the Polish border] and have lost absolutely everything.

From behind the supermarket, two soldiers open the doors to deliver all the donations. One by one, the group takes out hundreds of boxes from all the vehicles. "Baby food", "Baby clothes", "Medical care", they inform the group of young people who ask us to identify the contents. "We are only here today, we are military volunteers and we are here to help Ukraine," says Sergei, who seems to be the youngest of the group. "From here, some volunteers take this aid to Ukraine." Smiling, they say goodbye to the group, giving thanks for the material donated and applauding each other for their effort and contribution.

Coordinating the chaos

In addition to the NGO Hope Without Borders, we find the presence of Caritas, Together for Life and the NGO Cadena, among others. However, what abounded most were private vehicles: "Convoy solidario Rugby Eibar", "Spain for Ukraine", "#SpainforUkrain" and other slogans.

"Our initiative arose from several motorhomes that wanted to take medicine and food, and bring out refugees who had family in Spain, so the trip would be optimised. In four days we had 25 motorhomes and two vans from all over Spain," says Cristina at the wheel of her motorhome and accompanied by her dog Sira. "She acts as a therapy dog with the children."

Testimonials like Cristina's are behind all the Spanish flags that decorate the parking lot of the refugee centre. NGOs stress the importance of working hand in hand with organisations so as not to encourage chaos, or mafias and human trafficking in this type of situation.

To tackle these problems, the refugee centre has this week implemented a system of identification through wristbands without which it is not possible to enter the centre, but they do not allow the press inside, they say, to respect privacy.

Left: Top:

A parking lot in Warsaw is the meeting place for refugees waiting to be picked up.

Right: Bottom:

A mother gets emotional as she arrives at the bus that leaves that afternoon for Spain.
 

photographs by CRISTINA CRESPO GARAY

"Here in the camp, things change every day; what worked one way yesterday, no longer works today, it changes according to the needs," says Claudia, a volunteer with Juntos por la vida. "The people here are very strong and very grateful," says Claudia. "It's not just transportation that we offer them, it's also very important the psychological support."

Among the problems they face on the go is also the coordination of help. "The other day a girl arrived who had left the country hiding in a trunk with her dog, and when she arrived here the bus driver told her that she could not travel with the dog. If you come here to help, you have to understand that people here are coming out of a war and that you are here to help.

According to this volunteer, the situation is constantly changing and the work stretches over 12 hours a day, always on the job and trying to collaborate so that the relief efforts do not get wasted.

On the way to Warsaw

After handing over the donations at the border, the first refugees arrive. The concern on their faces begins to show some calm and, at the same time, mistrust. A translator gathers them together and reassures them as they board the accompanying bus.

The caravan then sets course for the Warsaw refugee camp, where there are more people looking for a way to get to Spain. To avoid chaos, a couple of Ukrainian volunteers, living in Poland, coordinate the people to save time on arrival. "Yesterday there were 35 on the list, today there are 25," explains Jaro Pro, "Families sign up on all the lists and end up leaving with the first bus that offers them a way out, so coordinating it efficiently is complicated."

Arriving at the meeting point, a bag of stuffed animals breaks the ice. The little ones come forward to choose theirs and the families, with their animals included, begin to trust each other. There we met Alla and Katja, mother and daughter who left Mariupol days ago. They don't speak English, but they don't need to. One by one, they go around the group and make a gesture of thanks with a look that says much more than words could.

With emotions running high, the caravan sets off on its way back to Spain, looking for places to stay overnight along the way. The hours of kilometres ahead and the smartphone translator allow us to open a window on what each of them is leaving behind.

The road becomes a parenthesis in time in which the faces of the little ones leave fear behind and begin to laugh and play. Most of them have family, acquaintances or foster homes already assigned to them in Spain and are eager to start their new life. Others hope that everything will be over soon and that they will be able to return to their homeland in a few months. Whatever their path from this point, they finally leave behind the terror of war to begin planning a new future for their children.

Arriving at our destinations in Madrid and Valencia, cities which have organised shelters and refugee centres, the caravan melts into a scene of never-ending hugging of people who have shared much more than 3,000 kilometres of road. "Thank you," Max says in Spanish in a video from his host home. He was the first child to be picked up by the caravan, tired and scared. His face, today, is different.

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