A humanitarian mission that left Castelnau-le-Lez on March 18 returned to Montpellier on Sunday evening after touring the transit camps for Ukrainian refugees in Poland. The story of three days of extreme tension, with 15 refugees and a baby taken in the minibuses.
At exactly 8:16 p.m., the humanitarian convoy of three minibuses leaving Castelnau-le-Lez, a commercial vehicle and a vehicle carrying two Ukrainian women and children from Mariupol, rolled up in front of the Olympic swimming pool in Antigone at the SOS Ukraine reception. The faces are tired. The escorts and the refugees crossed a large part of Europe. Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Italy and finally France, 2,500 kilometers. Back to a journey that started 48 hours earlier at the Ukrainian border.
dogs for travel
On Friday afternoon there was rioting at the two transit points for Ukrainian refugees in Przemyśl and Medyka on the Polish border. During the night hundreds of Ukrainians were brought in by buses. A gastroenteritis epidemic has broken out in Przemyśl. The Polish authorities impose the closure of the disinfection center. The police prevent any access.
Castelnauvienne Elodie Rubio, initiator of the Montpellier convoy, combed through the transit camps. Several families, candidates for exile in Montpellier, are identified: “We have a couple from Kyiv with three dogs, nobody wants to take them”, She says. He will leave with the Montpellier convoy. Linda and Daniel, a couple from Bordeaux, take care of the dogs in their van.“We are equipped with cages for transport.”
A complicated exit
In the doldrums, the candidates for exile must be found. The drivers are marked as well as the refugees. “There were concerns at the beginning of the exodus, several young women disappeared”, comments a French volunteer. The small world is gathered in Medyka. Others are recovered in extremis in Przemyśl. Faces are closed, the Ukrainians are suspicious and nervous. The language barrier doesn’t help.
Met on the street in Poland
In Chelm, the last town before the Ukrainian border, a camp serves as a warehouse for donations from all over the world. There, two Americans help with the final packaging before the truck leaves for the Ukraine. Joe and Kurt help with the logistics: “We’re from Dallas, Texas, we’re part of a Baptist church. We come to help where there are disaster victims.”. They belonged to the same church in Poland: “We arrived a week ago. We will stay until such time as we are no longer needed.”.
Further south, in the parking lot of the Przemyst transit center, Eva, a French volunteer, is looking for a solution for two Brazilians, José and Francisco, former soldiers of the Foreign Legion. They went to Ukraine to fight: “We live in Paris. We come back because we don’t speak English. The recruitment center didn’t want to hire us. We stayed two or three days.”.
According to them, they no longer have any money: “The train is too expensive”. They want to return to France in a convoy. Montpellier would be a good fit. But places for Ukrainian refugees have already been taken.
At 5 p.m., the convoy departs with an additional minibus that stops in Nice. Direction Kraków, in the center of Poland for a break in a low cost hotel. Waking up is less difficult. The faces seem more relaxed, the refugees show a first smile. Already the Czech border and then the Austrian border. The convoy stops every two hours. The drivers replace each other in pairs. At sunset it is arriving in Vienna in Austria and its outside traffic jams.
150 Ukrainians at the border in Ventimiglia
One night later, in dense fog, dawn breaks on the autobahn near Venice. Pause at a rest stop. The dogs came out to feed her and stretch her legs. The lines are drawn, the drivers are exhausted. Coffee, cigarettes, energy drinks keep you going. Finally, it is the French border in Ventimiglia. The police stop the convoy at the toll station. Ukrainian passport control: “Yesterday we counted 150”comments an official.
In Nice, the first minibus reaches its final destination. Time for a photo and the convoy departs. In Marseille, the Ukrainian car got stuck in a traffic jam. One of the children in a minibus keeps in touch by phone. Last detour through the Camargue under the amazed eyes of the refugees to see the bulls and the pink flamingos on the ponds.
On Sunday at 8.16 p.m. the vehicle doors finally open in front of the Antigone swimming pool. The dogs snort. Volunteers SOS Ukraine, Red Cross take over to welcome them. Mission accomplished.
Who are returned Ukrainians?
On the return journey, communication with the Ukrainians was difficult. Firstly because of the language barrier. Only one refugee spoke English. In-vehicle summary dialogues via a translation application. Later, Vadim and his wife explained who they were.
There were also two young women with four children, including a teenager with motor disabilities. Venus of Mariupol: “I had just bought this car, I had hardly ever driven it”, someone will say. There was also this woman, a child and a baby, accompanied by her teenage brother. A mother and her daughter, two elderly single people, a woman and a man.