Matt Prior joined Mighty Convoy members at their Middlesex base
Matt Prior and volunteers drive donated ambulances packed with medical equipment 1200 miles to Ukraine
It’s 6.30am and a man called Simon Brake and I have walked out of a hotel in Kraków, eastern Poland, to meet Sasha for the first time.
Sasha climbs from a black Toyota Land Cruiser. He’s Ukrainian, around 6ft 5in tall and heavily built. He speaks barely a word of English and neither of us speaks any Ukrainian. But he is a trusted friend of a trusted friend, has a huge grin and is going to drive with us to Lviv, western Ukraine, in one of three ambulances that Simon and a bunch of volunteers have brought as far as Kraków for donation to charities in the war-struck country. Simon and I will follow in the other two.
Via a translation app on his phone, Sasha tells us: “A few kilometres before the border, we’re going to turn off the motorway and drive north through forests to the border. Don’t worry.”
How it all started
Simon’s journey began several months and 1050 miles away from Kraków, in Teddington, Middlesex. In the days and weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Ukrainian expats in Simon’s town started using local social media pages to try to raise funds and find volunteers to drive several 4x4s to the country. One of them, Irina Webb, helped to organise a journey; Simon drove to Kraków and came back with a plan to go again, this time with ambulances, and set about raising the money to do it. He put in a lump of his own money and set up a fundraising company, naming it Mighty Convoy.
“It’s a not-for-profit company in the process of applying for charitable status,” Simon tells me. “It won’t employ anyone and will be reliant on volunteers.”
Between the spring and the summer, Mighty Convoy and its new Ukrainian friends raised enough money to buy three ambulances. But buying them isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Specialist Vehicle Solutions (SVS) of Dudley, Worcestershire, specialises in ambulances and could supply three patient-transport vehicles, each around eight years old, at £6500 apiece.
“I’ve got to know a few charities [since the war started],” says SVS owner Steve Manning. “Some have got money but don’t know how to spend it.”
And some individuals in the motor trade, he says, haven’t always treated them generously. Volunteers have been sold unreliable vehicles or, lacking experience, drivers have gone without V5 registration documents and the other paperwork that’s needed for vehicle export – of which there’s a lot. One volunteer had to leave an ambulance in Poland for a fortnight until he could come back with the right papers to get it out of the country.
Since March, though, SVS has sold “almost 40 vehicles” – mostly ambulances and the odd box van – that have been driven on to Ukraine. Apollo Auto Centre helps check these three over, free of charge, for Simon.
To aid reliability in the harsh conditions the ambulances will face in Ukraine, and so they are likelier to make the trip trouble-free, SVS often removes or bypasses exhaust gas recirculation or particulate filter electronics. “More than half the time, that’s the cause of a van going into limp-home mode,” says Steve.
More soberly, SVS can remove pneumatic rear ramps and air suspension. Unlike in slow-paced patient transport in the UK, Ukrainian users are said to prefer noisy manual stretcher or wheelchair ramps over quiet pneumatic ones, because they can be deployed and stowed away more quickly under fire.
Before the journey, the ambulances are loaded with aid. It’s all medical and all valuable, from crutches and wheelchairs to vitamin supplements, gloves, wipes, surgical accessories and – highest value of all – boxes of individual first aid kits made to treat battlefield trauma. Each kit is worth £100, there are 40 to a box and there are four boxes of them.
Heading to Poland
Kent to Kraków is a straightforward journey, but it’s also a 1000-mile one. The plan is to set off on a Saturday morning, with two drivers per van, drive overnight and arrive on Sunday, with one resting while the other drives. Simon is joined by his volunteer friends Kieran, Will, Dave and Alex – and me.
It’s a sound plan, although given that the only affordable and available ferry crossing is at 4.40am (Dover has seen hours-long queues in the preceding days), necessitating a 2am start from Canterbury, a tiring one. Still, there are no queues at passport control, France passes by quickly and so too do Belgium and the Netherlands. By Saturday evening, the convoy is deep into Germany.
There are regular stops for rest and food (and because middle-aged men need to stop more frequently than young road testers). But come late Saturday and early Sunday, what one really needs is sleep.
It’s not easy to come by. A Peugeot Boxer has three seats in the front and, understandably, the driver’s seat is more comfortable than the two provided for passengers. That’s just as it should be, but it means the wrong one is the most conducive to nodding off in, unhelpfully. I’ve done a couple of 24-hour endurance events in my time but have never felt this tired behind the wheel. Stopping for a nap is the only answer.
On Sunday morning, the convoy makes Kraków. Too tall for car parks, it’s parked up safely in view of a police station. We find a hotel and rest.
Most of the drivers prepare to head home from here. I’m meant to as well, but the chance to continue onwards is offered and they could do with an extra driver, so I take it. In the morning, Simon and I will meet Sasha.
Crossing the border into Ukraine
It’s three hours from Kraków to the Ukrainian border, and there’s sometimes a delay of more hours again when you get to the Korczowa-Krakovets crossing. Unless you’re following someone who knows someone at a quieter one. Further north, at Budomierz-Hruszów, Sasha, Simon and I take five minutes to pass through the Polish section of the border, and no more than 45 minutes at the Ukrainian side while paperwork for the vans is organised for their import.
This is the hard part of Simon’s support. Not the drive or the perceived risk of going but the paperwork. There’s the faff of banking (Simon still can’t open a charity bank account), export notices, letters from charities in three different languages certifying what’s on board the vehicles, waivers for volunteers, insurance, road tax, congestion charges, emissions charges, ferry crossings, hotels, fuel and more to buy, log and sort and remember.
This has been Simon’s overriding burden during what is ostensibly a simple calling: to give ambulances to people who need them. As stages in the journey are ticked off, his burden notably lessens and relief builds.
He could do with more support – financial, logistical, vehicle and technical – to do it again, but having now done it twice, he’s wondering if, as well as his own venture, he could support others. Write to us and we will put you in touch.
Lviv is only 50 miles inside Ukraine, which makes it far closer to Poland than the front lines. If the closest point of battle were Inverness, we would be doing the equivalent of going to Exeter.
On the way, we pass quiet villages and through unmanned military checkpoints. Although the nearest front lines at present are 600 miles away in Mariupol, there are obvious signs of war. Bridges have sandbagged fortifications and big signs decry Russian brutality and thank the UK, EU and US for their support.
We pass two graveyards: both have many new headstones, and two men are digging graves in one of them. Ukraine is the largest country exclusively in Europe, and soldiers come from this area, even if they’re not fighting in this area.
Lviv’s population has increased from 700,000 at the start of the year to a total that estimates put as high as three times that now. It’s the furthest city from the battlefront to which many evacuees can travel while remaining in Ukraine. And while it’s far from the Russian occupiers, still there are night-time air raid warnings as often as not, and it’s occasionally targeted by Russian missiles. In early August, a surface-to-air missile battery near the city was destroyed. Sandbags across basement windows aside, though, there are few outward signs of the conflict on the city outskirts.
Our escorts leave us and we make our way to a warehouse on the south-west side of Lviv, where the ambulances’ arrival is greeted with gratitude and smiles – and immediate hard work.
Within a minute of parking up the ambulances and opening their back doors, local volunteers are loading their contents onto pallets and taking them for sorting. Ten minutes later, the vehicles are empty and we’re inside a warehouse learning what will happen to it all.
Supplying those in need
Rudi Mygovich is receiving more visitors other than just me and Simon. A group of Americans are assessing whether the charity of which he’s president, the Christian Medical Association of Ukraine (CMAU), should receive some of the aid that their organisation, Conscience International, is tasked with distributing.
A cosmetics company allowed Mygovich and the CMAU to have half of its warehouse on the southwest of Lviv for free in March. Since then, he says, “we’ve distributed 210 tonnes of aid, from beds to fridges to intravenous and surgical equipment. By the end of July, we had supplied 183 hospitals, 543 military units, charity foundations and churches.”
Some “98% of everything donated is medicine and medical equipment”, he continues. “First we have to unpack everything, which needs to be converted to our systems [foreign kit can need different connector types or sizes to Ukrainian kit] and explained [90-95% of Ukrainian healthcare workers can’t speak English].”
In addition to the equipment, the CMAU helps foreign doctors visit to assist alongside Ukrainian surgeons and train new doctors.
Corruption is a concern; expensive medical equipment is attractive on the black market. Knowing where equipment is going and in whose hands it ends up is the reason Simon wanted to travel to Ukraine to visit Mygovich’s headquarters in the first place. Both are pleased to make the handover in person.
Conscience International’s Victoria Base-Smith tells me that wars bring a “massive increase” in crime. Not just a black market for goods, she says, but also abuse of the vulnerable: people trafficking, slavery and rape. Those who have no job or home easily become victims of exploitation.
For Mygovich, time matters. Today is Monday; the ambulances will be sent to their destinations on Tuesday and be saving lives by Wednesday.
“They’re really important,” he says. “We’ve already been given three, and I believe all are still working. But in the Kharkiv area alone, six ambulances a week are destroyed by Russian attacks. That’s a number I’ve heard more than once.”
“We fit ambulances with Starlink,” he says of SpaceX’s satellite-based communications system. Radios and telephones can be intercepted by the Russian military and are used to track and target vehicles, even ambulances. Attacking civilian targets is a war crime, but the attrition rate of ambulances suggests the Russians are doing it anyway. In the days after we visit, Russia will use a widely condemned report by charity Amnesty International, which suggests that Ukrainian defensive tactics puts civilians at risk, to excuse its attacks on non-military targets.
Heading home and reflecting on the experience
It’s late afternoon, and my and Simon’s lift back to the border is a few hours away. The centre of Lviv is beautiful and grand, a Unesco world heritage site. Only sandbags and signage signal that something is amiss. At a basement bar’s door, we’re greeted by a young doorman dressed in full combat fatigues and toting a fake machine gun, who asks for a password before we can enter. He demands either “Slava [glory to] Ukraini” or “F*** Putin”.
Two hours later, we’re met by Sasha to drive us back to Kraków in his Toyota. How he manages to drive into the night and beyond with skill but not rest is a mystery; he seemingly exists on a diet of hot dogs, Red Bull, coffee and Magnum ice creams.
He drives at 100mph while changing tunes on his phone (Simon’s earlier rising relief takes a few retrograde steps here) and tells us that during the first three months of the war, he too drove an ambulance on the front line.
He came back to manage his car parts business but is also a fixer, a go-between, driving hundreds of hours and thousands of miles per month, accompanying people and vehicles and equipment in and out of Ukraine.
He slows – which is a relief – to talk into his translation app. He would like to buy a refrigerated truck. Not for goods but to more quickly bring the bodies of dead Ukrainian soldiers home from temporary morgues near the front line, a torturously slow process at the moment, so that their families can bury them.
“Parents are waiting two, three, four months to bring them home,” he says. “Until their mother and father are with him, they never rest, never sleep. I saw a lot. I just understand what needs to be done. It’s necessary. It has to be performed by someone.”
Simon makes a note: next time, more ambulances but, if possible, more besides.