The Bus for Belarus

Starting out: Margie and Kevin collecting the minibus
Starting out: Margie and Kevin collecting the minibus

Margie Haslop from Stafford and Stone CCP

on co-driving an aid convoy to Gomel

Stuck for hours between the Polish and Belarussian border, I thought of all the people who had helped us buy, adapt and transport the disabled-friendly minibus we were driving from the UK on a three-day road trip to Gomel, Belarus.   We’d been queuing in the tourist lane instead of the freight lane and had ended up in no-man’s-land.

Roadworks at the border had thrown even my experienced co-driver, Kevin, who has been taking CCP Humanitarian Aid Convoys to Belarus since 1996.  CCP is the Chernobyl Children’s Project, whose Stafford and Stone Branch I chair.

The bus was a long-wheelbase Ford transit, adapted for wheelchairs by taking out the back two rows of seats and fitting a lift at the rear.  But it was a German vehicle with left-hand drive and, offputting for me, gear-change on the right-hand side.

Its destination was in the south-eastern corner of Belarus most affected by radioactive fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.  The Mayflower Centre in Gomel offers day care and respite care for disabled young adults.

The story of how we raised the £14,000 to buy, adapt and transport the bus had begun a year ago in Stone.  Local hairdresser Sharon Turner heard about CCP, organised a charity ‘Fun Day’ at Stone Cricket Club last October and donated us 50% of the proceeds – a whopping £4250!

For my own part, I had been giving talks about the CCP to the Lions, WI, Probus and Stafford Know Rotary, who had asked me to come back. Several visits later, I was invited to join and was co-opted onto their International Committee, where I heard about the Matching Grant scheme. “Can I try this?” I asked, having £4,250 for CCP’s benefit.”   “Of course you can,” was the reply.  CCP Stafford and Stone readily agreed as well.

When I visited Belarus in 2012, I found out that there was a Rotary Club in its capital, Minsk. (We needed a partner club in the country receiving the benefit of the grant.)  I began correspondence with Yuri Budko, Chair of Minsk Rotary.  The paperwork and rules seemed endless but with perseverance and the help of Rotarians in other clubs who understood the rules we were awarded a grant which boosted our £4250 into over £14,000.

The Rotary Grant also paid for the fuel to transport the minibus to Gomel. However, grant rules stipulated that a Rotarian had to be involved with the delivery – which is why I found myself at the driving wheel!

At the beginning of September, Kevin and I met on Leeds Station en route for the Charity’s warehouse in Selby. The minibus was travelling laden with aid items including two wheelchairs, blankets, baby clothes and shoes for children. We took the ferry from Hull to Rotterdam overnight. With our green Humanitarian Aid logos we were classed as freight. What bliss that was! It was so peaceful in the freight drivers lounge although I did get a few sideways glances as I walked in.

Then the adventure began. Kevin got us out of Rotterdam and I first took the wheel on the highways of Germany.  It all went pretty smoothly except that I had no comprehension of how long it took to cover 1700 miles over the Northern European plain. Basically, it was forests and cornfields all the way, very easy to get lost as there was a distinct lack of landmarks. By the end of the first day’s driving we had crossed into Poland.

Only on the second day did my worst fear materialise – Warsaw at rush hour! The E30 we had been following since Holland had petered out in a suburb. Somehow we had missed the sign for the freight route round Warsaw and there was no opportunity to stop and change driver. ”Get on with it girl!”  I said to myself and went with the flow. Simples!  By the end of the second day we were at the eastern end of Poland ready to cross into Belarus.

But now we were in this black hole. The Belarussian guards didn’t know what to do with us. There was nothing in their rules and they like rules.  But after much head-scratching, a fine-looking young man in his dark blue uniform and gun approached us.

“I need you to write a letter to my director”, he said. He spoke English! We had been given a wad of CCP-headed note paper for such circumstances and a CCP stamp.  A wax seal like Stone Priory’s would have been handy, I thought, as I  wrote a grovelling letter apologising for the inconvenience we had caused and asking to be allowed to proceed  or be escorted to the correct place.

We stamped my signature, Kevin’s signature, the date and added two more stamps for good measure. The young man took the letter and disappeared for some time. More guys in green uniforms came to the bus and asked us by prodding the boxes of aid that we opened some of them. Eventually they were satisfied that we were carrying aid and it matched what we had declared on the manifest.

The next difficulty came in explaining that we were leaving the bus in Belarus as part of the aid. It puzzled them that we were English and the bus had German plates but we managed to explain this, too. My blue young man reappeared and said,  “You may go”. We looked at each other in disbelief. It had only been 3.5 hours! We set off into Belarus before they had second thoughts.

It was another 8 hours’ drive to Gomel.  Kevin contacted our Gomel charity partners to guide us to the customs compound where it would be examined thoroughly and eventually re-registered with Belarusian plates.

Getting out more in future: minibus users at the Mayflower Centre
Getting out more in future: minibus users at the Mayflower Centre

This meeting spot was had a nickname, ‘The Kissing Place’ because it was where returning convoys were guided to as they left Belarus and goodbyes were said. As we pulled into the lay-by, we recognised the white bus of CCP Gomel with Natasha and driver Losha who had come to collect us.  The ‘Kissing Place’ lived up to its name!

We said goodbye to our own minibus in the compound, leaving Natasha to take care of the paperwork.

A day later we visited the Mayflower Centre. The people here had really impressed me last year with their determination and tenacity in their very difficult situations. The bus will make so many opportunities available to them such as visits to medical centres, trips out for fun of which they need much more and transport to school.

They were puzzled to see me again so soon after my visit of 2012 but I told them about the support we had received from the people of Stone and of our partnership with Rotary. Two of the girls began to cry and I had to swallow hard not to break down myself.

The bus will make a big difference to the choices these disabled children and young adults have and ultimately to how Belarusians may come to view disabled people when they are seen out in the community.  The people of the Mayflower Centre thanked us for our attitude to their disabilities, “for seeing what they could do, not what they couldn’t do.”