How do a group of villagers from the small north Bedfordshire village of Turvey end up risking their lives to take aid to Ukraine?
It seems almost unreal, and like the plot of a film, it started in a way you’d never have imagined would lead to a group of friends driving to a warzone thousands of miles away.
It all started with a shared interest in cold war history and an invite to a birthday party.
Rob Hammond, 46, and a couple of local friends had been visiting friends in Ukraine for ten or 15 years.
The friendships came about through an interest in the cold war and the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
They were meant to be going to their Ukrainian friend’s birthday party at the end of February.
Then Russia invaded.
“I think the invasion started on the Wednesday or the Thursday and we were meant to be there for the weekend,” said Rob.
Initially, his friend believed nothing would come of the invasion. The following morning, they didn’t hear from him.
He’d left his home with his family. They were making their way to Moldova.
Rob’s initial idea was to throw some eggs at the Russian embassy (he didn’t). Instead, he and friend Leo Williams, 21, “decided to do something a bit more productive”.
So, they bought a 7.5 tonne DAF truck with funding from the IT company they work for, Conquest Wildman Ltd.
The plan was to kit it out with supplies to take over at the end of the war to help rebuild things. It soon became apparent the Ukrainians needed help now.
Rob hit Facebook, spoke to a few friends and “had a rally round at work”.
An email was sent to customers of Conquest Wildman in Wilden, Rob is a computer engineer there, and “before we knew it we’d raised about £5,000,” he said.
Rob massively credits the fundraising efforts of his friends in Turvey, notably Gemma Williams, 43, Tanya James, and staff and customers at the village’s two pubs, The Three Cranes and the Three Fishes.
Gemma raised £4,000 through cake sales and organising social events.
Both pubs had collection boxes at the bar. Rob said: “People were just outraged by what was happening so the collection boxes were soon filling up.”
Donations came in so quickly the truck was filled within a week of buying it.
They were asked by another organisation (who can’t be named) to take medical supplies over for them. At this point, there was already too much on the truck.
However, the additional medical supplies consisted of trauma care and chest wound closure kits which were urgently needed. So, arrangements were made for an ambulance to meet them in Lviv to take it to a pop-up hospital in Kyiv.
Then Rob did the maths. “They were short of ambulances. we [had] too much stuff to fit on this vehicle. So, we thought, “what if we buy an ambulance?”
So they did.
Rob’s work colleague Leo Williams, 21, found it online. It was second hand and fully kitted out.
The stretcher and other things had been removed but when they told the sellers what they were using it for, they re-kitted it as a fully operational ambulance.
They committed to buying it when they only had three-quarters of the money. By the end of the following day, they had more than enough funding to cover it.
It cost under £6000. “Apparently that’s pretty good for an ambulance,” Rob said.
The first trip took place on 28 March 2022 travelling from the UK to Ukraine via Krakow, Poland. What started with an intention to deliver one or two loads of aid grew into four fully loaded vehicles taking aid to three locations:
- A Land Rover and Trailer driven by Mark James went to Uzhhorod via Slovakia
- A Peugeot Export van owned and driven by David Poole (from Turvey). David drove it to a border crossing in the north of Poland.
- A Truck driven by Rob and retired Firefighter Alan Wallace, 59, to Lviv
- The Ambulance driven to Krakow by Tony Harris from Bletsoe. Seb James,26, from Harold drove it over the Polish border to Lviv where they were mat by a Ukrainian driver who drove it to the front lines in Kyiv.
The team were also accompanied by Jordan Turner, 29, who flew to Poland after collecting and loading supplies, and ambulance sourcing extraordinaire Leo Williams.
Here, the team brilliantly capture a snapshot of life in Ukraine
“The city is eerily quiet. Air raid sirens come on and off during the night. Whilst Lviv is still relatively safe at the moment, the sound of explosions highlights the unpleasant conditions people far from the front lines are experiencing.
“Travelling at night, navigating in Ukraine itself is made more difficult as most of the road signs have been painted over or removed and the journey is slowed by makeshift obstacles on the road and numerous military checkpoints.
“The people we were working with put us up for the night and provided a hot meal, but whilst our hosts did their best to accommodate us.
“The members of our team who were delivering inside of Ukraine got to experience first-hand the conditions people were living in.”
The scenes they were greeted with shocked them even though they knew what to expect. They described it as “an eye-opener for even the most hardy individuals”.
Their accommodation “consisted of blankets and camping mats on the floor of a room at the bottom of what they think was a primary school.
They shared it with other adults and various small lumps under thin blankets that they later realised were actually children.
“There was hardly any food around, and these are most likely people like us that until a few weeks ago had their own homes, were employed as teachers, doctors, and various other professions who are now sleeping with their children on the floor, with next to nothing,” they said.
The second trip set off 11 May carrying military aid. The truck should have been back by now but broke down in Belgium.
They’ll have to take the Eurostar to rescue it on Monday, bringing it back to Bedford before they can set out again two days later.
They’ll embark on their third trip next Wednesday (25 May).
To date, they’ve raised nearly £15000 which has enabled them to:
- Deliver the four vehicles full of medical supplies and humanitarian aid in March
- Purchase and donate a fully kitted out and operational ambulance
- Provide a vehicle and administrative assistance to deliver mixed aid and military support on 15 May
- Provide approximately £2500 of financial donations to the Ukrainian government
- Donate funds to a temporary hospital
- Welcome a Ukrainian family to Turvey
- Organise seven petrol generators to supply electricity to hospitals
The Three Cranes raised so much through pub quizzes that they are now supporting a family in Russian occupied Eastern Ukraine on an ongoing basis.
The support has made a huge difference to the family who is still living in a very troubling and unsafe environment.
There are plans to help a second family soon.
This is not the first time Rob has been involved with this type of thing. Rob started taking aid convoys to Bosnia in 2005. He ran about 15 trips taking up to ten vehicles each time.
Humanitarian aid work runs in the family. Rob’s Father took aid to Romanian orphanages in the 1980’s.
He also took aid trips to Africa and Rob joined him on a few of these trips. He credits his Dad, John Hammond, as a motivation: “He was still midway through planning a new project in Africa when he died at 80”.
When asked about how he deals with putting his life at risk to take aid to others, Rob is incredibly humble He simply says it’s down to having had the experience of doing this in Bosnia and that “takes some of the fear out”.
If you would like to donate supplies for next week’s trip, the team’s vehicle will be at the war memorial from 10am-2pm this Saturday, 21 May.
To donate via their ‘Just Giving’ page, visit here.