DAY 1: Friday 15th April
Our first stop was the East Warsaw Refugee centre, a cluster of marquees just across the road from the railway station. Bustling with activity, and made beautiful for Easter, this is where refugees come to find information, SIM cards, food and assistance for their onward journey. We were welcomed by Julia Sachenko of the anti-human trafficking charity A21, a Ukrainian refugee herself, who left Kyiv in early March with her two young boys. Driving sometimes at the rate of barely a metre every five minutes, it took her three days and sleepless nights to cross to safety. Her husband has stayed behind, helping at the A21 centre in Uzhgorod – a small city in the foothills of the Trans Carpathian mountains, mountains which have long been a refuge, sheltering Ukrainians fleeing Stalin’s Red Army and Jews fleeing the Pogroms. Behind these mountains, Julia hopes her husband will be safe.
She introduced us to the Norwegian Refugee Council and to Lukasz Pawlowski, the mayor of Warsaw’s chief of staff, who has been in charge of operations in Warsaw since the start of the war, when there were 180,000 people crossing the border every day. Five million people have since fled Ukraine, 2.8 million of them to Poland. The population of Warsaw has risen by 25 per cent: 350,000 Ukrainians have settled there, half of them children. The day before we arrived, Lukasz approved the placement of 30,000 Ukrainian children into the Polish school system. Julia and Lukasz have also opened a centre for remote education, providing computers and teachers.
Ninety percent of refugees in Poland have been rehoused in private homes, most in acts of goodwill by Poles anxious to help; there are no government subsidies. This warm reception is extraordinary, but won’t last forever. As the days pass, and the bills mount, hearts will begin to harden.
Here in this makeshift centre, everyone came together to celebrate Easter. Wreaths of white flowers lined the tables, a band played folk songs, children danced with painted faces and people chatted over traditional Ukrainian food. We sat with two defiant young women – Lila and Anya – and with the help of Julia’s translation skills, heard their story. Both just 20, they had been friends since school. Lila (from Donetsk) was studying in Warsaw and, as the conflict began to grow, she invited her friend Anya and her five-year-old daughter to come and stay.
Anya is from Bucha, the town outside Kyiv and the site of a massacre being investigated as a possible war crime. Russian soldiers are said to have rounded up an entire community, tying many up before shooting them. Anya’s husband remains in Bucha with his parents, where has helped identify and bury 400+ community members including, last week, his best friend. He is now determined to stay and fight for his country.
Anya’s daughter Sophia was charming and we played with her, dancing and colouring in. They were touched that we had taken the time to sit with them and we are now life long instagram friends.
We then chatted to a news station, Polsat News, whose staff were interested to learn about The Anti-Slavery Collective, what we had come here to do and our thoughts on the refugee situation. Our interview went on live television at 3pm on Easter Saturday!
Next stop was The Salvation Army’s safe house in East Warsaw where Camilla Thomas, Regional Leadership Development and Project Officer and her husband have been working tirelessly since the war began. The Salvation Army was present from the beginning of the war, their reception centre at the border having to cope with half a million refugees in the first two weeks. Not surprisingly, it was utter chaos.
We asked Camilla what they were short of. She said many came here in winter, and now, as the weather changes, they need Spring/Summer clothes. They would love donations towards vouchers that can be given to families to spend on food and amenities. These vouchers bring a sense of dignity back to those who have fled their home and have no access to any of their income. It gives them the power to choose what they need most.
DAY 2: Saturday 16th April
On Saturday afternoon we drove for five hours through Poland, crossing a tired and featureless landscape on our way to the border. The roads were silent, the service stations deserted, the coffee shops closed for Easter. There was barely a car travelling in our direction. There were large missiles pointing east – we imagine towards Russia – in the fields and a succession of beautiful graveyards with every tombstone twinkling, lit with a candle for Easter. We were amazed by the infrastructure, how good the roads were, and most of all by the roadside loos – the cleanest we’d ever been to – pearly white cubicles and the smell of sweet Cyprus trees.
Our destination was dinner at the Almarow Hotel, a glass monstrosity straight out of a Bond movie. Here it was business as usual, so much so that it seemed surreal. People pouring out of the spa. The outdoor swimming pool and Jacuzzi are full. The cocktail bar likewise.
We wondered who everyone was, what they were doing in this strange holiday hotel so close to the Ukrainian border. Here we met, by arrangement, Dean and Ricky, two ex-paras, who since the beginning, have been tracking traffickers at the Medyka border crossing. In an enclosed pen in the dining room where we had dinner were three small sheep, presumably brought in for Easter. Bizarrely, they bleated in the background as Dean told us stories of his and Ricky’s childhoods, in a small mining town in Doncaster and their extraordinary lives touring the world. They’d been everywhere, and seen every war: Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and now Ukraine.
Dean has two kids and a life in Australia, Ricky a ‘missus’ with a car body workshop in Doncaster. Dean told us trouble followed Ricky wherever he went, even when on holiday when on one occasion in Tulum, a Mexican gunman with an AK47 opened fire on the beach, as he sipped his strawberry daiquiri. Best friends since they were 16, they joined the military together and went on to become part of Britain’s elite paratrooper division. Within 10 days of war breaking out in Ukraine, they flew to Poland. When they arrived in Poland they began doing private client work, mostly extracting people from Kyiv and taking journalists to Lviv. Then they discovered the terrible trafficking problem and started surveillance at the border with the help of the charity Unbound. There was a week at the beginning when men could leave – only those who acted fast got out. Now only under-18s can leave; Camilla from the Salvation Army told us the story of a 17-year-old boy who crossed the border one minute before his 18th birthday, he jumped his way through the endless queues to make it just in time.
On Sunday morning we woke up to the sound of gunfire, (which we later found out was a farmer shooting crows), and large helicopters flying over our heads (the Polish army training on Easter Sunday, we were told). After scrambled eggs and coffee we drove to Przemyśl. In this small Polish town, the Georgian Legions do much of their recruiting – US, UK, French Foreign Legions all join to fight on the Ukrainian side. Dean tells us that a few days ago two members of Putin’s notorious Wagner group were picked up in a coffee shop here, spying on the Georgian Legions. We went to an old beautician turned headquarters for Mitmark, the private security company Dean and Ricky are working with. The walls, lined with posters of polish models and long mirrors, are now covered in aerial maps and plans for operations, extractions, interceptions, aid drop offs and intelligence briefings.
We learnt one of Mitmarks first assignments was to extract a Chanel employee out of Mariupol. The company paid a large sum to bring their employee to safety. Dean then took us to the safe house, a beautiful little flat hidden in the heart of the town. Dean and Ricky have made several interceptions so far – physically stopping women getting into cars. Their tactic is to try to blend in as aid workers. Not easy when you’re built like Sylvester Stallone and covered in military tattoos from fingertips to forehead. When they identify a trafficker they send in a Ukrainian woman to intercept, concealing their own identities. They quickly realised that the local police would be little help to them. They seemed to turn a blind eye.
Next stop was Tescos. The supermarket-turned-refugee reception centre. Still a supermarket for traffickers. They sign up as ‘volunteers’. The process is so simple: a quick covid test, a flash of your passport and you’re in. It’s so easy you really could be anyone. When Dean was doing background checks on people crossing the border, they found an Englishman who was a convicted peodophile heading for an orphanage in Odessa. They managed to link up with Interpol and have him sent back to the UK and arrested.
Entering the refugee centre you are hit by the reality of war; rows and rows of beds inches apart, exhausted children sleeping on their suitcases clutching at their beloved cats and dogs that escaped with them, NGOs trying to help refugees on the next leg of their journey. (We lost Jules in the crowd for a few minutes. The longest 3 minutes, after all the morning’s stories).
We wanted to go to Lviv, a beautiful city in western Ukraine, around 70 kilometres from the border with Poland, to see first hand the situation at the station there. To get across the border, we had to cross on foot. In the past few weeks the flow of traffic has changed direction. On 16th April, 26,000 refugees came into Poland, but 22,000 went back to Ukraine. The queue of cars at the border was over 24 hours long. People have begun to head back to their homes, hoping that the worst is over, wanting to be reunited with their husbands and sons, disappointed by life on the other side. Dean and Ricky felt that they were like lambs to the slaughter. Maybe they were right. The morning after our expedition to Lviv we woke up to the news it had been hit by five Russian missiles.
We walked through the makeshift arrival terminal on the Ukrainian side of the border, where Siobhan’s Trust and others are distributing hot food and drinks to the tired and hungry. In March, the queue was three days long, temperatures were -12 degrees. Dean told us the heartbreaking story of a baby who died of hypothermia in the wait to cross.
We spent an hour surveilling traffickers on the Ukrainian side of the border and were shocked by how obvious they were. So many men with no reason to be there. Four men in a black Mercedes, just watching and waiting. We fell in love with 4 puppies rescued from the rubble in Kharkiv. 100,000 dogs and cats had been brought to safety by @animal.resuce.karkiv. It was heartbreaking hearing them cry, so confused, confined in tiny cages, waiting to cross the border. You are only allowed to cross the border with 9 animals. We wondered how they landed on 9. Why not 10?
After much debate, we decided it was safe enough to head to Lviv. We considered getting the bus, Dean advocated for safety in numbers, but Ricky wasn’t so sure. He warned us of the long and bumpy road to Lviv so we settled on a dishevelled old taxi. We nearly died a thousand times on our adventure into Ukraine. Not because we were in a war torn land, but at the hands of a lunatic 80 year old Ukrainian taxi driver. Igor Schumacher we called him. He was as fearless as his country. Seat belts were strictly forbidden: “no no no no no no” he said, every time we reached for our belts. He drove with determination and very little horsepower straight into the oncoming traffic, he waited for the blind corners before embarking on a bold overtake. He turned around excitedly to declare his love for Prince Garry (Harry) and Princess Anna (Diana) as he flew between two huge yellow buses. He repeated two words to us in English, ‘Boris Johnson’. He adored him.
We passed metallic churches with golden domes glinting in the sunlight, military blockades and checkpoints. Dean and Ricky made us turn off our phones. The normal rule, if you’re English, is: leave your phone behind before you enter Ukraine. Or encase it in lead. The Russian military tracks foreign numbers coming across the border. Dean told us that those who died in an airstrike near Lviv not long ago, died because of three British ex-military guys who were on their whatsapp during a training mission. As we hurtled along, Dean handed us a piece of paper from the front seat. On it was written a rendezvous address, a telephone number to call, and a code word to say you are in a panic situation. A relaxing moment.
All was calm in Lviv. The streets were full of life. In this western city, you feel far removed from the fight. The nearest frontline is Odessa, 350 miles away. And yet the very next day Putin would turn his attention to this region. In the early hours of Monday morning, 7 people were killed and 11 injured in a missile strike. The Mayor of Lviv, Andriy Sadovyi, announced that there are no safe and unsafe places in Ukraine. In a small coffee shop we drank green tea and asked a thousand questions a minute. We debated Boris Johnson, Trump and the Iraq war. Dean and Ricky are Boris fans. They think he’s done well. As are many Ukrainian women we were told. Out here he’s a pin up, they said, all the girls love him.
They showed us around the Lviv train station. Until recently, it was chaotic there. In the chaos it was easy for traffickers to operate. They take pictures of women as they board the trains and send them to their accomplices at the other end. Last time Dean and Ricky were at this station there was a group of untrained Ukrainian soldiers, one was bleeding out from the main artery on the side of his groin. The first responders had no idea how to deal with it and were just holding a scarf against the wound to soak up the blood. He would have bled out in 90 seconds but for Dean’s tourniquet and military grade medical training.
That night we returned to our countryside cabin on the border and had dinner with Harry Scrymgeour who is running Siobhan’s Trust. It is extraordinary to see the impact the operation is having, with their headquarters at the border and their three food trucks travelling between the refugee centres dishing out the most delicious hot food. Back in London, they have raised funding to build a giant portable kitchen to take to Lviv, from there they can send food deep into the heart of Ukraine.
DAY 3: Sunday 17th April
The following morning, we learnt we had missed the arrival of Putin’s missiles in Lviv by a matter of hours, we reflected that taking risk advice from two ex paras was probably unwise. We headed for Krakow where we met Alex from Unbound at the Bonerowski Hotel in Krakow. Eastern Europe is a traffickers dream, she says. Beautiful women and law enforcement that looks the other way. Unbound is going to open a permanent office there, and hopes to build partnerships with the police as it has done back in Texas. Alex realises this will be a hard task. It is the most vulnerable situation you can imagine, she told us. This is the family unit that God has created. The mother watches over her children, and the father looks after the mother. But families are separated and women and children are crossing the border alone. She too was amazed by the amount of dangerous people at the border, loitering, with no purpose. This is a transitory place, not where you go to drink your morning cup of coffee and hang out. There is also an eerie lack of official presence. Where are the police and the military to deter organized crime gangs? Alex said they desperately needed more eyes on the ground and more expertise. At the moment traffickers have nothing to lose and everything to gain. They slip on a high-vis vest and it’s as if this is a seal of trust and approval. If there were more pros around, or they saw the police act, the traffickers would feel the heat. And maybe, at the very least, they would think twice.
In Ukraine it is normal to hitchhike or give someone a ride. This doesn’t help the situation. A few weeks ago Alex saw a woman, well dressed, looking at another woman’s documents. Alex questioned her. She said she was a volunteer, and wanted to give the women a bag to take to an American man on the other side. A man who could take the Ukranian women anywhere she wanted. I will send you a picture of him, look for him on the other side and get into his car, she had told her. Thankfully, Alex saved the day. She was able to Face ID the women and find her on Vk – the Russian Facebook – and identify her as a known trafficker. A terrifying tale. Alex also told us of a fellow aid worker, a young woman who had been physically bundled into the back of a car by traffickers, only to be saved by an ex-marine.
Sadly, there are too many stories like this to recount them all here. We embarked on this journey to learn about trafficking at the border and never imagined the extent to which it is happening, and how obvious it is to identify. Traffickers don’t need to hide what they are doing because there is nobody to hide from.
Through many conversations, we identified five main ways we can help:
- AWARENESS – amongst potential victims. This means aid workers sharing leaflets and information about the risks of trafficking at the border. More bodies are needed to spread the word.
- PUBLICITY – to raise the profile of this problem back home, and focus media attention on what is happening.
- PEOPLE – more volunteers and ex-servicemen on the border helping educate the vulnerable and surveil potential traffickers.
- EXPERIENCE – sending out counter-trafficking experience (e.g. ex-police) to help train people on the ground for the signs to look out for.
- FUNDING – raising money to support all the above mentioned initiatives, that are extremely time sensitive.
If you’d like to hear more about how you can help, please contact us as firstname.lastname@example.org