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A Slovak man wanted to take donations to Ukraine. He ended up leading convoys of aid

Vladimir Benc carries packages at a warehouse in Presov, Slovakia.
Joanna Kakissis
/
NPR
Vladimir Benc carries packages at a warehouse in Presov, Slovakia.

Updated April 1, 2022 at 8:21 AM ET

PRESOV, Slovakia — This quiet city of Baroque churches is just an hour's drive from Ukraine. Before the war, the Slovaks and Ukrainians shopped in each other's cities, visited each other's castles and sampled their versions of a regional sheep's cheese called bryndza.

"I made many friends there" in Ukraine, says Vladimir Benc, a tall, redheaded economist who works as a World Bank consultant in Presov. "When Russia invaded, I couldn't stop thinking about them."

He reached out to Slovak government officials but he says they were "not very well organized."

"No one could believe the war started," Benc says. "They tried to arrange accommodation for refugees here. But nobody wanted to deliver the aid to Ukraine."

Benc sent out a call on social media for donations and received four tons of food and other needed goods in less than two days. He and a few friends drove it to Ukraine themselves. Now, he has teamed up with a local nongovernmental organization called Podaj d'alej (meaning "pay it forward"), and dozens of people have joined the effort.

"It has become part of life here," Benc says.

A poster with information about humanitarian aid collection at a nongovernmental organization, Podaj dalej, meaning "pay it forward," is seen on March 16, in Presov, Slovakia. The organization started collecting aid for Ukraine at the start of the Russian invasion on Feb. 25.
Zuzana Gogova / Getty Images
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Getty Images
A poster with information about humanitarian aid collection at a nongovernmental organization, Podaj d'alej, meaning "pay it forward," is seen on March 16, in Presov, Slovakia. The organization started collecting aid for Ukraine at the start of the Russian invasion on Feb. 25.

Russia's devastating war on Ukraine has prompted an outpouring of sympathy and solidarity in Europe, especially in the post-Soviet east, which has its own history with Russian aggression and repression. In Slovakia, a NATO member where politicians skeptical of the alliance tolerated Russian influence, public opinion polls show Slovaks squarely blaming the Kremlin for the war. The support is fueling a wave of volunteerism in a country where the state usually handles everything.

"My parents are constantly talking about how this is the government's job," says Misha Puskarova, one of the volunteers on the Presov team to aid Ukraine, "whereas I'm not waiting for the government to solve this problem."

On a recent morning, Puskarova joins Benc and dozens of volunteers from the Podaj d'alej group in a packed warehouse in Presov. One of the NGO's leaders, Viera Potasova, has helped sort the donated goods into supplies by category — canned food, bottled water, juice cans, toiletries, medicine, sleeping bags, blankets and more. Volunteers load the goods into four big white vans.

"Medicine and food go directly to eastern Ukraine," Benc says. "But in the western part of Ukraine, they need to prepare for refugees. They keep tents, sleeping bags, bed linens."

Volunteers unload humanitarian aid supplies brought by truck to Presov from Prostejov, in the Czech Republic, on March 16.
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Volunteers unload humanitarian aid supplies brought by truck to Presov from Prostejov, in the Czech Republic, on March 16.

Puskarova jumps into a van filled with baby formula and diapers, while Benc climbs into another vehicle filled with canned goods, medicine and sleeping bags. Other volunteers making the journey include a construction worker, a theater director and Presov's vice mayor. NPR joins them as they drive to Ukraine, to the city of Mukachevo.

One challenge is getting aid through customs

An hour later, a young Ukrainian border guard in fatigues greets the convoy and directs the Slovaks to a line.

They stop behind a big gray bus filled with moms heading back to Ukraine. One is Yaroslava, who wears an oversized hooded sweatshirt and small, rimless glasses. Her eyes are red — she's just dropped off her two boys, ages 12 and 15, with friends in the Czech Republic. Now she's returning to her beleaguered hometown, Korosten, to be with her mother, who is ill and cannot travel.

"My boys were sleeping in a bomb shelter, and the fear was changing them," says Yaroslava, who does not want to give her last name because she fears for her husband, who is a volunteer soldier fighting in Donbas. "Now they are safe. I hope they understand."

Viera Potasova, a founding member of the NGO Podaj dalej, prepares aid for Ukrainians on March 17, in Presov, Slovakia.
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Viera Potasova, a founding member of the NGO Podaj d'alej, prepares aid for Ukrainians on March 17, in Presov, Slovakia.

The driver of Yaroslava's bus cuts in. It's time for passport checks, which are quick.

Benc waves goodbye to Yaroslava as she boards the bus, which motors on to Ukraine. He continues to the customs line, which isn't moving.

Customs officers sometimes classify humanitarian aid as exports. Clearing this up can take six, seven hours.

"I hope today is a good day," he says. "I've gone over the documents so many times."

He grabs his paperwork and strides into the bare-bones customs building, which is staffed by exhausted-looking men in T-shirts and hoodies.

He goes from booth to booth with his paperwork. A customs agent with electric-blue shoes finally rejects it because it's missing a phone number.

The city of Mukachevo, Ukraine.
Joanna Kakissis / NPR
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NPR
The Ukrainian flag stands in the main square of Mukachevo, in western Ukraine. The city has taken in at least 30,000 Ukrainians displaced from other parts of the country by Russia's invasion. "Everyone in this town has to help so we can manage," says Oleksandr Galai, who runs Mukachevo's relief effort.

"So we need to change all declarations for other cars, you know, so it's crazy," Benc says with a sigh.

Even when a country's at war, he says, the bureaucracy churns on.

A historical crossroads is now a refuge for Ukrainians

It takes roughly three hours to cross the border but less than an hour from the border to reach the Ukrainian city of Mukachevo.

"Look at that beautiful castle," Benc says, pointing to a fortress on a small hill. "I loved visiting it as a tourist. The Ukrainians have taken such good care of it."

A volunteer sorts humanitarian aid supplies at Uzhhorod National University in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, on March 17.
Zuzana Gogova / Getty Images
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Getty Images
A volunteer sorts humanitarian aid supplies at Uzhhorod National University in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, on March 17.

Blue-and-white Ukrainian flags line the avenues. Mukachevo is Presov's sister city and something of a historical crossroads in a region known as Transcarpathia. It belonged to Hungary until 1920, to Czechoslovakia until 1938, then went back to Hungarian control until 1945.

Before World War II, Mukachevo was largely a Jewish town. Now, it's become a refuge for displaced Ukrainians like Maxim Kovtun, a 42-year-old baker and marathon runner who recently fled Kyiv with his wife and two children.

"When the air raids began, we put a bunch of random belongings into a box, jumped into our car and just drove," he says. "We settled on Mukachevo, which is about as far west as you can go, and is very calm, though no one knows what will happen tomorrow."

Kovtun is at a warehouse near a busy street, helping other Ukrainians unload the donated supplies from Slovakia.

Volunteering "keeps my mind calm, so I can get out of my room, and I don't have to think every day about the war," he says. "It's the way to be involved and to participate, to support."

Slovak and Ukrainian volunteers come together to help those displaced by war

Oleksandr Galai, who runs the city's relief effort for displaced people, estimates that more than 30,000 people have arrived, with hundreds more arriving every day. That means Mukachevo's prewar population of 100,000 could have grown by a third since the Russian invasion.

A volunteer unloads aid supplies sent by the Slovak group Podaj dalej, on March 17, in Uzhhorod, Ukraine.
Zuzana Gogova / Getty Images
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A volunteer unloads aid supplies sent by the Slovak group Podaj dalej, on March 17, in Uzhhorod, Ukraine.

"So everyone is helping," he says. "Everyone in this town has to help so we can manage."

The helpers include 15-year-old Georgiy Pelikh, who's sorting clothes with his friends from high school. They also register displaced Ukrainians in the largest volunteer center in Mukachevo.

"As a citizen of Ukraine it's my obligation, because I'm too young to be a soldier," he says. "It's more than an obligation, because I want to do it. I want to meet my fellow Ukrainians so they know we are all together. Sometimes it's very hard to even look at them because they are always sad. You need to joke with them. You need to make them happy."

He says he believes Ukraine will win this war that Russia started and emerge stronger than before.

"Glory to Ukraine!" one of the Slovaks shouts out.

"Glory to the heroes!" Pelikh and his friends shout back.

The convoy makes a quick return to Slovakia — to fill up again with donations

A truck drives toward the Slovak-Ukraine border after delivering humanitarian aid supplies from a nongovernmental organization, Podaj dalej, on March 17, in Uzhhorod, Ukraine.
Zuzana Gogova / Getty Images
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Getty Images
A truck drives toward the Slovak-Ukraine border after delivering humanitarian aid supplies from a nongovernmental organization, Podaj dalej, on March 17, in Uzhhorod, Ukraine.

Before heading home, the Slovaks stop at a busy supermarket to stock up on Ukrainian sweets and small dried fish called taranka, and at a restaurant that's run out of borscht. Everyone in the restaurant is an aid worker. The waitress thanks the group for coming.

"Don't let the world forget about us," she says.

On the drive back to Presov, it's dark. Everyone is silent.

The convoy drives through a line reserved for trucks, and it's quick. Benc has gotten to know some of the Slovak border officials.

But the line for private cars stretches for miles. The cars are all Ukrainian.

The next morning, Benc is back in the warehouse, which is filling up again with donations. The volunteers here worked late into the night, even as he begged them to go home and get some rest.

"In the beginning, what we do was like a water drop, but now it's starting to feel a little more like a small stream," he says. "I hope the Ukrainians feel like they have friends next door."

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