They say it isn’t easy when you’ve just retired from cricket and, at the end of the 2021 season – when there were still lockdowns – I was in a bit of a lull. Sitting at home, I decided to tick something off the bucket list, and do some travelling. Everybody was talking about how “van life” was the way to go, and it really appealed, so I bought a second-hand van and started fitting it out. It’s nice to have a project.
Then, in February, the news was all about the invasion of Ukraine. Like many, I felt horrified and helpless. What sent me over the edge was the footage of orphans and pregnant women being evacuated. There was a picture of a mother with her newborn, and my thoughts turned to all those happy hospital photos you see of a baby’s first day. It’s supposed to be a joyous moment, but the look on this mother’s face was: “What have I brought my child into?”
When you grow up in South Africa, as I did in the 1990s, you understand the urge to help people in need. What I saw from Ukraine pulled at my heartstrings: I decided right away to drive there. I started crowdfunding and gathering supplies but, when I offered my services to the volunteers near my home in Surrey, they told me they already had more vans than they could handle. By then I had pretty much packed mine to its roof with medical supplies, nappies and tampons – so I headed for Dover.
The White Eagle Club is a Polish community organisation in south London, and they gave me the address of a place in Lublin, about an hour from the Poland–Ukraine border, where I could take my supplies. It was nearly 1,000 miles, and I grabbed sleep where I could: an hour on the ferry, an hour in a McDonald’s car park in Germany. When I got to Poland, I dropped my stuff off, went to a shopping centre and filled up the van again. I wasn’t sure where to go next, and it looked like I was going to have to spend the night in the cab. It was now about –10°C, but someone suggested I stay at a place where they were supporting arriving orphans. Next morning, we discussed whether I should go for broke and drive into Ukraine. Everything was so hand-to-mouth and spontaneous; I felt like I was part of the resistance. I drove south, to the border crossing at Medyka. I didn’t have a plan, just good intentions. I helped with cat and dog rescue for a while, then went to the refugee centre at Przemyśl, a little way back into Poland.
I came face to face with the consequences of a war zone – the most intense experience of my life. People talk about returning soldiers having a thousand-yard stare. I saw that in the eyes of civilians. People were arriving on foot, with one bag; the children clutched teddy bears. One person was dropped off on a stretcher – we didn’t know who they were, or what treatment they needed. I’ve never seen anything like it. One of the priorities was to treat people for stress. A lot were given panic medication, just so they could function. The Germans, Czechs and Italians all had officials on hand, rounding people up with their belongings, and bussing them out. The attitude was: “Let’s get you to safety, and we’ll sort out the admin when you’re there.”
That was not how the UK officials went about things. While other countries were concentrating on evacuation, the Brits were focused on paperwork. I saw one man being asked to provide two years of mortgage receipts; they were even demanding character references for the children. Then it was: “You’ll get a reply in four to six weeks.” And the Germans were putting people on coaches! I was frustrated and angry. It seemed the UK was saying they’d help, while making the process as difficult as possible.
The volunteers, though – including the British – were amazing. All hands were on deck. One of the biggest problems was keeping people traffickers at bay. They were brazen, turning up with cars, and hoping women would get in; we could never let our guard down. Another challenge was translation – not that many Ukrainians speak English. One of the refugees at Przemyśl was a teenager called Nazar, who was fluent. We found him onward travel, but he refused to go: he slept on the floor, and translated for all the new arrivals. In the end, we managed to get him a visa.
It was only a couple of weeks of my life, but it still hits me hard. I know now what people mean when they refer to the realities of war.
Stuart Meaker played for Surrey and Sussex between 2008 and 2021, and in four white-ball games for England. He was talking to Kit Harris.