It was on a chilly and damp Tuesday morning of March 10, 1992, when an extraordinary expedition commenced.
A convoy comprising six articulated lorries, a coach, and a mobile home, accompanied by 24 dedicated volunteers, embarked on a relief mission. Their destination: the city of Kostroma, situated about 250 miles northeast of Moscow in Russia. The purpose of this noble venture was to deliver approximately 200 tons of essential supplies, including food, clothing, and medicines, to schools and orphanages in Kostroma. The generous donations had poured in from the compassionate residents of County Durham, prompted by an appeal organized by Durham County Council.
Spanning a duration of 12 days, the arduous journey covered over 5000 miles, testing the endurance and perseverance of the valiant volunteers. Despite facing numerous hardships and moments of frustration, their unwavering spirit eventually led to well-deserved jubilation upon accomplishing their mission.
Darin Smith, one of the dedicated volunteers, meticulously documented their expedition through a diary and captured captivating moments with his camera. Let us delve into a glimpse of their incredible voyage as illustrated by his narrative.
The first day commenced with the departure from Durham amidst cold weather and rainfall. However, an unexpected hurdle arose when one of the lorries encountered a coupling issue. Despite this setback, astonishingly, the driver managed to catch up with the convoy just in time to board the ferry to the Hook of Holland.
Navigating the Dutch roads proved to be smooth, with the border guards granting them passage with a wave of their hands. As they transitioned into Germany, the picturesque countryside unfolded before their eyes, adorned with rolling hills and quaint timber-framed houses nestled within small villages.
Approximately 7 km away from the German-Polish border, they encountered an extensive line of lorries awaiting their turn to cross. Initially met with resistance as they attempted to manoeuvre around the queue, the convoy’s purpose as a relief mission softened the stance of the other drivers. Eventually, they were granted permission to proceed, avoiding the fate of being stranded for days, a common occurrence in that location.
As the journey progressed, it became evident that, despite having all the necessary paperwork in order, offering bribes to the border guards was an unavoidable part of the process. Whiskey, American cigarettes, and chocolate were currencies in this domain, ensuring their smooth passage.
Upon crossing the Russian border at 7 am local time, a delegation from Kostroma awaited their arrival. A police car and a weathered old coach, carrying a prominent councillor, joined their convoy. Their presence aimed to safeguard the relief mission from potential exploitation by black marketeers.
Setting off in the direction of Moscow, the volunteers followed the police car, its lights flashing brightly. Yet, their confidence in the escort was soon shattered when the lead vehicle took a wrong turn, forcing the entire convoy to execute a precarious u-turn across a busy dual carriageway. Doubts started to arise regarding the helpfulness of the escort, and these doubts were quickly proven correct.
The main road to Moscow proved to be worse than any minor road they had encountered in the Western regions. After a few hours of travel, the police car abruptly blocked the road, diverting the lead coach into a small filling station. This sudden stop caught the following vehicles off guard, struggling to come to a halt on the atrocious road surface covered in diesel, fuel, and oil. One of the lorries collided with the rear of the preceding one, resulting in extensive damage to the cab. Fortunately, the driver managed to escape with leg injuries. With no emergency services available, the mangled lorry had to be left behind. The journey continued, crossing another time zone and heading towards Minsk. The roads deteriorated further, and the landscape transformed into vast stretches of flat terrain, encompassing pine forests and desolate farmland.
At a filling station, the cost of refuelling all eight vehicles amounted to a mere £20, a stark contrast to the £800 it would have incurred in the Western regions. Concerns about potential raids by racketeers compelled them to forgo an overnight stop in Moscow. Instead, they pressed on, enduring a night of heavy snowfall, making it one of the most uncomfortable nights they had ever experienced.
Finally, they arrived in Kostroma, where a heartwarming reception awaited their arrival. Comparable in size to Newcastle, Kostroma boasted numerous splendid churches, yet most of the other structures exhibited monotonous concrete exteriors, making flats, shops, and factories indistinguishable from one another. In the older section of the city, magnificent edifices coexisted with small wooden shacks, reminiscent of those found in the surrounding countryside.
Their vehicles were placed under armed guard at the Kostroma Army Academy for Officers, a sprawling military base. The volunteers themselves were directed to a hotel, which, though modest by Western standards, felt like a haven to them.
Following a nourishing breakfast, a civic reception took place, after which Russian soldiers and some children undertook the task of unloading and sorting the supplies from the lorries, preparing them for distribution. The next stop brought them to an orphanage, where the first truckload of food was unpacked. The provisions included tins of corned beef, beans, tuna, chocolate, and biscuits. A particularly generous donation of a full pallet of chocolate had been contributed by Mars.
The orphanage, an expansive establishment surrounded by its own grounds, provided a home for children ranging from toddlers to teenagers. Their excitement and happiness at the visitors’ arrival were palpable. The orphanage, surpassing expectations, displayed an impressive level of cleanliness and brightness. The children were well-dressed and clean, attending classrooms where they received education in various subjects, such as geography, mathematics, and needlework. A humble lunch consisting of soup ladled from a large tin bucket was shared by the volunteers and the children.
The return journey home proved to be no less eventful, filled with numerous unexpected twists and turns. Nonetheless, through resilience and collective effort, they overcame the challenges they faced. The magnitude of gratitude expressed by all involved in this remarkable endeavour remains immeasurable.