Douzelage News

The – very long – road to Ukraine

It started as a mad idea, but on the 16th of June the Douzelage handed over two minibusses to the ukranian town of Kamianets-Podilskyi.

By Mette Grith Sørensen, Holstebro, former vicepresident

It really was just a crazy idea.

One of those ideas you come up with when you’re a little tired, very emotional, and in the company of a bunch of like-minded friends.

“We will give them a bus. Maybe two!” someone said.

I don’t remember who.

Another calculated how much money each Douzelage town would have to donate in order for us to buy a big, used bus. It sounded manageable.

On that night – in a room in the Romanian The Frontier Hotel in Siret – none of us thought about insurance, petrol, volunteer unpaid drivers, transfer papers, official stamps etc.

I mean – how hard could it be?

The town of Kamianets-Podilskyi, which we as the Douzelage board had just visited, in the war-torn Ukraine, had to be helped. We agreed on that. And what they most wanted was a bus.

The town of Kamianets Podilskyi noted by the red location marker in the context of Ukraine and both Moldova and Romania to the south.

16 months later, we handed over keys and papers for two Mercedes Sprinter mini-buses, year 2019, to Governor Myhailo Simashkevych and Ihor Lyubinets’kyy, respectively. The latter is the head of the humanitarian organization “Dvi Fortetsi” (Two fortresses).

However, the road there had not been as easy as the physical road we covered, when from the 13th to the 16th of June we drove the buses from Niederanven in Luxembourg and to Kamianets-Podilskyi.

The collection

Back in February 2023 we returned home, kindled by the sacred fire.

Jette Hingjeberg, chairperson of Douzelage Holstebro, immediately started a collection among our friends, acquaintances, colleagues and friends of friends in Holstebro. I wrote an article, which I partly published on Facebook – and partly got Douzelage’s secretary at the time, Femie Kengen, to send out to the partner cities.

At the same time, President Annigje Kruytbosch wrote an appeal to the Douzelage towns to take part in a collection – 1000 euros each town had to contribute, and then we would be able to buy a large used bus, maybe two.

In retrospect, we were naive. We simply hadn’t thought about the fact that both Douzelage Holstebro and Douzelage Meerssen are private organisations that can start a collection whenever they want. The situation is different for Douzelage groups that are closely connected with their city council.

Some towns told us they were already massively supporting Ukraine in other ways. Some said their city council didn’t think they could justify spending 1000 euros on Ukraine right now. And some we didn’t hear from at all.

I was disappointed.

At the general assembly in Rovinj-Roivgno in September 2023, we once again tried to encourage people to join in. Several cities had not seen the papers sent out and were completely unaware of the collection, which they heard about in Croatia for the first time – two of them made a quick decision and donated the 1000 euros each.

Mayor Mario Calleja of Marsaskala, Malta, suggested that we did a spontaneous collection on the spot. It gave approximately 600 euros and renewed faith in the project.

The General Meeting in Rovinj-Rovigno, Croatia in 2023

But in December 2023 we had to state that we “only” had a good 7,000 euros and were thus very far from the minimum limit of 15,000 euros we had set to be able to buy a used bus and drive it to Ukraine.

We started talking about whether we should try to give people their money back – or whether we should donate the money to a humanitarian organization working in Ukraine.

But then came the call that changed everything.

The phonecall

In early January 2024, Mayor Fred Ternes, Niederanven, Luxembourg contacted President Annigje Kruytbosch. The bus company Emile Weber from Niederanven had two minibuses – so-called 8+1 people, i.e. driver plus eight passengers – which they would like to donate to the cause.

On January 11, Annigje Kruytbosch wrote to Niederanven: “I am speechless!”

So were the rest of us.

Suddenly the project could be done. Our prayers had been heard.

The buses were delivered by Niederanven with new tyres, temporary plates, insurance up to Kamianets-Podilskyi, fully refueled and decorated with Douzelage stickers according to Annigje Kruytbosch’s design. On the tailgate you could see logos/city coats of arms of the eight cities that collected, namely Douzelage Sherborne, Douzelage Meerssen, Douzelage Siret, Douzelage Holstebro and the municipalities of Altea, Niederanven, Bad Kötzting and Rovinj/Rovigno.

In the meantime, the old board in Douzelage had been replaced by a new one at the general meeting in Sherborne in April 2024. We in the old board had only one wish for our replacements: “Please let us finish this project, because it is our baby”. Fortunately, they said “of course”.

The Roadtrip

On Thursday 13 June, the buses were handed over to six people, three on each bus, at a small ceremony in Niederanven. Almost symbolically, the weather was beautiful and sunny.

The launch ceremony took place in Niederanven

In one bus the drivers were Marcus Ainley (representative of Sherborne) and Femie Kengen, Meerssen, former secretary of the Douzelage Board 2016-2024. The third person was Danielly Kaufmann, Niederanven, who was asked to document the trip on video.

In the second bus, the drivers were Annigje Kruytbosch, Meerssen, and Roberta Dario, Niederanven, while I, from Holstebro, read maps (Google Maps), photographed and took notes for this article.

Former Douzelage president Annigje Kruytbosch helps to drive the bus

The first 582 kilometers to Bad Kötzting went smoothly and without too many motorway queues. We were received by Douzelage Bad Kötzting and Mayor Markus Hofmann, who provided a lovely dinner at Lindner Bräu. The city also provided accommodation at Pension Steidl.

Driving through Hungary

The next day we drove for a very long time. 975 kilometers from approximately 8 o’clock through Austria and Hungary to the city of Satu Mare in Romania. We got there at approximately 10.15pm after waiting for a while at the border, only 11 kilometers from our hotel. At the hotel, Tibi Rotaru, former vice president, from Siret, was waiting with three other Romanian friends.

The team in Siret, Romania

We went out and ate pizza late, while European football was shown on a big screen right next door.

We had a lovely morning and did not leave Satu Mare until 10 o’clock on the 15th of June. Our goal was Siret. The distance was only 380 kilometers, but it was up and down mountains, so it still took all day. We only reached The Frontier Hotel in the evening, where former Vice President Miha Ješe, Skofja Loka, Slovenia, was waiting for us.

Douzelage Siret kindly sponsored one of two nights at the hotel.

The handover

On Sunday 16th of June we stopped at the Romanian border in the two minibuses at 7 o’clock. It turned out to be far too early. Our buses had to be registered as having left Romania, and at the government offices in Bucharest they only turned on the computers at 8 o’clock on Sundays.

At approximately 08:20 we drove on to the Ukrainian border. And then we really got to wait.

Our contact person and great help – Mihai Mihaeescu Aniuk, who works for the Suceava District with “international affairs” (that is, he primarily helps aid-organizations that want to enter Ukraine via the Suceava District) had translated the transfer papers, which Niederanven had designed, to Ukrainian language. But in the meantime a new circular had been published. Now the buses and the medicine we brought (non-prescription, just over-the-counter pain relievers and bandages) were not allowed to be on the same piece of paper.

So we waited for two new documents to be written and for new codes to be sent from Kiev.

We waited for two and a half hours…

According to Mihai, aid-organizations quite often give up on bringing medicine because it is too much of a hassle due to the Ukrainian bureaucracy. Especially if it is prescription medicine.

But finally we were able to drive the last 125 kilometers to Kamianets-Podilskyi, where they had been waiting for us since 9 o’clock. We were there at 1 p.m. On the drive we could see that there are not many cars on the roads. Mihai explained that the Ukrainians do not have much money for petrol.

We were received with open arms, smiles and moist eyes by Governor Myhailo Simashkevych, Ihor Lyubinets’kyy, as well as a lot of others from the regional office and the humanitarian organization that Ihor heads.

There was coffee, chocolate – and vodka. Then lots of photos had to be taken and interviews made in the square in front of the town hall by the buses. And then a nice lunch with even more vodka – and both heartfelt speeches and songs by the hosts.

Afterwards, our hosts drove us back to the border in the two buses that had now become theirs. And we strolled from the Ukrainian border to our hotel, waving goodbye to our Ukrainian friends.

Saying goodbye

The end

“I will never forget that. It was an experience of a lifetime”, said Roberta Dario, Niederanven, with tears in her eyes on Monday 17th of June, when we were on our way to Iasi.

Incidentally, in the bus that some Douzelage towns joined together to donate to Siret many years ago. It has been of great use to the town and has been looked after and cared for over the years, so that it still appears almost as new.

We hope and wish that the buses in Kamianets-Podilskyi will have the same destiny.

At least they are off to a good start. Ihor has sent us a small video showing children of internally displaced persons who now live in Kamianets-Podilskyi and who the other day went on an excursion in the bus to create some joy.

Thank you to everyone who supported, whether it was with two buses or with two euros in the collection box during the general meeting.

Together we can do the wildest things!

It cost us approximately 3000 euros (some hotelnights, dinners, petrol) to drive the buses to Ukraine. The remaining approx. 4000 euros will be donated to two humanitarian organizations in Ukraine, which Tibi Rotaru, Siret, and Mihai Mihaescu Aniuk, Suceava District, jointly will find.