95 kilometers in two weeks: everyday truck driver life in the east of the EU

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For years, Grischka and Grigory have been traveling with their heavy trucks in the Ukraine-Moldova-Romania border triangle. Russia's war of aggression has also profoundly changed their lives.

The truck drivers Grischka and Grigory have to get used to long waiting times at the borders

“I don't care who governs the country – there should only be peace,” says Grischka, cutting cucumbers and tomatoes into small pieces and preparing a salad in a plastic bowl between the cabin and the loading area. “Better Zelenskyy,” replies Grigory, putting a few slices of sausage on a blue plastic bag and telling me how he met the father of the current Ukrainian president many years ago. We have a little time to talk, they should be there with their trucks at the checkpoint in Giurgiulesti in about an hour. That's appreciated by the Moldovan border policeman who allowed me to weave through the rows of heavily loaded articulated lorries.

< p>A modest lunch in line

Here, in the border triangle between Romania, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine, hundreds of trucks are jammed. After Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the blockade of Ukrainian ports, agricultural products can no longer be exported from the country via the previous routes. The situation is jeopardizing global food security. The EU Commission has therefore proposed alternative transport routes via which grain can be exported from Ukraine. But these so-called solidarity corridors are not yet working as planned.

“Everything has gotten worse” 

It took Grischka and Grigory a full two weeks from the Ukrainian Ismail to the Romanian port of Galati on the Danube – 14 days for just 95 kilometers. They don't always manage to set off together – but it's easier as a couple, they say. Especially when clearance at the border and in the port takes so long. They brought sunflower seeds to Galati, but the Romanian authorities did not work there over the weekend. The officers would never work on Saturdays and Sundays, even if the whole city were surrounded by trucks, the truck drivers say.

Now they are returning to Ukraine, their wagons laden with salt. Both are upset that they had to bring sunflower seeds to Romania. They are actually needed at home in the Ukraine, where you already have to pay the equivalent of more than two euros for a liter of cooking oil – and the prices would continue to rise. Grischka comes from a Moldovan-Russian family, is 37 years old, his wife is Russian, they have a three and a half year old child. “The war completely changed our lives, everything has gotten worse. Why do so many children have to die? Why do people have to live in the basement?” asks Grischka. He doesn't understand why the war started, why suddenly so much hatred could be unleashed.  

< p>Grischka the truck driver comes from a Moldovan-Russian family

Grishka also doesn't understand why not only the Russian language but also Russian music was banned throughout Ukraine, including in his village near Ismail on the Danube: “If the police catch you, you have to pay a fine.”  The Ukrainians would like to turn everyone here into Ukrainians, he says. “Yesterday I saw a Ukrainian truck driver insult a Romanian because he didn't speak Ukrainian.”

Fear of the Russian army's advance 

50-year-old Grigory says that after the “Orange Revolution” the children of the Romanian minority in Ukraine were no longer taught Romanian at school. In Ismail, where the Russian-speaking population made up the majority, Ukrainian-speaking compatriots were increasingly settled. Grigory is Ukrainian, but he also speaks Romanian – he says he's learned it over the past 20 years, commuting between Ukraine and Romania in his truck.

Ukrainian President Zelenskyy is OK, “a handsome man – but not as clever as his father”. He met Alexandr Selenskyj years ago while fishing: “He came to us on the Danube by boat,” Grigory recalls. “We caught pike, perch and crucian carp – and drank strong liquor that burned our throats, he made it himself. A great scientist.” Zelenskyy Senior headed the cybernetics department at the university in Kryvyi Rih – Grigory uses the Russian name of the city, Krivoy Rog. He is proud to have met the father of the current President of Ukraine. Because of this encounter, too, he wants to support Zelenskyj Junior as best he can – and is still afraid that the president could also call them, the truck drivers, to arms: “We know that the laws change twice a day never what's coming.”

Grigory fondly remembers his meeting with the father of the President of Ukraine

The uncertainty affects Grischka and Grigory more than the daily stress at the wheel, they tell me. They are afraid for their families. And before the advance of the Russian army. “Our soldiers no longer have any weapons, the Russians could soon take Odessa and then come to us in Ismail,” says Grigory, looking towards home. He seems to have forgotten the sausage sandwich in his left hand for the moment. His first wife moved to Italy with their son years ago and never returned. Now he has a new family. No, he doesn't want to leave home, he has a house and a small yard, everything he needs: “I wish for peace, but I know that Zelenskyj cannot give up our country. He has to persevere and do everything he can,” adds Grigory.

An “emergency investment program” for the ailing infrastructure 

His wife was “tired,” says Grigory's colleague Grischka. The noise of the war, which is getting closer, and the constant fear for her child would have changed her. She isn't laughing anymore and is playing more and more with the idea of ​​moving to Romania. He doesn't want that himself, he says. For Grischka, everyone is to blame for the war, “above all the Russians and the Ukrainians, but also the Europeans and the Americans.” Grigory is not so sure about that. He doesn't like what's happening either, but life was difficult even before the war. Now it shows what was not good before. Above all, the infrastructure has been neglected in the Ukraine – and that is now taking its revenge.

In order to help the country export grain and other goods, Romania has promised to set up an “emergency investment program” for the ailing infrastructure – above all for the expansion of the rail connection from the Republic of Moldova to the Romanian Danube port of Galati. What's more, Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu said the city could become “the new Odessa” because Ukrainian grain could be transported by truck and train to Galati and then by barge down the Danube to the Black Sea port of Constanta. From there, the normal pre-war export routes would be accessible.

At the moment, however, over 20 million tons of grain are stuck in Ukraine. And with the 2022 harvest, it could soon be 60 million tons. Experts warn: Without rapid infrastructure development and Ukraine's good connection to the EU transport network, the world is heading for one of the worst famines in recent decades.

For Grischka and Grigory, nothing will change for the time being. They would continue to try to keep calm and do their job as best they could, they tell me, before getting into their trucks and heading towards the border crossing. 

Adaptation from Romanian: Robert Black