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20-mile backup as Polish truckers blockade border in standoff with Ukrainian drivers

Ukrainian truck drivers stand near a long line of trucks as they wait for days at the Dorohusk border in Poland.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
Ukrainian truck drivers stand near a long line of trucks as they wait for days at the Dorohusk border in Poland.

DOROHUSK, Poland — Leszek Stasiak, who owns a small Polish trucking company, has been manning the night shift at the blockade of the Dorohusk border crossing with Ukraine.

It's effective: a line of about 1,000 trucks stretches back more than 20 miles into Poland.

"This is a fight for our existence," he says, a little after 9 p.m., his yellow reflective vest catching the glare from headlights of trucks at the front of the line, waiting for his approval to cross.

For two months, Polish truckers have been blocking traffic at the Ukraine-Poland border, holding up thousands of trucks waiting to cross. They are outraged over the European Union's decision to remove limits on how many Ukrainian drivers and businesses can enter Poland and the EU.

Stasiak says he is here because his business of five trucks, which he owns with his son, can't compete with the influx of Ukrainian drivers flooding the market.

Leszek Stasiak runs a small trucking business in Poland. He is part of the truck blockade at the Poland-Ukraine border because he feels their livelihoods are under threat with the current rules with Ukrainian truckers.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Leszek Stasiak runs a small trucking business in Poland. He is part of the truck blockade at the Poland-Ukraine border because he feels their livelihoods are under threat with the current rules with Ukrainian truckers.

"Ukrainian drivers, they drive around like they're members of the EU — like us — and they take away our bread, they take away our work," he says.

On this day, Stasiak and his fellow protesters are letting just five trucks cross per hour; on other days, it slows to just a trickle of two or three. In November, the first month of the blockade, Ukraine experienced a $160 million loss in exports and imports were down by $700 million compared with the previous month.

A wartime gesture of support has received unexpected blowback

Before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU used a permit system to keep the number of Polish and Ukrainian drivers crossing their common border about equal. The European Union has suspended the permit system, as a way to support the Ukrainian economy and help the country during wartime.

With airports in Ukraine shut down and the Black Sea mined by Russia, the land borders with Poland — the longest of its neighbors — became Ukraine's main connection to the European Union. The number of trucks crossing shot up, the majority of those being driven by Ukrainians.

Stasiak and the other Polish protesters blocking the crossing say they want the permit system restored.

A man sells snacks and drinks from his bicycle to the Ukrainian truck drivers stuck at the border with Poland.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A man sells snacks and drinks from his bicycle to the Ukrainian truck drivers stuck at the border with Poland.

The changes in the market have Stasiak considering shifting his business away from moving goods across the continent, to driving music equipment for touring bands. He's recently had a contractfor the Irish dance show dance show Rhythm of the Dance.

He doesn't have much sympathy for the Ukrainian drivers waiting weeks at border crossings throughout Poland — which just before New Year's totaled about 5,000 trucks. "That's just the job," Stasiak says, as he tells of his adventures driving in rural Russia and elsewhere.

Waiting is nothing, he says, he's done plenty of it in his decades of being a driver.

Behind Stasiak's spot at the front of the line, away from his heated camper, the Ukrainian drivers have a much different take, especially as temperatures drop along the Polish border.

"There is a war going on at home and we are stuck here," says Oleksandr Nekrasov, who is from Lutsk in western Ukraine. He's been waiting at the border for nearly two weeks.

He and a group of about a dozen men are gathered on the side of the road, chatting and having a smoke. His truck, which is carrying propane headed to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, sits a short distance away. The drivers have about 50 minutes before they'll need to move their trucks forward, as five more vehicles are allowed to advance to the crossing.

Truck driver Oleksandr Nekrasov, who is originally from Lutsk in western Ukraine, waits near his truck at the Dorohusk border in Poland. He has been stuck at the border for nearly two weeks.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Truck driver Oleksandr Nekrasov, who is originally from Lutsk in western Ukraine, waits near his truck at the Dorohusk border in Poland. He has been stuck at the border for nearly two weeks.

"It's punishing, just awful," says Nekrasov. Most of the drivers have been waiting in line for 13 or 14 days, and some say they're running low on food, water and money.

Another Ukrainian driver, Serhii Strelok, who has been waiting for 14 days, opens up his cab, to show us his living quarters behind his seat. There's a small gas stove, a mini-fridge, and a bed with blankets.

He tells us drivers sleep whenever they can because no one can leave their trucks. It's not uncommon for a driver to fall asleep at the wheel — with the truck's engine off — causing other drivers — or even the police — to wake them up so they can inch forward in line.

Serhii's son, Yevgeny, who drives for the same Ukrainian transport company, is driving the truck directly in front of his. It was not planned, they say, but being together in line has made a bad situation just a little bit better.

Ukrainian truck driver Serhii Strelok waits at the Dorohusk border in Poland to get home to Ukraine.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Ukrainian truck driver Serhii Strelok waits at the Dorohusk border in Poland to get home to Ukraine.

Poland's government is punting to the EU

Poland's new prime minister, Donald Tusk, has said any resolution of the border blockade must come from the European Union, which lifted the permit system. He is planning a trip to Kyiv and said the blockade would be on the agenda.

In recent weeks, the protesters have also been meeting with the Ministry of Infrastructure, the part of the Polish government that deals with transport, to try to resolve their complaints, though nothing has been settled.

Last week, as politicians conferred and the Ukrainian drivers waited to cross, Russia launched its largest aerial attack since the war began, hitting cities across Ukraine, and killing dozens.

The Ukrainian drivers have been following the attacks closely on their phones, through social media and texts with friends and family. Stanislau Kolisnyk, who is driving a truck full of metal plates for protective vests, pulls up a video of the aftermath of one of those attacks in the city of Dnipro.

"We are willing to drive to these places that are dangerous," he says. "I'll drive to Dnipro to Kharkiv — to cities that are close to the front line. Polish drivers just want to cross to western Ukraine."

The Polish protesters have a permit for the blockade, which is monitored by local police, but Kolisnyk is still incensed that the right to protest can interfere so plainly with international borders and trade.

"OK, the Poles have a permit to protest. But do they have a permit to disrupt the flow of goods between two countries?" he asks.

Stasiak (left) and another Polish protestor stop a truck at night at the Dorohusk border in Poland.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Stasiak (left) and another Polish protestor stop a truck at night at the Dorohusk border in Poland.

Another Ukrainian driver, Oleksandr Khalamendyk, has similar sentiments. "Go block the government in Warsaw," he says, "Leave us at the border out of it." Some Polish drivers did try that back in the spring, but it didn't get nearly as much attention.

At a border crossing further south, Polish farmers have staged another on-again, off-again protest. Their demands are slightly different from the truckers and transport business owners: Among other demands, they want the Polish government to offer subsidies for corn because prices are low, in part because of increased Ukrainian imports.

Despite the ongoing blockade, several Ukrainian drivers tell NPR they plan to keep making this journey into and out of Poland.

Khalamendyk, who is carrying factory parts, is just a few trucks from the front of the line. He picked up his load in Germany and then spent 13 days waiting in line here at Dorohusk. He's frustrated, he's only a few hours from his destination, but he cannot cross. Maybe he'll make it by tomorrow, he says, optimistically.

Khalamendyk has been dreaming of the hot, proper meal he'll have when he's finally back in Ukraine. Will he do this again, knowing he'll have to wait this long again — or longer?

Absolutely, he says. "I've got a family. I need the money."

NPR photographer Claire Harbage and producer Grzegorz Sokół contributed reporting.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.