Thousands of stationary lorries, stretched back as far as the eye could see, sat in driving rain. Piles of garbage mounting by the roadside. Drivers sobbing in their cabs.
This was the scene that greeted hundreds of British and European nationals who put aside their Christmas plans last week to bring supplies to drivers stranded in queues in Dover.
Tailbacks on the approach to the Port of Dover began around 10 days ago after France banned travel and then subsequently required all arrivals from the UK to be tested for coronavirus.
Up to 15,000 people, mostly HGV hauliers but also individuals in private cars and at least one school bus, were stuck in the ensuing traffic for days on end.
Most of the backlog had been cleared as of December 28.
Local supermarket shelves were reportedly empty within hours of the gridlock. The crisis prompted a massive and largely-unsung humanitarian response by local people and businesses, spearheaded by the Polish community in the UK.
Hundreds of people mobilised on social media last week to buy and deliver tonnes of supplies – most urgently food and water, but also essential medication, blankets, hand wipes, face masks, and even beer, cigarettes and Christmas gifts – from across the country to drivers facing the prospect of Christmas Eve in a traffic jam.
Kamil Durlik, a haulier from Poland, sat in the stationary queue from Sunday to Wednesday at the wheel of a lorry full of fresh – and then decaying – fish bound for Zeebrugge.
“Those three days were really hard to handle psychologically,” he said. “On the first day there was no toilet, no food, no water. People were very upset and very angry.
“I speak four languages so I tried to explain to other drivers what was going on. I met drivers from Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. I broadcast on TikTok for about 10 hours to tell the world what was happening there.”
Drivers were directed to Manston Airport for testing, but progress reportedly went at a glacial pace at first and the 4,000-space car park was at capacity throughout Wednesday. “The weather was terrible,” Durlik said. “Nobody came through the lanes to ask if we needed anything. Nobody.
“There was some water there, but drivers had to push for it. I was about 2.5 kilometres from the beginning of the queue and so to get any I needed to walk 2.5km, or about 40 minutes on foot in the rain.”
Thousands of people in the UK had scrambled online to convey car- and van-loads of supplies and petrol bought with their own money to drivers in Kent.
In the tense atmosphere some drivers were accused of stockpiling food to sell on to others in the queue, and scuffles broke out with police.
After testing negative on Wednesday, Durlik drove to Oxford and slept until 4 pm. He then called his boss and drove 250km back to Dover at 5 am on Christmas Day, with his lorry now loaded with local donations. “I decided I needed to help other people,” he said. “The volunteers were absolutely amazing.”
One Facebook group co-ordinating support for drivers was created three days before Christmas and had 6,000 members by the end of the week.
It connected would-be donors to Polish delis, hotels and restaurants in Kent organising food packages for drivers, and to drop-off points across the UK where volunteers could collect and convey supplies to the coast.
Individual drivers used the group to share their locations in the queue and appeal for specific items including an asthma inhaler, painkillers, sanitary products for female drivers and even baby milk.
The page’s founder, Krzysztof Dworny, who runs a minicab firm in London, stressed the group was for any and all would-be volunteers and drivers in the UK: “It’s not just the Polish community. We want to help everyone.”
Locals in Kent brought home-cooked meals to the coastbound carriageway of the M20. Volunteers scaled wire fences to drop crates of supplies down to drivers, threw bags of food over barriers and lowered parcels off bridges over the M20.
Others were luckier and had a police escort down the stationary lines of traffic. Izabela Czaja, of Maidstone, Kent, said she and her fiancé had been unable to sleep watching the news.
Her fiancé drove to a nearby service station to buy a small quantity of basic goods for drivers, and later co-organised a convoy of 23 vehicles to bring supplies to Manston Airport.
“When Mati returned from Maidstone Services,” Czaja said, “one gentleman he exchanged numbers with called him to thank him. I was bellowing like an animal. It was just water and bread and they were so grateful.
“The airport was a tragedy. A horror. There were four toilets for drivers, no showers and no possibility of leaving. We couldn’t even serve them food with dignity. That’s worse than in prison.”
Nurse Alicja Bopowicz, from Manchester, was one of 80 people involved in co-ordinating a 500-strong support network on Polonia24, a channel on the walkie-talkie app Zello used by many of the drivers.
Around 150 to 200 people on this group made trips to Dover. On Christmas Day, Bopowicz said, they encountered a group of 40 people from Romania and Brazil who had not eaten for four days.
“We haven’t slept since last Saturday,” she said. “We had a Scottish driver on the phone who was crying like a baby. In his whole life, he’d never seen so much movement and support.”
Some 1,100 British military personnel were drafted in to oversee testing at Manston Airport over the course of last week, supported by French firefighters and the Polish military’s Territorial Defence Force.
Drivers from across the EU who are now back in their home countries have posted on social media to thank people for their support. “Apart from family,” one wrote, “I missed nothing there.”
Some families in Kent and southeast England had also welcomed stranded drivers into their homes to eat and shower on Christmas Eve.
Two Polish men who remained in situ that night, Krzysztof Plaskaty and Grzegorz Kucharski, posted a video of the meal they had assembled on a makeshift table in the back of a lorry.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Plaskaty said, “and I’ve never seen this much bread. It was nice to spend Christmas with these people in the parking lot. It was a new experience.”
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