A cross border smuggling operation
Trip Start Sep 12, 2006
100Trip End Sep 08, 2008
We had been travelling for about 45 minutes when our bus stopped by the side of the road. Joking about who would be joining us, we couldn't help but laugh at the fact that all of the new passengers were women close to middle age. One of the women stuck out from the others though, slightly younger and quite pretty with blonde hair, wearing a leopard skin jacket of the sort that seemed very popular in Ukraine, but would have looked extremely tacky back home
Before she even found a seat, she came straight to middle of the bus and started saying something to Chris. She was obviously Ukrainian as we could understand very little of what she was saying, however she did repeatedly use one word we recognised, 'papierosa,' meaning cigarettes. After a minute of questioning, she went back to her seat, and the now full bus hit the road again. We couldn't help but try and wonder what it was she had tried to say to us. Obviously it must have been important as she kept trying to ask us something even though it was plainly obvious we couldn't understand her.
No more than five minutes later, she came back and gave it a second try with us. This time we managed to make sense of what she was saying. She had a box of cigarettes with her, and she wanted Chris to take them over the border for her. Another lady approached me at the same time, and without thinking we both took a box of cigarettes and put them in our packs.
As we continued, we began to wonder about what was going on. I told Chris I didn't feel at all comfortable with a box of cigarettes in my pack (given to me by a Ukrainian woman) just as I was about to re-enter the EU. Chris tried to reassure me they were just cigarettes, and it was perfectly legal to take one box over the border, however I couldn't help but think of poor Schapelle Corby twiddling her thumbs in a Bali jail after having marijuana found in her body board bag. Sure, they looked like cigarettes, but they could have been anything.
We stopped again soon after, and more Ukrainian women boarded the bus. By now there were no seats left, and a lot of them were standing up. As we were discussing why this lady in the leopard skin had given us the cigarettes, we began to notice what was going on around us. Every single woman who had boarded at one of the previous two stops was trying to hide cigarettes somewhere! They were being hidden under seat covers, and under clothes. I remember turning around and seeing one lady in tight green pants with about 15 packets shoved down there, which looked blatantly obvious until she put a baggier pair of pants over the top. But it was the sound of cello tape I'll always remember. All of these women were taping up packets of cigarettes, and taping them beneath seats and in small bundles so they could be concealed within their packs.
It was a lady in a green jumper in the seat behind us who had it all worked out though. She'd been down this road a million times, and she knew exactly what she was doing. After she'd stuck who knows how many packets under our seat, she poked her head up into a panel in the roof and started stashing box after box of cigarettes up there. Her's were wrapped in black paper, to make them even more inconspicuous. Then out came the screwdriver, as she bent down next to me and began unscrewing a small vent below my seat. In went one, two, three, seven more boxes of cigarettes. She must have had thirty boxes with her, minimum!
I decided I wanted no part of this little operation, and took the box I had been given out of my pack, wrapped it in a piece of cloth I found on the overhead bag rack and put it up there, somewhat out of site. Chris continued to point out the obvious, that it was perfectly legal to take one packet over the border, and even if we were stopped and searched, it's not like we could plead innocence with box upon box stashed above our heads, beneath our seat and in the floor below us! I'd spent too long in South East Asia to feel comfortable taking something over the border for someone though, and I decided that I wasn't taking anything over the border for anyone, and if questioned, I'd maintain innocence.
After what seemed forever, we made it to the border. The sound of cello tape stopped, and everyone went quiet as the first Ukrainian customs officer came onboard. Our passports were checked briefly, before we continued onto the customs office where we had to have our passports stamped. In the short drive to the customs office, the women resumed their cello taping and concealing of cigarettes, even though there were customs officers everywhere. I couldn't imagine how many boxes of cigarettes were on board the bus.
Being stamped out of Ukraine wasn't a problem, and we rolled onto the Polish customs office. The officer here had a few more questions to ask us, generally about why we were going to Poland and what we would be doing there. I think Chris and I both wished we had our resident's card to save hassle.
We seemed to sit here forever, before our passports were returned. Thinking that was that, we were somewhat surprised when we were all ordered off the bus into the customs office. The people who got on the bus in Lviv with us were obviously Polish, as they seemed to be as confused as we were with the whole situation, whilst the Ukrainian women tried to look as inconspicuous as possible. After a few more minutes a lady started saying something to the group of us in Polish, with again the only recognisable word being 'papierosa'. We asked one of the Polish girls what was said and she told us the customs officer had informed everyone that only one packet of cigarettes was allowed to be taken into Poland per person and if anyone had more they would be found. Meanwhile, more customs officers were checking out the bus, which we could see outside the window.
It took a long time before we were asked to open up our packs, at which point I looked to my right and saw about twenty or thirty of the Ukrainian women and a few children standing by a wall looking very uncomfortable. It's the kind of scene I'd only seen in a WWII movie, of people just before they were shipped off to a concentration camp. Once the man checking my bags asked me if I spoke a number of languages, including Romanian, he looked at me and said "cigarettes?" I replied "Nieeee" in Polish, at which the group of women to my right started laughing. Their fates couldn't have been that bad I thought, although as I walked out of the office to get back on the bus, I looked back to see that the smiles didn't stay on their faces for too long.
We were back on the bus for only a few minutes before we continued onto Przemysl. While I estimated there were at least 50 people on board when we reached the Ukrainian border, there were now only about 10 or 15 onboard as we re-entered Poland. The few people who'd made it through with us included miss leopard skin jacket, the lady who'd given me a box of cigarettes and the lady in the green jumper who was sitting behind us. As we suspected, they were old hands at this caper, and knew exactly what they were doing. Chris gave his box back to miss leopard skin, and I reached up a little surprised to find the box I'd hidden in the bag rack still there, which I gave to the lady who'd asked me to carry them. As we rolled into the bus station in Przemysl about twenty minutes later, the lady in the green jumper gave us a rye smile with thumbs up to indicate 'no problem'. We'd been at the border for approximately three hours, and had helped some Ukrainian women smuggle cigarettes into Poland. Where or who they were going to sell them to we didn't know, as with the fate of the women lined up in the Polish customs office.
Feeling particularly hungry, and having about an hour to spare before our train, we wandered back to the Przemysl's rynek where we found a decent restaurant with an English menu. We boarded the 5.20pm train, which would get us back to Opole sometime around 2am the following morning. While not ideal, it was better than another overnight ride, and at the very least we'd be able to sleep in the comfort of our own beds before starting work the next morning.
The ride back to Opole was a lot more enjoyable than the ride to Przemysl, thanks to a group of Ukrainian students we met on our carriage. They studied a variety of languages in the Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv, and were travelling to Poland for a week to study in Katowice. A girl named Ania joined us in our compartment, and we spent a few hours talking about all sorts of things. It was her first time outside of Ukraine, and after more than 24 hours of train travel the fact that she was actually in Poland hadn't seemed to have sunk in. Reminding us that we were definitely back in Poland was the sound of swearing from the skinhead thugs wandering up and down our carriage. We didn't see any of these idiots in Ukraine, and the one male student from the Ukraine group who joined us for a chat was well dressed and quite intelligent. Why was it that so many knucklehead fools lived in Poland, but the same image didn't seem to inspire Ukrainian men? I wish I had the answer to that question.
We arrived back in Opole just after 2am, and grabbed a zapiekanka at the train station before heading home. It had been a long, tiring couple of days, but one thing was certain, that a couple of days were barely enough to scratch the surface of Ukraine.