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Help Alex Transport Aid from Poland to Ukraine

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Help Alex Transport Aid from Poland to Ukraine
Interview conducted by Dave December, 21st Century Equipment, April 13, 2022

Please tell me your name and where you are from?
Alex Tkachenko. I’m originally from Kherson, Ukraine. I've been with 21st Century Equipment for almost 11 years. I am Export Coordinator for whatever we're shipping to Europe so I do the paperwork and coordinate the shipments. My job includes going to Ukraine for business trips, trade shows, meeting customers or working closely with logistic companies. It is important we treat our foreign customers as well as we treat our local customers in Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming.
Can you describe your normal day at work here in the U.S. and when you are on business in Ukraine?
In the office in Scottsbluff, let's say could be an office work day, working on the invoices and packing lists, certificates of origin – all of the paperwork to move the equipment successfully through customs without delay. Or, I could be in anyone of our 16 dealerships to aid in loading the equipment. If it’s a container load, I need to make sure it’s loaded properly with seals, pictures, etc. Basically, I do everything necessary to service and sell equipment to our Ukrainian customers.
Does 21st Century Equipment sell only in Ukraine or in other European countries?
We sell in Romania, Germany, Lithuania, Hungary, so we’re in quite a bit of Europe.
How do the customers know how to get in contact with you?
They do Google searches, I attend tradeshows in Europe and I get customer referrals.
What is the timing of equipment being ordered and getting over to Ukraine?
Late fall, winter and maybe early spring is my busy time because it takes up to two months to get to the final destination, from the time it’s shipped. That’s if we have the inventory on-hand. Just like the lack of equipment here in the U.S. today, it’s the same globally, so in Europe there is also high demand right now.
Ukraine is a massive agriculture producing country, right?
Ukraine is well known as the breadbasket of Europe. Based on what I know, one-third of the world's black soils are located in Ukraine. So, they grow nearly everything. It’s a Eastern European country so they don’t grow bananas or coconuts but they do grow corn, wheat, barley, sugar beets, canola, and soybeans, of course.

How did you get to the United States?
I had been working for Imperial Agro Company several years in Ukraine. This company was established by US Farmers to help teach Ukrainian farmers how to use new technology to increase production of crops. This was the first time Imperial Agro Company started trying to import better quality used equipment versus buying the older leftover equipment from the time of the Soviet Union. So, eleven years ago, my wife, Natasha, my four-year old daughter Anastasia and I got immigration VISAs and decided to move to Nebraska. Later in 2017, Natasha and I became a U.S. citizens through naturalization.
What was your motivation to come to the United States?
Everyone tries to improve their life. We wanted our daughter to have a happy life, a promising future, this is a big reason we made the decision. But also, I met a key leader from Nebraska that gave me hope for potential employment. So, in April, 2011, the three of us made the move to Scottsbluff, Nebraska.
Let’s talk about the war in Ukraine and how you ended up there when Russia invaded on February 24, 2022.
It started out as a typical business trip to Ukraine. I left the U.S. on February 3rd because there were tradeshows in Kyiv I was attending. You know, you collect your good business clothes, business cards, get your promotional hats and whatever other materials you can get and you set up meetings with your customers. The tradeshows were both in Kyiv in mid-February. And I attended both tradeshows and they were very busy.
What was the mood like, was there tension in the air?
There was strong demand for high quality equipment. Talking to people about the tension with Russia, people expressed their concerns and were on high alert with regards to Russia. But nobody was changing their buying desire, everyone was asking me for equipment, buying what they could and the shows were very well attended. Nobody thought Russia would invade.
But Russia did invade Ukraine on February 24, 2022 and you were there in the country.
I know you mentioned the second tradeshow as February 15th, so what was the mood as the days clicked sooner to the day Russia invaded?
Around February 22nd I traveled to my hometown of Kherson where my mother and father-in-law live because I had some other meetings lined up near there for February 26th. So, I was taking advantage of a couple of days where I could go visit them, do laundry, get some rest, etc..
On February 24 I experienced something you don't face on a regular basis. I woke up to the sound of explosions at 5AM. I was in my pajamas, I think, I don’t remember, but I drove to the gas station and it was packed with people panicking to get gas and leave town as fast as they could to escape. I got gas and went back to my mother and father-in-law’s apartment and took responsibility for them. My first comment to them was that we need to pack and go. Kherson is about a one-hour drive from Crimea Peninsula. It was clear to me that it would take a half-day or maximum of one day for the Russian troops to get close to town.
Was the government or city officials asking people to evacuate?
No. No information. I was seeing people panicking. People were stressing out. It was a situation where people were trying to get answers and figure out what was going on but nobody really knew.
So, what happened next?
That first day, I couldn't get my parents-in-law to leave. As time passed, I kept watching Google traffic and was seeing heavy traffic on the by-pass around the city. I thought that must be the Russian heavy machinery, tanks, and artillery moving into position and surrounding the city. If we left, we would have to cross the bypass at an intersection to leave which meant going past the Russian invasion.
I took my fathers-in-law’s small car to go see if I could learn more about getting out of the city. I had to stop couple times just to see if it was safe. On my second stop I got out of the car and I saw explosions nearby, which meant to me that Russian troops were getting closer to the city. Still, outside my car, a car pulled behind me with two Ukrainian armed forces or National Guards. I’m not sure, I didn’t ask for IDs. One of the guys asked me if I was thinking of going across the bridge to the other side of the river in hopes I would take him across. Knowing that was the direction where I heard the explosions, I said, I hope not. And he asked me if it would be possible if he could jump in the back seat of my car, which had tinted windows, and could I drive closer to the bridge so he could see what the Russian troops were doing. I reluctantly agreed, maybe even unsure if I had a choice. So, he jumps in the back seat. As we turn left on the ramp to go onto the bridge, we see the Russian troops. I know because I see the Russian Kamaz trucks with the “Z” sign with artillery in the back. I felt like I was about to start panicking, what to do and where to go. But the guy told me is like don't panic, they're not touching civilians. That was the first day of war. And I just rolled down my windows in the front so they would see me and that it looks like I'm alone in a car.
I violated traffic rules and making a U-turn right on the bridge 30 feet from the Russian soldiers. Who cares that day. We stopped on the other side of the gas station. It's also probably 100 feet from the Russian troops. And while the guy was reporting the situation, of course, I left the engine running because I knew we may have to get out fast. And then when he was done, he starts yelling in Ukrainian language to get out of there. And we just took off. I didn't know that a 1.3-liter sedan car with front wheel drive can drive that fast. It felt like we were two guys in a go-cart escaping from Russian troops. But, the soldier in my back seat reported the situation to whomever needed it. Days later I was able to see the video loaded on YouTube dated February 25, the day after my experience on that same bridge, and the Russian troops and machinery were destroyed. There was a mass of dead bodies on the on that bridge.
Do you think that guy that jumped in your car was one of those men that you saw dead on YouTube?
I hope not ..... I don't know. Recently I told my wife Natasha that I hoped that he was alive and it would be very interesting to see him again someday.
And then what did you do?
I headed back to my parents-in-law’s apartment and told them I saw the Russians. And it’s too risky to leave that first day. It was certainly backed by parents-in-law, trying to convince me that everything would be alright and we didn’t have to leave today. So, we stayed the night.
But, leaving, from your parent’s perspective, wasn’t easy, right?
No. I understood. This was their home. They worked all their lives, made payments, they have it paid off and I’m telling them we need to go, leave, and maybe never come back. They simply kept asking where they would go. They said they had no relatives or close friends in Western Ukraine and it made more sense to just stay where they were in their home.
Did you go to sleep? How was it that night?
During the night we heard fighter jets going over regularly, I think. It was very difficult to tell, I was groggy, stressed and fantasizing about how much worse this could all get. My clothes were all on and I was on high-alert. I really just wanted the day to start versus this delay of a night.
What happened the next morning?

I took my father-in-laws car again to go check things out. It looked quiet and I focused on making sure there were no checkpoints left by the Russians. My big concern was that the Russians would stop us and just keep the car and we would be walking if we were still alive. I came back to the apartment and told my parents-in-law that there are no checkpoints and there is a window to get out of the city toward Western Ukraine and Poland. My parents-in-law still did not want to go. I argued that even if they stayed the Russians wage war by demolishing cities without regard to civilian death. They also use civilian areas to shield their artillery. Finally they agreed.
We packed, shut the water off, shut the gas off, we left the key for the neighbor that was staying. My father-in-law showed her where we keep all the food storages for her to use. It was really hard for my parents to leave. Finally, we got out the door and left. We successfully left the city of Kherson.
Ok, Alex, you’re now leaving your hometown, Kherson, and you’re responsible for your wife’s parents, who are in their seventies, all their worldly processions, what’s the plan?
The overall plan was to get to Poland. Leaving though, my plan B was to stay at a farmer’s machinery yard in the Ukraine where I knew my parents and I were welcome to stay. Later I decided to stay in Ukraine because my wife’s sister was now stuck in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.
We drove about three hours before something happened. Coming into a city and we heard air raid sirens go off and we immediately pulled off to the side of the road. There were Russian jet fighters flying over us. There was no shooting so we felt maybe this was just a warning sign from the city. We kept going. As we drove through, we didn’t see any damage, we kept driving until 2AM. At that point we were in traffic going multiple directions and we just tried to nap in the car for a couple of hours. We got up and drove on and made it through several checkpoints and to make it to Kremenets north of the Ternopil region to a safe place to stay.
What was next?
Natasha’s sister was stuck in the capital city of Kyiv and she couldn’t get out. My own parents, whom I was able to communicate with back in the U.S., kept telling me to get out of the country, to think about my family, my wife, my kids. They said get out, you have a family, get out of there. I told them I'm not leaving without Natasha’s sister. That's it, we will not be discussing it anymore. So, while Natasha’s parents and I were resting in Western Ukraine, we continued to monitor the situation on Natasha’s sister and Kyiv. I was determined to find a way to get her out of there.
What happened?
I had told her to get on any train going to Western Ukraine. It didn’t matter which city, whatever city, I would go get her. Finally, there was a window that opened up where civilians got a chance to get out. She jumped on a train. Amazingly, we only had to drive about 30 -40 miles to the town that ended up to be her destination. She was scheduled to arrive at 2AM. Of course, the train was late and she arrived closer to 4AM. But we went to the train station much earlier, before dark, before the curfew ended.
How did picking her up at the train station go?
My father-in-law went with me. There were Ukrainian checkpoints. As we crossed through, I was explaining our situation to the guards. I told them that we will be coming back early in the morning with another passenger and would they write down my license plate number. I didn’t want to get shot because we’re not supposed to be somewhere traveling after curfew. This arrangement worked out well.
It was unusual to stay at the train station. My father-in-law and I were waiting in the car with a candle burning to save on gas. This was a decent sized city with no lights on to prevent Russian jets from seeing their targets. Just total darkness. We got searched three times by Ukrainian military police while we're at the train station.
Searched? What was that like?
Not a problem. You just politely get out of the car and explain what you are doing. Give them the proper identification, passports, and you just don't do anything stupid. During this, everyone is stressed. This is common stuff and we’re all human. You just want to be sure to be able to explain the actual reason you are at the train station at 4AM.
We got her out! And we made our way back to where we were staying.
Then what happened?
We stayed a couple of days before we got on the road again heading toward the border. The Toyota SUV that belonged to one of my farmer friends is loaded. Four people, four 10-gallon cans of spare gasoline, three suitcases, some noodles, canned food, drinking water, candles, matches, and passports. That's it.
So, we go. Prior to leaving I had done my research to which border crossing might have the least number of vehicles and pedestrians going through. We drove to Northwestern part of Ukraine and we were very close to the Belarus boarder. I didn’t think that going through at Belarus was the best option because the Russians also attacked from Belarus. But the decision was made and it was the right decision. We crossed the border in five hours. Crossing into Poland was taking people three or four days of sitting in the car, during February, while it’s still bitter cold outside, maybe running out of gas, etc. It was a blessing to cross in five hours.
Is there celebration when you cross the border?
There was no celebration. No fireworks. Absolutely not. Because I would say that, probably, we all had everything that was left behind on our minds. After we crossed, it was starting to get dark so we continued driving toward Warsaw, Poland. At the first gas station we stopped. We got out of the car to get some gas, grab some hot tea and we broke out some of the food we had brought from our host family. It was like a scene at a Nebraska Cornhuskers football tailgate. I remember then releasing a huge exhale and thinking that it was pretty cool that we are in a country with no bombs and the rockets flying above my head. That was a good feeling. That was a good feeling.
Wow, what a story! During all of this, were you in contact with any of your coworkers at 21st Century Equipment?
I was blessed to be in touch with a bunch of 21st Century Equipment employees. They were checking on me on a regular basis. They would ask if I felt okay, if we needed anything, asking how they could help us. It was really amazing to feel part of the big family and kept helped me mentally handle everything that was going on.
Where are Natasha’s parents and sister today?
They are living in an apartment together in Warsaw, Poland. All three have cases pending with the US Embassy to gain a VISA to the U.S. That process could take weeks and weeks or months. But they are all safe in Poland. And we're just waiting for those appointments that will occur in Frankfurt, Germany, at some point. I'll have to get them in Poland and drive them to Frankfurt, Germany. Natasha and I have already made the arrangements to give her parents our master suite here to give them a feeling of independence.
Natasha’s sister is in Warsaw and works for the international company she worked for in Ukraine. They have offices globally so they got their employees new equipment and she is working in an office in Warsaw. This is fantastic!
Ultimately, we do want to get Natasha’s parents and her sister to the United States. We’ll see how things play out.
Both your parents-in-law and sister-in-law owned their apartments. Do they know anything about their homes? Have their homes been damaged?
For now, both places seem fine. They stay in-touch with people that have stayed. But that remains a big question mark. I'm more concerned about my hometown, Kherson, right now because it is under occupation. I get news from multiple resources as I can read and speak Ukrainian and Russian fluently. Kherson will always be one of the key strategic cities with access to the Black Sea.
Are you concerned about your property?
Yeah, there's some examples when I read the news and watch videos of the Russian Army taking everything in and trashing it. Just totally disrespectful. They are stealing laptops, cell phones, carpets, anything. This is because they've seen that Ukraine lived a good life versus what they face in Russia. For example, I'm not talking about Russians living in Moscow and St. Petersburg. I'm just talking about the Russian troops, who are soldiers originally from some villages where they’d die to have running water and are still living in 19th century.
What can people do to help you and what are your future plans?
It’s very critical - pray for Ukraine. This is number one. Ukraine needs your prayers.
My plans for the future include trying to get back in the country. I'm trying to get back to Poland. My goal is to do fundraising and buy a van maybe a box truck, something I can use to haul cargo, maybe even a passenger van. I will move humanitarian aid from the distribution centers in Poland into Ukraine. There are a lack of drivers and the people with the ability to cross the border and be familiar with the country. I know the country, I speak English, Ukrainian, and Russian. I can make a difference right now and I am going to help.
Why? Why do you want to put yourself in harm’s way?
I feel it’s time I leave my comfort zone and help. I was in the lines waiting at the border. Many families split up there. I saw mothers and kids kissing their husbands and fathers saying goodbye. Meaning the father had to go back and fight while the family went to Poland. It was heartbreaking to see that occur in front of me over and over. That’s why I’m interested in a van with a passenger seat. I’m hoping I can bring some of those wives and kids back to their husbands and fathers to reunite when it is safe to return.
Definitely some people reading this will want to help, how can they help with a donation?

I am starting a GoFundMe page. In addition, donations may be sent to: 21st Century Equipment, C/O Help Alex Transport Aid to Ukraine, 601 5th Avenue, Scottsbluff, Nebraska, 69361.


Alex Tkachenko
Scottsbluff, NE

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