The one where I get detained at a military checkpoint

Note: Shawn Krest is embedded with a humanitarian aid group delivering food in the Ukraine. This is the sixth installment of his report on the experience. You can read the first five at

Rushing to danger: Ukrainian aid teams drive hard to have more time in war zone – The North State Journal (

Keep on truckin’: First impression of Ukraine – The North State Journal (

Keep off the grass: Entering the war zone – The North State Journal (

A delivery to the front lines – The North State Journal (

The strength of Hercules – The North State Journal (


The people from A Jesus Mission serving in Ukraine firmly believe that the Lord will protect them from harm. But that doesn’t mean He doesn’t have a sense of humor.

Before I drove my first mission, I went to dinner with Daniel, the driver I replaced in the team. He’s the one that accidentally crashed the only automatic transmission van the group owned … into two of the other vans, sending two of them (nearly a third of the mission’s fleet) to the shop and leaving the other one dented and bruised.

“It’s funny,” he said. “Coming here, my biggest fear wasn’t the Russians or bombs … it was crashing one of the vans. And that’s just what I did. It’s like God said, ‘I’m going to have you face the one thing you’re most worried about and have you overcome it.’”

My biggest fear coming in wasn’t bombs or being shot at by Russians, nor was it crashing a van. The thing I worried most about can be summed up in two words: Brittney Griner.

Like the WNBA star who has been in a Russian jail for months, I worried that I’d end up accused of some infraction—real or manufactured—and my family would have to plead with our government to negotiate a deal to bring me home.

I was assured by the mission organizers that it wouldn’t happen … that the only officials we come into contact with are Ukrainian and “they know we’re helping the ‘good guys’.”



Military checkpoints are part of the daily routine in Ukraine. It’s hard to run an errand anywhere without passing through at least one. They have a maze of concrete barriers, routing traffic in a circuitous route to the soldiers and Ukrainian police officers staffing the checkpoint. They then question you and examine your documentation before passing you through on your way.

Usually, we can get through the checkpoint with two words—“American” and “volunteer”. Those, and the red humanitarian aid crosses on our vehicle should get us a quick wave through. Occasionally, they ask us to open the back of the van so they can look inside. Once, they asked us to unzip the duffel bag we use as a first aid kit, to make sure there were no weapons inside.

Every once in awhile, they give us a bit of a hard time. About the third time we went through the checkpoint by our safe house—and we were thinking that them recognizing us should help us pass through quicker—a stern faced guard asked, “Why do you keep coming through here?”

We used our two magic words, but American and volunteer didn’t do the trick.

“Why aren’t you working?” he asked. “You keep going back and forth.”

We explained that it was the weekend, and we would go back to the war zone during the week to work. For now, we’re going back and forth because the checkpoint was between our apartment and all the sources of food in town.

We also got yelled at once for having our cell phone on a windshield-mounted bracket, so we could see the GPS directions. There are strict rules about not photographing or taking video of checkpoints, and a mounted cell phone set them off.

But for the most part, the checkpoint are just a slight delay. They know we’re trying to help and that we don’t speak Ukrainian. Often, when they realize it will take an English conversation, they’ll just wave us on rather than bothering. Our team leader likes to greet them with a “Howdy” as he hands them our passports. “To sound as American as possible,” he says, in the hopes that it will get us a quick wave through.


On our final day before returning to Romania, we had a light day—two deliveries within city limits, meaning no long trips to outlying villages—the previous day we’d done our longest delivery of the week, to a town four hours away.

We finished both trips, then returned to the church, packed our things into the van we were taking back and went to say our final goodbyes.

Anna* stopped us mid-hug, however. She’d received word that that was one more location that needed a food delivery. Could we make that one before we left.

Now, anyone that has watched any type of TV or movie drama knows not to take this assignment. We thought we were done, but then, at the last minute, we get pulled into one last job. This is when all the bad things happen.

This wasn’t a movie or a TV episode, however. This was real life, and real people needed food. So we began loading two of the other vans for this one last delivery.

Andriy*, the church pastor, drove the empty lead van. Two of our team members were in the middle van, and I drove the rear van, with Malyn—a former Marine and the only female on our driving team—in the rear van.

We delivered to a family of North Koreans who were part of a community that was now now refugees two times over—fleeing their home country and now trying to survive the invasion of their transplanted home. We emptied the vans into their garage, where they would later distribute it to other displaced Koreans.

They tried to feed us to show their appreciation but we declined. We’d been given meals at two other stops, as well as a surprise going-away lunch of American delivery pizza at the church. when we thought we were done with deliveries for the work.

The 71-year-old man held up a small bowl. “Ice cream,” he said. “Gelato.”

We agreed that we had room for some ice cream, in order to be polite. He smiled and nodded, handing us each a meat-filled pastry as we entered the house and removed our shoes.

I was first into the kitchen and immediately turned to warn the others. “It’s a trap.”

The table was loaded with serving dishes of fish, rice, eggs, beans and tomatoes. At the counter, the man’s wife was scooping heaps of ice cream into bowls.

It was too late, he swept us into the kitchen and fed us.


Andriy* again led the three-van procession home. Usually, when he’s with us, he does the talking. Soldiers know him, and the rest of the vehicles in line behind him just get waved through without anyone even coming to the window.

Except for the last checkpoint of our last delivery of the week.

We reach the rifle-toting officials at the checkpoint, and a group of soldiers approach Andriy’s van. The lone police officer at this checkpoint peeled away, however, and approached us—the third van in the convoy.

“We’re with them,” I said, in English, still confident that Andriy’s pull would get us through.

He reached his hand out to take our passports.

Malyn is bright and cheerful, and her red hair and glasses make her look even younger than her early 20s. She is a favorite of the people we deliver to—always the first, and last, to get hugs. One woman cut a bouquet of roses from her garden to give her.

She did her best to charm the guard, smiling and turning on the adorable as she repeated, “We’re with them.”

She pointed at the two vans in front of us, which were now slowly driving away.

He pointed to the front of our van and spoke in Ukrainian. My heart dropped.

I was driving the fan that Daniel had crashed, which we’d just gotten back from the shop earlier in the week. The front end had been mangled, and they had to replace the radiator. The front bumper was held on with a zip tie.

And there was no front license plate.

“I’m sorry,” I said slowly. “English, please?” Then I dropped our magic words. “Americans? Volunteers?”

He handed Malyn back her passport. I held up my hand to retrieve mine. He looked down, giving it a thorough examination , then pulled out his phone and scanned it. My mind reeled. Was he taking a photo? Using a translation app? Did they have some type of app that would check to see if it was counterfeit?

He walked away. With my passport.

This was the farthest I’d been from my passport since I’d arrived in Ukraine. I craned my neck to watch where he went with it, determined not to lose it.

Malyn, on the radio with the vans telling them to stop and wait, turned to me.

“He has your passport,” she whispered.

“I know,” I said.

I was thinking this policeman wanted to give me a ticket. A Ukrainian traffic ticket seems like the type of thing that can be ignored. It’s not like I’m going to come back for my court date, and I seriously doubted they’d alert Interpol if I left the country without paying. Either that or I was going to have to give him a cash payment of the “fine” on the spot.

But this officer seemed to be doing things by the book, which would mean eventually asking for license and registration. I didn’t have an international driver’s license and, with only a North Carolina license, I wasn’t sure if I was legal to drive here. I also knew that the van’s registration was expired.

My mind repeated two phrases, over and over, as I tried to keep panic at bay. “My passport” and “Brittney Griner”.

The policeman went to a tent off to the side and spoke to a soldier, showing him my ID. The cop then walked behind the tent—with my passport. It was now out of my sight for the first time since I’d left the States.

The soldier came to the window and spoke in English.

“You are from New York?” he said.

I nodded. That’s where I lived when I renewed the passport.

“And a volunteer?”

I nodded again.

He nodded. “I knew someone from New York who was a volunteer. That was I Iraq, I think.”

He looked at me. I nodded once more.

“Do you know him?”

My mind reeled again. What? Do I know a nameless person from a state of 20 million people who volunteered in Iraq? Was this some type of test? Was he looking for a reaction to the word Iraq? What was going on?

I said. “No.”

After an awkward pause, Malyn added, “No,” as well.

The cop returned and spoke to the soldier, who asked us, “Where is your front license plate?”

I told him it fell off in an accident. Then I slammed the heels of my hands together and said, “Crash,” for emphasis. That seemed to annoy him.

“But where is it?”

“It fell off,” I repeated.

“But,” he said, slowing down for emphasis. “Where is it?”

I turned to Malyn. I didn’t want to answer this question. Neither did she.

Finally, the soldier offered us an answer. “Is it lost? In the crash?”

We both hesitated again. We didn’t want to answer this question either, and lie to the Ukrainian soldiers and police.

The truth was, we knew exactly where the license plate was. It was in Oregon, where one of the mission organizers, Tyler, took it as a souvenir. He said he earned it, since he was in the van Daniel hit.

That did not seem like information that would improve our situation if we shared it.

I finally nodded. “It’s not here,” I said.

“It’s not in the van,” Malyn added.

The soldier translated for the cop, who spoke in Ukrainian again. The soldier turned to us and said, “You need to move the back license plate to the front. It’s more important to have it on the front.”

We both breathed a sigh of relief. Malyn turned on the sweetness again and assured him, “We will,” with a bright grin.

“You can just pull over there,” he said.

“You want us to move it now?” I asked.

He explained that they would need to see it at the next checkpoint, so it needed to be moved immediately… to a front bumper with no bracket, held on by a zip tie.

I pulled off to the side, between two concrete barricades and got out.

Malyn tried again to save us.

“We don’t have any tools,” she said, making a sorry face. Then she brightened, as if she’d gotten a brilliant idea. “But we do at home!” she added.

They ignored her.

As I bent over to look at the how the rear plate was held on, I asked Malyn, “Do you think there’s any chance that Andriy told them, ‘Our new guy is in the third van. Mess with him a little?’”

She reminded me that the cop came to us BEFORE the soldiers spoke to Andriy. I frowned. I was beginning to see why they didn’t think she was adorable.

I managed to get the plate free of the rear bracket, by breaking the bracket. I thought this might be a positive, however, since now they couldn’t make us move the entire bracket to the front.

We held up the plate to show them as we walked around to the front of the van. Cars and trucks rushed by beside us, accelerating after being waved through with two legal license plates.

We stood at the carnage at the front of our van. There was nothing to attach this license plate to. The solider and cop joined us, along with another soldier.

I looked at them helplessly. “What do you want me to do.”

The soldiers looked at the police officer. They all seemed sympathetic to us, but this was his stop and they were deferring to him.

“Duct tape,” he said.

Malyn brightened. “We have duct tape at home,” she suggested.

The police officer spoke, and the first soldier translated. “He has duct tape. He’s going to get it.”

He brought back a roll of clear packing tape.

This is it, I thought. This is where we get shot.

There was no way the packing tape was going to stick to metal.

We tried. We taped the edges of the plate to the bumper, then rolled the tape over and over the bumper repeatedly. Not only wouldn’t it stick to the bumper, it wouldn’t stick to the license plate. Tape was flapping everywhere.

At this point, the soldiers decided that the cop had had enough fun.

Just put it in the front window, on the dashboard,” one of them said.

I spun around looking for the cop. “My passport,” I said.

Malyn ushered me toward the car. “I have it,” she said. “Let’s go.”

I got back in the driver’s seat and slowly merged back into the line of traffic departing the last checkpoint of our final delivery. We rejoined the first two vans and drove the final stretch to the church.

I later asked our team leader what he’d have done if they took me into custody.

He shrugged.

“God’s plan,” he said.

I think he was joking.