A glimmer of light in dark times

15. August 2023

Beat Imhof knows Eastern Europe like the back of his hand. An employee of Nitrochemie in Wimmis, Imhof takes time out of his vacations to volunteer for an organization called Licht im Osten, delivering aid to the poorest regions of the continent. Since war broke out in Ukraine, every trip has become a challenge, but stopping has never been an option for him.

(Image: Marvin Zilm)

Beat Imhof

born in Thun in 1972. Trained as a truck driver. Born in Switzerland, he has worked in plant services at Nitrochemie Wimmis AG since January 2013. He and his two colleagues are responsible for the upkeep of the entire site, which covers around 500,000 square meters, including roughly 35 hectares of forest. Before joining the Rheinmetall subsidiary, he spent 20 years working as a truck driver in Switzerland. In his spare time Beat Imhof is a volunteer for the Swiss aid organization Licht im Osten.

On the morning of February 24, 2022, one single topic dominated headlines all over the world: the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The realization that war had returned to European soil was a painful one for many. Beat Imhof was among them. The 50-year-old works in plant services at Nitrochemie Wimmis AG, a company in the Rheinmetall Group’s Propulsion Systems business unit. For years now, the former truck driver has been spending his free time traversing the furthest corners of Eastern Europe on behalf of Licht im Osten, an aid organization.

“On that day, my first thought was for the people in Ukraine,” recalls Imhof. “Even before the war began, many of them had very little to live on. I fervently hoped that it would still be possible to operate our aid shipments.” After the initial shock had subsided, he and his colleagues at the aid organization acted quickly. Tools, personal hygiene products, blankets, winter clothing, household goods and many other essential supplies were dispatched to the beleaguered country on an almost weekly basis.

Now, a truck heads to western Ukraine roughly every three weeks, according to Imhof. Each truck’s cargo consists primarily of personal hygiene products and cleaning supplies. The 1,300 km route wends its way from Switzerland via Munich, Austria and Hungary. The last time Imhof himself got behind the wheel was March 2023. “We may not be going anywhere near the front lines, but the signs of conflict were in evidence all around just a couple of dozen kilometers beyond the border. Streets are no longer maintained, workshops have closed and young men have almost entirely vanished from the towns and cities.” At the destination in the region of Mukachevo, the trailer containing the aid was transferred to a different tractor unit before being taken in the direction of Kyiv.

The most strenuous part of the trip, which took around a week, was the return journey from Ukraine. “The controls at the Hungarian border are very strict. First the army checked us, then the Ukrainian customs officials and then Ukrainian soldiers again. Some trucks have to wait a full week before they can cross.” There is a serious reason for all the complexity, which is that all men in Ukraine aged between 18 and 60 are required to enlist for military service, but some of them would rather not play their part in defending their country and seek to dodge the draft by fleeing abroad. To prevent this, the Ukrainian border troops carry out very rigorous checks on people leaving the country.

Imhof sometimes has his doubts, especially during these long periods of waiting. He is sacrificing his vacation time, after all. “You sometimes think, ‘Why am I doing this?’ But when the people there weep tears of joy when the goods are being handed out, all his concerns melt away. Being able to help people gives me motivation. And it makes you realize how good we have it in Switzerland and Germany.”

We finish by asking him what his hopes are. After a brief pause, he answers by saying, “The best thing for Ukraine would be if this war were to end tomorrow.” But it will be some time yet before the Russian aggressors are driven out of the country. Imhof knows that. “That being the case, I hope that the conditions remain in place to enable us to keep doing good work with our aid shipments.” Millions of people are still suffering the consequences of the war and are reliant on humanitarian assistance. Imhof is planning to get back behind the wheel in early 2024.

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