Jan 20, 2023

Ukraine: Under the Counter

In the weeks following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a young doctor in Germany sees that abortion pills are urgently needed in Ukraine. And she wants to help. But getting the drugs into the country means going through Poland, which has some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. So, she gets creative. What unfolds is a high-stakes, covert-operation run by a group of strangers. With everyone deciding: who to trust? In collaboration with NPR’s Rough Translation (https://zpr.io/9UpCwb2Smjzw), we find out what happened. 

Part 1 of 2 episodes.

Special thanks to Wojciech Oleksiak, Katy Lee, Maria Hlazunova, Valeria Fokina, Sara Furxhi, Noel King, Robert Krulwich and Sana Krasikov, and our homies over at Rough Translation. Thanks also to Micah Loewinger and Laura Griffin. Illustrations came from Oksana Drachkovska. 

And thank you to the many sources and experts we interviewed who asked to remain anonymous.

Episode Credits:

Guest hosted by - Gregory Warner and Molly Webster
Reported by - Katz Laszlo
Produced by - Daniel Girma and Tessa Paoli
Mixer - Gilly Moon
with mixing help from - Jeremy Bloom
Fact-checking by - Marisa Robertson-Textor
and Edited by - Brenna Farrell




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MOLLY WEBSTER: Hey, just a head's up: this episode deals with some sensitive issues like sexual violence and war. If that's not something you're ready for right now, or listening with some younger listeners, you might decide to skip this one.


MOLLY: This is Radiolab. I'm Molly Webster, sitting in for Lulu and Latif. Today we have something super special for you: it's a collaboration with our friends at the NPR show Rough Translation. When we heard about the story we were like, "We have to be a part of this!" And so I joined up with Gregory Warner, the host of Rough Translation, to report and edit and argue and travel so that we could do the story together and then share it with all of you.


MOLLY: Ready.

MOLLY: So here we go.

GREGORY: Hey, you're listening to Rough ...

MOLLY: Do you want me to start?

GREGORY: Wow, man! This is Rough Translation. I'm Gregory Warner, and that voice is ...

MOLLY: Molly. Molly Webster.

GREGORY: Molly Webster of Radiolab is here with me in the studio, because we have been working on this collaboration that's been months in the making that kind of sits at the intersection of both our shows.

MOLLY: Yeah.

GREGORY: But I won't say anything more about that. We'll find out why.

MOLLY: Just a heads-up: this episode does deal with some sensitive issues, including sexual violence and war.

GREGORY: And it comes to us from a colleague that both of us have worked with.

MOLLY: A colleague who was telling us a number of stories about Ukraine, and one of them just leapt out to us. It starts with this woman, Yevgenia. She's Ukrainian, and she moved back to Ukraine two days after the full-scale invasion—so late February.

GREGORY: She moved to Ukraine?

MOLLY: Yeah. And within days of being on the ground in Ukraine, she had set up an NGO. And the NGO was all about getting supplies to Ukrainians during the war. A lot of times it had to do with medical supplies. And so she would use Facebook.

YEVGENIA: Here's the list of meds or generator or whatever. And people were like, "Yeah, let's help.

MOLLY: And she'd throw out these requests, and she would just see, like, donations would come rolling in. And it was amazing to her. And then one day ...

YEVGENIA: I made a post. We're looking for money to buy body bags. We just understood that it's not enough body bags in Ukraine.

GREGORY: For Ukrainian soldiers.

MOLLY: For anyone.

YEVGENIA: Every human being have to be passed in a normal way.

MOLLY: But this post ...

YEVGENIA: Was like a two or three. Two-and-a-half likes.

MOLLY: It actually only gets, like, five likes and two sad tear emojis.

YEVGENIA: And not enough donations.

GREGORY: It's like people didn't donate just because they didn't want to be associated with body bags?

MOLLY: Yeah, it's like you can't donate a body bag or even think about a body bag donation without thinking, "Oh, God. We're out of body bags? Like, you know, if someone's asking for 200 body bags, that's 200 dead.

YEVGENIA: But somebody need to do this, you know? That's life.

GREGORY: This is Rough Translation. Some kinds of donations are not made for Facebook. They have to be done in the shadows or in secret.

ARI: We were not aiming to achieve something that was illegal.

GREGORY: Today, a story about one such donation to Ukraine of a life-saving drug in a legal grey zone that everyone involved with has been worried about talking about until now.

VICKI: This is actually kind of crazy what we did there.

ARI: I was very proud and in love. That clouded my judgment.

MARIA: Because you understand what you're doing, but you're ready for the punishment.

MOLLY: To protect people's identities, we're not using last names—or sometimes any names at all. This story is a two-parter. We're dropping episode two next week.

GREGORY: In this first part, a covert operation and a chain of strangers where everyone would have to decide how far they could go and who of them to trust.

ARI: At this point, I'm convinced we're getting screwed over.

GREGORY: But what if the weakest link is you?

MOLLY: Our story today comes from Katz Laszlo. She is a European reporter. She is, in fact, the colleague that first told me about the story of Yevgenia and the body bags. And today, she's going to start in Germany with a couple and a question.


MOLLY: Here's Katz.

KATZ LASZLO: Where does the story start for you?

VICKI: Well really, with the beginning of the Russian invasion in Ukraine.

KATZ: This is Vicki.

ARI: I made quite a deliberate decision to tell you slowly.

KATZ: And this is her boyfriend, Ari.

ARI: Because I knew that your family was there.

KATZ: They live in Germany, but Vicki actually has roots all across the former Soviet Union, and she's still got family in Ukraine.

VICKI: Of course, then you think if some things would have shifted in my biography, it would be me or my mother there.

KATZ: This is the biggest humanitarian crisis in Europe in 80 years. There were young people all over Europe calling their grandparents asking, "What do we do?"

VICKI: And the only way I managed to handle it was to get active.

KATZ: Vicki walks down the street, and there's this closed nightclub, which has become this place where people are just, like, scrambling to organize donations that are flooding in.

VICKI: And then I start sorting through boxes in the donation center. I ended up in the medication corner, and most people who were sorting through it had no idea what these medications actually are.

KATZ: Vicki's actually a doctor, so she knows what everything is.

VICKI: I like to make things more organized.

KATZ: She is someone who makes Excel spreadsheets that are beautiful.

VICKI: And after me, like, sorting through boxes for, like, eight hours or something, somebody said, "Oh, we are actually—we heard that you're a doctor, and tomorrow we are going with a big convoy of cars to the Polish-Ukrainian border. We're gonna go, we don't know what's gonna happen." And then, "Oh, it would be good to have a doctor on board. But if not, we'll figure it out."

KATZ: So she calls a bunch of friends who actually work for international aid organizations, and she asks, "Should I go?"

VICKI: They said, "No, but we really strongly advise against this. And—and you're just messing up with the official structures if private people are blocking the roads, and this just creates more chaos."

KATZ: Hundreds of thousands of people are pouring over the Ukrainian border, which is only a nine-hour drive away. And Vicki really wants to help.

VICKI: I decided the next morning under the shower, "Okay, screw it. I'm gonna go."

KATZ: But she feels totally unprepared.

VICKI: I had a bit of a stomach ache when we drove there, thinking, "God, like, I'm now driving there thinking I can do something here, and we are going to be traffic for the big guys now coming in."

KATZ: She's picturing the Polish-Ukrainian border, and what she's imagining is, like, food distribution tents, major NGO flags.

VICKI: Like, I don't know, UNICEF or UNHCR or just one of the big organizations or NGOs, and they were not there.

GREGORY: When she finally gets to the border, Vicki sees ...

VICKI: There's no one. I spent a fair amount of hours at one border crossing into the night to really see some grandmother or mother, like, stirring a pot and packaging it into, like, warm soups, warm this. Like, these Polish women were standing there the whole night. And this was, like, all this warmth that the people fleeing received.

KATZ: All of these people, refugees, who are just outside. It's below freezing, and they're either stuck waiting for transport deeper into Europe, or for family that's still on the other side, and they can't see them, and they don't know where they are. And there's nobody official saying, you know, "You made it. This is your next step."

VICKI: This was around, like, eight or nine days after the war. So I mean, you could say this is understandable. All the organizations are doing assessments. We are assessing, assessing. This is what you would hear. But it also made me really angry because, you know, I mean, this is a no-brainer to know that if it gets to -10 degrees at night at the border, that you need something to keep the people warm. And I think this was really one of the moments where I thought, like, we are not traffic here. Private people are not traffic. They're the solution at the moment.

GREGORY: And so Vicki decides to step in—but all the way in. She kind of blows off her job. She throws herself completely into volunteering.

KATZ: After five or six weeks, she's completely wiped out.

VICKI: I was in bed with high fever, really shivers.

KATZ: She gets COVID.

VICKI: And I was lying in bed sort of scrolling through, I think, 20 Telegram, WhatsApp, Signal, Facebook groups of volunteers. And this is also where all requests were sort of flying around. And then I read they're urgently looking for abortion pills for women who were raped by Russian soldiers. This was a week after all the news broke about Bucha.

KATZ: These requests are coming the week that all of those really grim photos from Bucha came out ...


KATZ: ... of dead bodies being left in the middle of roads. Stories of Russian soldiers using sexual violence as a weapon. Just in that week, at least 25 people came forward and shared firsthand how they'd been raped while trapped in basements in Bucha. Rape as a weapon has been confirmed in every occupied territory since. And Bucha's liberation, it was the first time that people outside of these occupied territories really found out.

VICKI: I mean, this was a shock, really, for everyone, right? Like, reading the news. Like, we had, like, faces to that. We were every day in contact with Ukrainian women, these very proud and strong women, like, kind of, like, with their children, carrying them with, like, one little bag. And so just to imagine that this is something that they are not granted the access to the pills in a situation like that. Like, these women that I had faces to—I don't know.

KATZ: If she hadn't been at the border, she would have read this news and thought big organizations ...

VICKI: They will take care of these women. Why should it be me? But from the experiences that we've had before, that—actually that wasn't the case in a lot of places, that governments and organizations are taking care. So even though I was telling myself, I think I need to pull myself a little bit out of things, this was sort of the one where I was like, okay, what can we do about this?

MOLLY: The idea even that someone from one country can get an abortion to someone in another country all came about because of the creation of something called the abortion pill or abortion pills, which are really two types of medication: mifepristone and misoprostol, called mife and miso. Taken together at any point in the first trimester of pregnancy, they can induce an abortion. The trick with them is that they are very, very controlled. They're one of the most controlled medicines that we have, especially moving country to country or crossing borders. And so the notion on a practical level, on a legal level, of donating abortion pills, it's a pretty complicated one.

VICKI: I knew that through some contacts of my partner's family, there was a woman rights activist. So I thought maybe this is somebody we could ask.

ARI: I immediately called her, this friend of the family, asked if she knew some people. Is there a way? How do people usually do this? So she then gave us the number of a supplier she had worked with, so we reached out to him.

SUPPLIER: Yes, hello? Can you hear me well?

GREGORY: This supplier, we are not using his name because he is talking about stuff that he could be arrested for.

KATZ: Are you comfortable with us calling you "Supplier?"

SUPPLIER: Yeah, why not?

MOLLY: Even his mom doesn't quite know what he does.

SUPPLIER: For her, you know, I'm a missionary in Africa.

MOLLY: The supplier is based in an African country. He is of European descent, and he has made a name for himself as being one of the main abortion pill suppliers to Europe, and honestly throughout the world.

SUPPLIER: I had some passion for all these women who die unnecessarily from abortion. So what we try to do is to reduce unsafe abortions.

VICKI: He just said, "I have somebody in Prague for 500 kits. One euro per kit."

ARI: Which is very cheap.

KATZ: And a kit in this case is five pills. It's one mife and four miso. So the plan is they're gonna pick up these 500 kits, drive them through the Czech Republic into Slovakia and across the Ukrainian border.

VICKI: The first plan was really straightforward and really not—not complicated. But then there was a little bit of a turn.

KATZ: The supplier calls them back.

ARI: Like, very quickly afterwards—two hours or something. He said he had a different proposal. Instead of this deal, why don't I donate to you guys a lot more? Instead of, like, 500 kits ...

SUPPLIER: 10,000 kits.

ARI: ... 10,000.

SUPPLIER: This is a big chance we have, getting women access to these lifesaving medicines.

VICKI: I mean, of course, it's women being raped in need of their medication. But in the time of a war breaking out in your country, I can imagine myself and other women that are maybe just pregnant from even just their partner deciding that this is not a good moment to bring a child into this world.

GREGORY: The supplier tells them he's got an idea for how this can work, but they have to act quickly because he happens to be putting together this huge medical donation for Ukraine, with lots of different stuff like painkillers and antibiotics and COVID medication—all kinds of pills, actually. And he doesn't actually have time himself to get all of this stuff to Ukraine. But if Vicki and Ari can meet him at the airport and organize the transport over the border, then he can add abortion pills pretty much for free.

VICKI: We were so in this. Like, okay, let's get it done.

GREGORY: But, he says, here's the thing: the airport that the supplier is gonna fly into, it happens to be an airport in Poland. And in Poland, it's illegal to give anyone an abortion pill.

KATZ: At the moment, there's a serious court case going on. This abortion activist, she gave one set of pills to someone, and she's potentially gonna go to jail for three years. I mean, it—the court case hasn't finished. But that woman never even took the pills. And that's one set of pills.

MOLLY: I just think it's crazy to even think about trying to bring the pills through Poland, which has some of the strictest abortion laws in that region. I mean, like, every year, thousands of women are fleeing to other countries to try and get an abortion. And then here, they want to bring all these pills in. But then I guess I think, okay, wait, they're just bringing them through Poland. They're not stopping in Poland. So, like, that, I guess, they could probably do?

KATZ: Well, the problem is they can't prove that they're not gonna hand them out in Poland, right? Like, if you just get intercepted by customs or police, you can't very convincingly say, "Oh, no, no, no. We're just driving on."

MOLLY: Yeah, that—hmm. So then how would you actually ship it through Poland?

KATZ: The supplier says all you need is this form.

ARI: The T1 form.

KATZ: A form and someone official who can help with logistics.

VICKI: He seemed really confident in—"This is super easy. I've done this before. I will bring it. You pick it up."

ARI: The only thing that he did say which made me a bit worried, he said, "Well—hey, well, maybe not just anybody at the airport. Get somebody who can talk smart."

KATZ: [laughs]

VICKI: Yeah.

ARI: With the customs [laughs].

KATZ: What does that mean?

VICKI: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Somebody who can, like, talk a little bit smart and smooth with the customs people.

ARI: Yeah.

VICKI: So we thought, but why? Why is that actually needed?

GREGORY: When Rough Translation returns, the doctor ...

MOLLY: ... becomes a smuggler—or she tries to.

MOLLY: This is Radiolab. We're back with our friends at Rough Translation.

GREGORY: I'm Gregory Warner.

MOLLY: I'm Molly Webster.

GREGORY: We're here with reporter Katz Laszlo. And when we last left the story, Vicki and Ari have agreed to the supplier's offer. They're gonna meet him in an airport in Poland, and pick up thousands of abortion pills and transport them to Ukraine.

MOLLY: And part of the rush is that they're racing against two different clocks: one of those clocks is biological, which is that in Ukraine, you only have nine weeks to take this medication. But the way the weeks are counted is not from when you get pregnant but from the date of your last period. So imagine you get pregnant at the beginning of the war, by the time Ari and Vicki are trying to get these pills to you, you're technically, like, eight or eight-and-a-half weeks along, and you really only have, like, three days left to get this medicine to get a medical abortion.

GREGORY: And the other clock that the couple is racing against is the supplier's plane. He's already booked his flight.

VICKI: The first time we got in touch with him was a Thursday, and his plane was landing on a Monday.

KATZ: They realize they need all kinds of things that they don't have, like a truck that can be officially sealed by border guards, a registered Polish logistics company that can attest for the shipment.

VICKI: We were trying to explain that his plan is not gonna work. But he was just in a madness of packing and repacking.

KATZ: Meanwhile, the supplier keeps calling them back.

ARI: Every time we spoke to him, which was really every few hours, he would be talking about a larger quantity, not only 10,000 medical abortions but 15,000 medical abortions, and on top of that, 15,000 emergency contraceptives—morning-after pills.

GREGORY: And on these video calls with the supplier is when the couple realized something new about the supplier's method to get these pills into Poland.

SUPPLIER: I didn't want the Polish customs to find any mifepristone.

KATZ: He's, like, taking them out of the boxes, and he's putting them in other containers.

SUPPLIER: If these pills are labeled "Misoprostol" and "Mifepristone," it's a big problem.

KATZ: He's putting them in these, like, big tubs of sport nutrition protein powder.

VICKI: Put these in these plastic bags.

KATZ: And there's also, like, pills in little sandwich bags.

VICKI: What is he packaging there? How much is it? The numbers kept changing, the names, the packaging ...

GREGORY: Vicki's organization brain is going crazy.

VICKI: The miso, 200 into white boxes, and the mife, 100. And it was just la la la la la. He speaks really fast and really confusing, and you couldn't really follow him anymore.

GREGORY: And was this the first moment where you were actually conscious of, like, bending rules? Like, this was not gonna be legitimate, actually?

VICKI: Yes. That was the first time.

KATZ: They could all go to jail. Like, you can't just walk around with thousands of unlabeled pills, especially if you're a doctor. Vicki could lose her medical license.

VICKI: Of course, there was a part that thought, "Can we not take an official route, because abortions are not forbidden in Ukraine?" But at the same time, like with everything in these first weeks, there was no time to take all these official routes. I've never felt more sure that this is the right thing to do somehow.

MOLLY: They're already getting additional requests for abortion pills from Ukraine.

ARI: We would—started getting messages from people saying, "Hey, we heard you guys are transporting something. Could you get it to us?" It was very clear that if we were not going to do this, then this shipment wouldn't go. If we pull out, then we're basically canceling this for everybody.

VICKI: The things were packed, the flight was booked, and this was our best chance.

GREGORY: Okay, so they're gonna do this thing. What is actually the plan?

MOLLY: Okay, buckle up. Because by Sunday night, they have set up a relay race, which is: the supplier has gotten the pills from India where they're manufactured. He's taking them from his home base in Africa—which we can't name—up to a Polish airport. At the Polish airport, he will hand the pills to the couple who are on the customs forms as, like, the receivers. They're supposed to spend as little time with the pills as possible.

VICKI: Because—what's the word that Ari always—like, this plausible deniability. Like, you lose that in the moment that you have that in your hand, right?

MOLLY: They will then immediately give the pills over to a Polish logistics guy. He will then hand the pills to a driver who is taking the pills along with the entire medical shipment over the border to a hospital in Ukraine. At the hospital in Ukraine, Yevgenia, who we met at the top of the show ...

GREGORY: The body bags woman.

MOLLY: The body bags lady, she will extract the pills and start distributing them to doctors and gynecologists who will then get them to patients. And the thing to remember is in this whole chain of humans, the only person who is being told that these are abortion pills is Yevgenia.

VICKI: We've never met these people before, so we didn't know if we could trust them.

GREGORY: So what is everybody else on the chain being told the pills are?

KATZ: The supplier's system to keep these pills safe—mostly from the border guards in Poland—was to relabel them as vitamin C.

VICKI: Vitamin C plus was mife, and vitamin C without the plus was miso.

MOLLY: Can you, like, paint the airport scene? What am I imagining? They walk into the airport. Like, where are they waiting? Like, do they need to go up to anyone, and say, "Hi, we're here for a customs shipment, and this is our paperwork?" Or ...

KATZ: They don't really know. Like, they've never done anything like this before, and they don't want to mess it up.

VICKI: We didn't know if the situation is going to require that we would have to have some kind of discussion with the customs people. So we thought, how shall we dress? Like, let's dress like the most reliable, boring, proper people.

ARI: I was wearing a beige sweater, and underneath a button-up shirt with the collar sticking out of the sweater and wearing my glasses.

GREGORY: Right, because nobody's ever broken the law in a beige cardigan.

KATZ: Exactly.

GREGORY: It just doesn't happen.

KATZ: So they arrive early. They're in their boring outfits. They choose a boring bench.

ARI: There's no better scenario than just sitting it out now.

KATZ: And so they wait. They scroll through their phones. They glance at the customs door, glance at the police.

VICKI: I'm feeling super calm, but I just have to go to the toilet every 10 minutes. [laughs] Like, nothing strange about that.

ARI: I feel my lungs, weirdly, my heart. I can just—I felt, like, my heartbeat for, like, two-and-a-half hours.

GREGORY: The logistics guy shows up, and the three of them wait some more.

ARI: And then suddenly my phone rang, and it's our supplier. "I landed. I'm here with customs. Can you put your logistics partner on the line?"

GREGORY: And the logistics partner gets on the phone. He speaks in Polish, nods, laughs a little, says "Okay."

ARI: Hangs up, looks at both of us and says, it's through.

VICKI: Oh, my God!

KATZ: Suddenly, the supplier walks through the door.

VICKI: Yeah, I see—I see a man in a suit.

KATZ: He's, like, a guy in his 50s, quite tanned. And he's wearing, like, a blue stripe-y shirt.

VICKI: Like somebody who would have this, like, little, like, briefcase, like, with wheels, where he just puts in his important documents for the meeting that he's flying into.

KATZ: But instead of this little, slick briefcase, he's got one of those airport trolleys stacked to the top with these bags. Just a huge amount of these, like, plastic, colorful bags that you zip up that are super handy. And you grab them in a panic because they're really light. And you stuff all your clothes in them.

VICKI: Yeah, really. Yeah. Bizarrely wrapped in plastic.

KATZ: And he's just, like, slowly pushing it in front of him, trying not to drop it. These bags are, like, jam-packed with antibiotics, with COVID medication, with anti-inflammatory medication. And then hidden between all of those pills are the abortion pills. Vicki is thinking, "Oh, my God!"

VICKI: Okay, if this now goes in one big package into Ukraine, is this really gonna work out? We thought, what if something goes wrong, and then these land in some hospital in Lviv and are used maybe falsely?

GREGORY: Did something about the sight of these pills make you think, "Oh, my God. This plan we have, that's just not gonna work?"

VICKI: I did imagine some kind of doctor on the other side, or a paramedic or somebody opening it and nobody knowing, oh, that there's—what are these pills, suddenly, these loose pills in bulk in a plastic bag?

KATZ: What happens if by some mistake they wind up sitting in a vitamin C box? And then they give them to someone and it's not vitamin C? And you really don't want to be taking mife or miso not knowing what it is.

GREGORY: And even though she knows she's supposed to just hand the pills over to the next person on the chain, their role is done ...

VICKI: We sort of diverged from our plan. Would you say that?

ARI: Yeah, true.

GREGORY: They decide they're gonna go with the logistics guy to his warehouse in Poland, and then repack the pills before he gives them to the driver.

VICKI: Let's go through it together to make sure that—yeah, that everything's separated properly.

MOLLY: Everybody? Even the supplier?

KATZ: Yeah, the supplier is the only one who knows how all this stuff has been packed. But he's got a connection flight in one-and-a-half hours. So they're just like, "Okay, we're gonna do this as fast as possible."

ARI: We arrived there. And then we thought, okay, let's sort of quietly start doing this. The two of us started doing this on the floor in the warehouse: opening the bag, getting it out. That's when we figured out the markings he had put on the boxes was done with a whiteboard marker. So all of the markings had disappeared. Every now and then, you would see a smudge.

VICKI: You had to really dig deep into—like, take out half of the bag until you find the first box or bulk packaging with miso.

ARI: We were really knee-deep in these pills.

VICKI: Yeah.

GREGORY: Seeing that, they are now very glad that they decided to take this detour and separate out all the abortion pills.

ARI: We tried to be very organized. And then, as we noticed, there was not that much time left.

VICKI: I remember I was getting really stressed, but ...

KATZ: Two other people who were working at the warehouse start helping, too.

VICKI: Yeah.

ARI: And by the end, there were, like, six people doing this.

MOLLY: This was a—I thought the operation was of the utmost secrecy, and now a lot more people know what's going on. It just—doesn't it make it more risky?

KATZ: Yeah. I think initially, they're worried about people knowing. And as they're repackaging the pills, they're worried more about, like, are we gonna find all of these pills in time to put them in the right place and ship them on to Ukraine?

GREGORY: And it's only when they've fished out all of the abortion pills and tossed them into ...

ARI: Three moving boxes.

GREGORY: ... three cardboard boxes, that they're finally ready to go home.

VICKI: It felt like our thing is over. We're driving towards home. I mean, it felt—a lot of tension fell off. And yeah, it was a really good feeling, even though I was super exhausted. We were super exhausted.

GREGORY: But a couple of days later ...

KATZ: Ari leaves for work, and ...

ARI: We got a message.

KATZ: Yevgenia's texting. All of the medication has arrived, and that the only thing that isn't there is the abortion pills.

ARI: While we are speaking to her about how confused she is ...

VICKI: We kept calling the logistics guy. Where are the—the boxes are not there? And he kept insisting ...

KATZ: No, no. They arrived. They arrived. And they're talking to Yevgenia. And Yevgenia is like, "They did not arrive."

ARI: So we are getting two conflicting messages about the same shipments from both sides of the border. At this point, I'm convinced we're getting screwed over.

KATZ: Then they start to think they've been tricked.

GREGORY: What do they imagine? What are they playing out might have happened?

ARI: That it's somehow, the driver cannot be trusted. And he is against abortion and is going to throw these into the river.

MOLLY: Or he could want to sell them on the black market and make a lot of money off of them because they're hard to get.


VICKI: It's all strangers. It's all strangers sort of joining forces. You never know if there's some hidden agenda on either of the sides.

GREGORY: And they know that if they'd stuck with the supplier's chaotic plan and left the pills hidden among the antibiotics and painkillers, those pills would still be with the rest of the medical shipment in Ukraine.

KATZ: Like, that's when they start feeling really stupid, that they're like, what were we thinking?

VICKI: I'm just feeling so naïve and—and defeated.

ARI: Yeah. It was not nerves anymore.

VICKI: Yeah.

ARI: It was really frustration.

VICKI: Frustration.

KATZ: Their whole plan is just crumbling. And they're like, "How are we ever gonna tell these people that this shipment that we've been telling them is gonna arrive in a few days with these essential abortion pills has been lost? How are we going to tell them?" And they're thinking, "How are we gonna tell the supplier who's donated a huge amount of money in terms of these pills that it just didn't work out? And also, why the hell did we take this risk to take all of these pills through Poland?

GREGORY: When Rough Translation returns, a chance discovery sends the mission into a whole new direction—right after this break.

MOLLY: This is Radiolab. We're back with our story about smuggling abortion pills into Ukraine at the start of the war in collaboration with Rough Translation.

GREGORY: Picking up the story a few hours after the pills go missing ...

ARI: We heard from the logistics guy. Then we—he tells us, "We know where they are."

GREGORY: They found the pills in the driver's private car while the rest of the shipment is in his truck already in Ukraine. Honestly, to me, this part is super suspicious, but nobody really had time to investigate why, and it didn't really matter.

KATZ: They are just trying to finish this delivery. And so the second they find the pills, the logistics guy's like, "Okay, I've got a new driver who has time to drive the pills to the border, but he can't take them into Ukraine. So do you have someone on your end who can pick them up in Poland and get them to Lviv?"

VICKI: We weren't really sure who to trust.

MOLLY: In the end, they ask the one contact who knows that these are abortion pills and who's in Ukraine, and the person who has experience distributing medical supplies: Yevgenia.

YEVGENIA: The decision was, okay, me and two of my friend—girls, were just going by car, travel into Europe to pick it up.

KATZ: Yevgenia calls up her friend Maria.

MARIA: We're gonna take a ride to Poland to take couple boxes as a volunteer. I said, "Okay, that's fun."

MOLLY: Side note: before the war, in normal times, Maria was a fashion editor.

KATZ: She says, in this war ...

MARIA: You know, you're so stressed all the time. You're trying to eat, you're trying to sleep, you're reading news. So you're looking for something to do so you can be useful.

YEVGENIA: And we took some coffee. We smoke some cigarette. We just talk about whatever. Then we cross the border.

KATZ: They get to the meeting spot, which is ...

MARIA: It's abandoned gas station. Like in a movie, you know? With—when you're meeting some gangsters or something. It's raining. Like, suddenly you're in the middle of nowhere, taking something from car, from strangers, you know? And we didn't open the boxes, just put them in the car.

KATZ: They drive off back to the border. And as they get closer ...

MARIA: We grabbed some food. And I said, "Okay, maybe we'll check what is in that boxes. "She said, "Yeah, okay. Maybe we'll need to take a look."

KATZ: Wait, you're killing me. Like, do you know it's abortion pills at this point? Or did she not tell you?

MARIA: She told me, but I thought, "Okay, abortion pills. No problem." And we just open those boxes, and there's black garbage bags. Like, there's no packs or prescriptions, nothing. They're just black garbage bags in a box. And you open it, and it's full of pills. And especially when you know how vitamin C looks like, you know exactly that it's not it. And I said, "Okay, we're gonna be arrested."

YEVGENIA: It looks like a drugs packing. I don't want to touch it.

MOLLY: Yevgania at this point is dedicated to helping the war effort and getting medical supplies to Ukrainian people. If she is arrested or in any way compromised because of this delivery, that—all that's gonna stop.

YEVGENIA: It was like I was standing somewhere in other country with my car. I have to bring it, and I have to go back home. And I can't stay here, but somebody need to do this, and how to do this, and why it's me? It was feelings like how to just stop it. I'm definitely not against abortion, but it was like, why we should bring it in this amount—it's a large amount—to Ukraine, into Ukraine, to take it. And the reason, the first reason, was rape cases. And here I became a bit sad. I mean, I need to do this.

KATZ: They decide they're just gonna keep driving. Night is falling. Curfew is approaching. They have to get over the border. That very same evening, back in Germany, Vicki and Ari are also getting ready.

VICKI: We had our six-year anniversary of our relationship. And we don't go to fancy restaurants often, but that was a nice restaurant, and it was a very intimate—like, it just has a few tables. So it's not a very loud environment, right? It's not that we can have a conversation about smuggling pills over the Polish-Ukrainian border and not have anybody hear us on the table next door because there's, like, four tables and a waiter that appears every 10 minutes.

ARI: Both our phones are face up on the table.

KATZ: They're just staring at their phones waiting to hear from Yevgenia.

VICKI: I think the waiter must have thought, like, what a strange couple. This relationship must not be going so well.

MOLLY: Meanwhile near the border, Maria, seeing all these bags of loose pills, turns to Yevgenia and asks ...

MARIA: Do we have documents for that?

MOLLY: So Yevgenia calls Ari.

VICKI: Of course, he cannot have the phone call in this restaurant with five tables, so he goes outside. I'm left at the table, super tense because I don't know what's happening.

ARI: She wants to know what's up with these documents. Who are they from? What do I have to do with them? What can I say about them?

GREGORY: That paperwork, it doesn't make sense anymore, because the abortion pills have now been separated from the rest of the medical shipment.

ARI: So there's documents, but they no longer actually apply to any of this.

MARIA: We don't have documents that we are official volunteers. We don't have any prescriptions, and we have no proof what kind of pills that is. This is serious, guys.

VICKI: I remember me getting really nervous that maybe something would go wrong.

KATZ: You—did you feel responsible for her?

VICKI: Of course, yeah, For the pills and for everything, everybody involved. At that point, so many people have put some risk, let's not have something go wrong here.

MOLLY: So Yevgenia and Maria are finally at the border, and it's a day when it's going really, really slowly. They're actually stopping every car, searching the cars, taking out the packages. And they finally pull up to the border booth. They're the first car. The border guard comes out of her booth, and she says, "Get out of the car. Open up the trunk." And so they open up the trunk of the car. And there are the three moving boxes. The border guard is like, "Can you tell me what's up with your tail light?"

MARIA: And we were like, "What?"

MOLLY: And they look, and the tail light is broken. It's not working. And the border guard, she's asking all of these questions about the tail light.

MARIA: She said, "Oh, my God. You were driving like that through Poland? It's impossible. Who, like, allowed you to do that?"

MOLLY: Yevgenia and Maria are like, "Oh, my God. What? Aah!" And then the border guard sort of turns back to the boxes, says ...

MARIA: "What are you carrying?" And we said, "Pills." She said, "Do you have any documents for that?" "Yes, of course." She understood that okay, it's medicine.

MOLLY: And she just waves them through.

MARIA: And basically, that's it.

MOLLY: They pile back in the car and then just drive off.

VICKI: So at 7:50 p.m., we got the message. "Friends, congratulations to all of us. We are in Ukraine now. Wow. We'll be in Lviv at night. Tomorrow we will start unpacking, and I'll call to understand where our vitamin C is and what to do with it." It was really like a firework explosion sort of feeling, like a—I think that was the best feeling I've ever had ever in this relationship. It was incredible.

ARI: And you want to share it with everybody.

VICKI: You kind of felt like jumping up and screaming. And, like, "Aah!" sort of. Like, oh, I want to scream it at the top of my lungs and tell everybody like, "Oh, we are getting married or we're having a baby." "Oh, we smuggled abortion pills. Now we're gonna go dance all night long.

KATZ: The next day, they get another text from Yevgenia.

VICKI: "It's a huge, huge, huge help, and we are so grateful for the help. You're really beautiful, but I feel like a criminal. After that, we won't work together anymore. I'm sorry."

MOLLY: And that was it. After this moment, this sort of community of strangers just dissolves with different feelings of shame and success, and a lot of questions because, like, what happened to these pills, and were they needed? And did pregnant women get them? Did doctors want them?

GREGORY: So we decided to cross the border ourselves and find the Ukrainians, the doctors, the pregnant women who were waiting for these pills.

MOLLY: That's coming up on the next episode next week.

GREGORY: That's episode two on Rough Translation and on Radiolab.

MOLLY: See you there. This episode was reported by Katz Laszlo and produced by Daniel Girma and Tessa Paoli, with help from our senior producer, Adelina Lancianese. Our editor was Brenna Farrell.

GREGORY: Thanks to the many people who listened to this piece and made it so much better: Wojciech Oleksiak, Katy Lee, Maria Hlazunova, Valeria Fokina, Sara Furxhi, Noel King, Robert Krulwich, Sana Krasikov and our shining friends at Radiolab.

MOLLY: Thanks also to Micah Loewinger and Laura Griffin, and to the many, many experts and sources we interviewed who asked to remain anonymous.

GREGORY: The Rough Translation team includes Luis Trelles and Justine Yan. Our intern is Eleana Tworek. Our supervising producer is Liana Simstrom. Irene Noguchi is the executive producer of the Enterprise Storytelling Unit of which Rough Translation is a part. Peter DiCampo and Catie Dull are our visuals editors. And illustrations came from Oksana Drachkovska.

MOLLY: Thanks to Tony Cavin. John Ellis composed our theme music. Original music from Nic M. Neves, and additional music from Blue Dot Sessions and FirstCom Music.

GREGORY: Mastering by Gilly Moon. Fact-checking by Marisa Robertson-Textor. Legal guidance from Micah Ratner and Dentons. And NPR's senior vice president for programming is Anya Grundmann. I'm Gregory Warner, back next week with Molly Webster, Radiolab and more Rough Translation.

MOLLY: By the way, if you haven't had a chance to check out Rough Translation, please, please go listen. It's a great show. They have so many good stories. I did a quick poll of our staff, our executive editor said we should all go check out one of their most recent episodes called "Hotel Corona." It's not about the beer, it's probably about COVID. Go check it out. You can go to NPR.org or wherever you get your podcasts.

[LISTENER: Hi. This is Beth from San Francisco. Leadership support for Radiolab's science programming is provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative, and the John Templeton Foundation. Foundational support for Radiolab was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.]



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