''But how did you get permission to drive American aid into Poland?''
Stanley Mitton, who recently led a convoy carrying emergency supplies into Poland, constantly gets asked that question by astonished Europeans and Americans. He was also asked by astonished Poles inside Poland.
The only one unfazed seems to be Mr. Mitton himself.
In fact, says this director of Church World Service's (CWS) emergency aid, the whole thing was really a cinch.
The day before Christmas, he simply walked into the Polish Consulate in New York. In 25 minutes he had a visa to enter Poland. He joined colleagues in Copenhagen, arranged for two trucks (one 10 tons, another 25 tons); got his convoy on a ferry to Malmo, Sweden; drove to a southern Swedish port where the convoy breezed through Polish customs and boarded the overnight ferry to Winoujscie on the East German-Polish border.
Less than a day's drive later, he and his team were driving around Warsaw and vicinity, distributing aid to needy families.
That was two weeks ago. He is already gearing up for another convoy Jan. 16.
The accounts of Mr. Mitton and other American relief officials just back from Poland run counter to a popular belief that the borders of Poland have been sealed under martial law.
Access for aid workers has been virtually uninhibited, these officials say. And they are satisfied that aid is reaching those who need it.
West German and Dutch agencies have been moving aid liberally into Poland overland through East Germany; the Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians across the Baltic from the north. American aid channeled through CARE, the Catholic Relief Service (CRS), and other church organizations has gone in largely by ships that dock at the Baltic port of Gdynia. The aid then goes overland to Warsaw.
With aid access apparently so free, the outside relief groups now believe that coordinating their efforts could extend their impact. Their new joint strategy divides up the aid work among Catholic and Protestant agencies so that aid can be spread more evenly through a much greater proportion of the country. Poland's local churches handle distribution of aid once it arrives.
''The plan is to move in small loads, but often, each truck carrying a balance of types of supplies,'' explains Mr. Mitton. ''We don't want to overload distribution centers because that might give the Polish authorities an excuse to intervene in the name of trying to 'help.' ''
The aid flow and coordination should also make possible a whole new communications network linking Poland to the outside world. Starting this week, all relief vehicles coming out of Poland will be reporting back to a central office at the World Council of Churches in Geneva. News of Poland's needs will be gathered and telexed to aid agencies worldwide.
Officials with CWS, CRS, and CARE seem agreed that US trade restrictions and Washington's sharp rhetoric have not to date had a negative effect on their work.
The CRS has shipped nearly 25 million pounds of food, clothing, and other supplies since July. But at no point has their distribution been disrupted, according to CRS spokesperson Beth Griffin. CRS executive director Bishop Edwin Broderick, just back from Poland, also reported Jan. 12 that he is convinced US aid is not being diverted by the Polish government or by black-marketing. Aid is getting to the neediest, he says, and the churches are allowed to do the distribution.
Officials for CARE are also satisfied that their aid is reaching children and elderly in desperate need, despite criticism that much of their aid is being distributed through government channels.
Meanwhile, some aid workers suspect that their free movement within Poland may be explained partly by an ambiguity Poles themselves feel about the martial law crackdown.
Surveillance of outsiders and their vehicles appears surprisingly lax -- especially if it could mean slowing down the aid flow.
When the Mitton expedition went through customs, they had little trouble getting permission to carry cameras into the country. The cameras were needed, they said, to film aid distribution. Although customs officials said nothing else should be filmed, they did not confiscate the cameras.
In 800 miles of driving to and from Warsaw, the expedition was stopped for a search only once. That search was anything but thorough. Other questioning about permits was very nonchalant.
After taking considerable film footage, the Mitton expedition worried they could be in for some trouble exiting the country. When customs officials asked about the cameras, the explanation was given that the convoy was just filming its aid distribution. The official shrugged off the whole thing and said, ''Oh well, that's all right.''
''It could have been that we were just fortunate, or that it was just too cold,'' reflects Mitton.
''On the other hand, I think you've got to remember that all the people implementing the rules of the regime are not necessarily in sympathy with the regime. We could sense that. All Solidarity posters have been torn down. But as you move around, you find the odd person showing you Solidarity badges hidden beneath their coats.''