March 3, 2017

Christian Borys’s journey from Toronto tech to war correspondent in eastern Ukraine

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Christian Borys in Avdiyivka in October 2016.

Anton Skyba

Christian Borys in Avdiyivka in October 2016.

OTTAWA – Many people likely would not give a second thought to leaving the relative comfort of life in Toronto for the deadly battleground of eastern Ukraine.

But when Christian Borys decided to embark on a new career two years ago, he thought Ukraine – his father’s ancestral homeland – would be the place to give journalism a shot. The ethnic connection was only part of it, though.

Few assignments test a reporter’s mettle better than covering a war, and Ukraine’s conflict with Russian-backed rebels – a major news story dominating global headlines in early 2015 – provided an irresistible pull for Mr. Borys.

He understood it could be dangerous – and it has been for the Ukrainian Canadian journalist who quickly donned a combat helmet and bulletproof vest emblazoned with the word “PRESS” for both protection and identification. His laid-back manner undoubtedly helped him cope with some dicey situations.

Mr. Borys has driven through battle zones with explosions going off around his vehicle, and was kept awake at night by machine guns firing in a room next to his in an apartment building, where he stayed with Ukrainian soldiers in Maryinka last October.

“I didn’t know what to expect, so it was a pretty eye-opening experience,” he recently said by phone from Kyiv.

It has also been vastly different than his life back in Canada.

After graduating with an undergraduate degree in political science from Sir Wilfrid Laurier University, the now-30-year-old Toronto native had desk jobs, working as a project manager for a construction company and later with the e-commerce firm Shopify.

It was a comfortable life for a young, athletic guy who plays hockey and goes snowboarding in his spare time. But it was clearly not enough to satisfy an adventurous spirit and feed off his love of writing to tell compelling stories.

And if you’re going to make a name for yourself as a freelance journalist in the increasingly competitive mediascape, it’s best to go somewhere where there is a demand for on-the-ground reportage. He chose to be in Ukraine, to see a country “evolve through a war after a revolution.”

Clearly it was the right choice for Mr. Borys, who – given the breadth of his byline in recent weeks – could become one of Canada’s best-known foreign correspondents.

His reporting has appeared seemingly everywhere, from The Washington Post and The Guardian to BBC News, VICE News and Al Jazeera. When hostilities escalated earlier this month between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed rebels in the eastern Ukrainian town of Avdiyivka, Mr. Borys was one of the few Western journalists there to cover the armed conflict for international media outlets.

On the ground, he was able to bust through the wartime spin and witnessed the weaponry used on both sides, including the multiple-launch Grad missile system and 152 mm and 122 mm artillery, all of which were banned under the Minsk II agreement, brokered by France and Germany, which Russia and Ukraine entered into in 2015.

“We saw burned out patches of ground in the fields behind Avdiyivka that would indicate firing positions from Grads for heavy artillery,” said Mr. Borys about what he witnessed along with Alexander Hug, head of the Ukraine monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whom he interviewed during heavy shelling.

“So that was in the Ukrainian-held territory and it doesn’t take a genius to realize that the Ukrainian army was using banned weapons, but Ukraine doesn’t want to admit that,” said Mr. Borys, who doesn’t speak Ukrainian fluently and who also relied on a Ukrainian journalist as a “fixer” to help set up interviews and provide translation.

“Everybody was breaking the peace agreement on all sides because Minsk is a joke and has been since day one. But nobody has a better alternative at this point,” he commented.

Ukraine, Russia and the Russian-backed separatists agreed on February 15 to withdraw their heavy weapons from the front line as required under the Minsk peace plan as of February 20. [Editor’s note: reports since then indicate that yet another ceasefire is not being implemented.]

Giving his take on why eastern Ukraine became embroiled in the worst fighting in two years, Mr. Borys said, “it seems like Ukraine had been pressing aggressively on the ground and managed to take a position as a one-off land grab, and that sparked a reply from the separatists, which prompted a huge battle.” It was not likely, contrary to global speculation, the result of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump late last month, he added.

However, there is no mistaking the fatigue Ukrainians have felt about the war in the Donbas.

Despite the recent ceasefire between Ukraine and the Russian-backed rebels, Mr. Borys said that it has “blown everybody’s mind that this conflict has still been going on. No one expected it to last more than two weeks – not three years.”

“Those who live on the front line are just so …fed up with it,” and most people don’t care if they live in Ukraine, or the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, or some other country. “They just want the war to stop and get back to living a normal life,” Mr. Borys noted.

The misery in Avdiyivka was apparent when he was there. More than 17,000 residents were without heat, water and electricity as temperatures fell below -20 degrees Celsius. Some families had to again – perhaps for the second, third or fourth time – ship their children off to safety behind the frontline, according to Mr. Borys.

A few women approached him when he was reporting from the battleground.

“They found out I was a foreign journalist and were yelling at me, ‘Why don’t you tell [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko to stop this war? We don’t need war.’ It’s really emotional for people there.”

Mr. Borys sympathizes with Ukrainians who have had their country invaded, with a part of it (Crimea) annexed to Russia, and have a “right to their sovereignty and a right to fight for their land” amid fears of further Russian encroachment.

“It seems like Russia’s end game was to stop Ukraine from progressing after the Maidan uprising. To make sure that Ukraine will never be able to get into NATO, which it cannot join when it is actively involved in a war, and to destabilize any efforts for Ukraine to join the EU,” he explained.

That, in turn, has slowly eroded a renewed sense of patriotism that Mr. Borys felt in Ukraine in 2015 – compared to what he experienced when he first visited the country 10 years earlier.

“There are huge barriers for Ukraine to overcome – and the biggest one is corruption,” he said. “Most people agree that’s going to take another generation to solve.”

Meanwhile, highly skilled young Ukrainians are looking to advance their careers elsewhere, in such countries as Poland, and some of them are already learning Polish with an eye toward moving there to pursue greater employment opportunities.

“I spoke to a girl with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering who sees no prospects for a job in Ukraine – and neither do her friends, who are as highly educated, who cannot earn the type of salaries they would like to make in Ukraine,” said Mr. Borys, the child of Polish-born parents who learned to speak Polish from his mother and maternal grandmother in Toronto.

“It’s not like Maidan was this magic pill able to fix everything. It’s going to be a long struggle for the country to change.”

He’s covering that journey as executive producer of “The Sunday Show,” a weekly English-language television program for the Maidan-inspired and VICE-like Hromadske, a Kyiv-based online media company co-founded and headed by Ukrainian journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk.

Mr. Borys is also producing a short documentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC) on a planned reunion between two Ukrainian sisters, one of whom was adopted by a Canadian family three years ago. The mini-doc will be shot in Toronto and Ukraine later this year, and appear on CBC’s web service and TV network some time next year.

He misses his hometown – and his family and friends there, along with a favorite regular indulgence (“I really like Tim Hortons donuts”). But reminders of Canada come often in conversation with Ukrainians.

“Canada is still a dream to most Ukrainians – and everybody here loves [Justin] Trudeau,” said Mr. Borys, referring to the Canadian prime minister. “My Ukrainian journalist friends all admire what Trudeau is doing, especially Canada taking in Syrian refugees, which is in stark contrast to what the U.S. is doing.”

For now, Mr. Borys sees the world through a Ukrainian lens.

He has found a place to live in Kyiv that he describes as looking “from the inside like any apartment you’d find in Toronto, and from the outside, like a Soviet [era] …apartment building.”

He works out at a local gym and eats as healthy as possible. “It’s a really competitive business,” and you really have to work extremely hard, explained Mr. Borys, who often has to supply video and still images with the stories he files.

He has settled into Kyivan life, eager to indulge in the cultural expectations and the social possibilities for a guy with an easy laugh and an inquisitive mind. “Life is so similar to Toronto that it’s kind of amazing,” said Mr. Borys.

Still, the restlessness remains, and he’s already considering his next move to another hotspot of humanity.

“I want to go to Iraq,” said Mr. Borys, who co-authored a feature that recently appeared in Foreign Policy Magazine. Titled “The Blackwater of Jihad,” the story is about a group of elite fighters from the former Soviet Union who are training jihadis in Syria.

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