Cross Country Checkup·Q & A

'Every person I interviewed cried': Susan Ormiston on reporting in Ukraine

It’s been two months since Russia invaded Ukraine, and since then CBC senior correspondent Susan Ormiston has made two trips to eastern Europe to cover the conflict there.

CBC senior correspondent on the challenges of covering Russia's invasion of Ukraine

Nadiya Trubchaninova, 70, cries while holding the coffin of her son Vadym, 48, who was killed by Russian soldiers on March 30 in Bucha, during his funeral in the cemetery of Mykulychi, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on April 16. (Rodrigo Abd/The Associated Press)

It's been nearly two months since Russia invaded Ukraine, and during that time CBC senior correspondent Susan Ormiston traveled to Ukraine and Poland to cover the conflict there. 

Now Ormiston is back at the CBC bureau in Washington, D.C., and from there joined Cross Country Checkup's Ask Me Anything segment. Here's part of Ormiston's conversation with Cross Country Checkup producer Abby Plener about her experience in Ukraine. 

How does it feel returning back? What has it been like? 

It was intense. I describe it as, I've never been on a story where every person I interviewed cried, from obviously refugees to business people to doctors. Everyone teared up. It was so fresh and so extraordinarily, still, unexpected. 

I often reflect on how people's lives in Ukraine, 44 million people, changed overnight. There was a build-up and there were troops on the border, but a majority of people did not believe it would be the invasion it became. And so therefore the war hit them right between the eyes. They had no idea that this type of war was going to land on their doorstep. 

As you can imagine, everyone is employed in the war. We speak to people, like IT developers who work for their clients during the day, and in the night and the off hours they would work to disrupt the cyberspace [against] Russia, or they would volunteer to do something. So everybody had a role. 

And many people, many millions of people, have no work at the moment because the economy is not working in many places. In places like Lviv, in the west, they are trying to keep the economy going, and it has opened up dramatically since I first arrived in terms of restaurants and hotels. 

Susan Ormiston is a senior correspondent for the CBC. (CBC)

There's life in the streets now that there wasn't before, because I think people are taking the calculated risks that places like Lviv, which is a major city, is relatively safer than a large part of the east and north and south of Ukraine.

But of course, the air attacks happen in western Ukraine and anywhere in Ukraine, really, there can be an air attack and there have been missiles and the air sirens. Still, two days before I left Lviv, there were six air sirens in a day. It's a very uncertain time.

Are there other stories that you covered there and that you'll be interested in following or or ones that you didn't quite get to tell as much? 

I think the reality of covering a war is everything changes every day. There's no pre-planning a story on a day because things change enormously. 

Because we were in western Ukraine, what we were exposed to was people. And that's really what a war is about, isn't it? It's about the people who are suffering from the consequences of war. And there were stories of that in spades.

Oleg Boianivskyi, 28, and a real estate lawyer in Lviv, Ukraine, is organizing young people to collect food and clothing donations to deliver to harder hit areas of Ukraine. His story is one of many Susan Ormiston heard while in Ukraine. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

So at the beginning, it was talking to people about what just happened. And there were layers of interest there, for example, people from Kharkiv, which [has] quite a few Russian-speaking people. Many people in Kharkiv have relatives in Russia, and we were talking to them five or six days after the invasion began and they felt so betrayed.

So there's a long-term shifting of alliances here and allegiances that will change the dynamic of this country forever.

You've reported on other conflicts. What was it like covering this story compared to other places you've been in?

Yeah, every war is different. I think Europeans and North Americans have all seen this war differently because it's not a war of religion. It's a very traditional, conventional war. There are tanks rolling across territory and there's one country saying, I want part of your country. 

This is such an egregious, obvious, demonstration of blatant, greedy, heinous power. It's just stunning to people, it's stunning. 

I had so many people tell me, "I was living a happy life. I had a happy life. I lived here. My children lived here. We studied, we worked. We were normal, ordinary people in Western Europe, and all of a sudden our lives were completely and utterly shattered. Shattered."

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Abby Plener. This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

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