Anthony Ihnat was a handyman living in Richmond Hill, Ont., when the war in Ukraine began nearly 19 months ago.
Known as Tonko by his friends, Ihnat was watching the news at home as the Russian invasion began and that’s when he made his choice.
“Seeing the buildings blowing up and the lineups of people getting out of the country, I felt I had to get over here (to Ukraine) and help anyway I could.”
Ihnat spoke one-on-one with CTV National News on Feb. 22 about why he left his life in Canada and moved to Ukraine at the beginning of the war.
On Sat., Sept. 9 at around 10 a.m., Ihnat was killed when, according to Ukrainian officials, the vehicle he was driving took a direct hit from a Russian anti-tank missile.
The 58-year-old was on his way with three other aid volunteers to check in on civilians near the outskirts of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine. The four were volunteering with the NGO Road to Relief, which posted about his death on its Instagram account.
A Spanish national who was the director of the organization also died and two German medical volunteers suffered serious burns and shrapnel wounds but managed to escape.
CTV National News met Tonko Ihnat on a brisk February morning in Kyiv, Ukraine. By that time he’d already spent 11 months there and had developed a deep appreciation for a country he’d never previously visited.
Anthony ‘Tonko’ Ihnat delivers aid in Ukraine. (Adrian Ghobrial / HANDOUT)
“They’re the strongest people I’ve seen. It’s a bad time but it’s going to end and it’s going to turn out on a positive note,” Ihnat said as we stood near the gold domed monastery of St. Michael’s, not far from the banks of the Dnieper River that runs through Kyiv.
I asked the cheerful Canadian if he ever feared for his own safety and he acknowledged, “obviously it’s a war zone, I didn’t know what to expect, I’ve never been in one. The danger is obviously there.”
But, he said, “I’m not here just to think about that, I want to use my time as much as I can.”
The last time we spoke was in June, over WhatsApp. In his update on the work he was doing, he shared, “I’ve been spending time in the east lately. Delivering humanitarian aid, evacuations, driving a medical team around to different villages.”
That’s exactly what he was doing when he was killed over the weekend, his death an “irreplaceable” loss according to those who spent time with him in Ukraine.
“He was my close friend, I wish I was there for him in that moment,” Adam Oake, who spent months delivering aid with Ihnat in Ukraine as explosions, gunfire and fighting could sometimes be heard in the distance, told me after Ihnat’s death.
“He was like a warm cup of coffee in the morning, he would brighten up your day,” Oake recalled. The two shared a love of the Maple Leafs, and when they needed an escape they would often watch the highlights together.
Anthony ‘Tonko’ Ihnat and Adam Oake deliver aid in Ukraine. (Adrian Ghobrial / HANDOUT)
“I want people to remember him for his smile and his compassion, his joyfulness and his selflessness,” said Oake, who plans to go back to Ukraine in November, in part, to continue the aid work he and Ihnat did together.
“Once you do this (work in Ukraine) and see how much relief you bring to people and how great the need is for this humanitarian aid work to continue, it’s not easy to turn away from,” he said.
In his nightly address on Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ihnat’s killing “once again confirms how close the war against Ukraine is to everyone in the world who truly values human life and who considers it a common moral duty of humanity to stop terror and defeat evil.”
Ihnat was working on getting his permanent residency so he could stay in Ukraine after the war was over and help rebuild.
During our walk together across the Klitschko Bridge overlooking the Dnieper, he acknowledged that he missed his family while also noting that they were only a phone call away. I told him some people would find what he was doing in Ukraine remarkable, and he replied, “It’s not remarkable, the people here (in Ukraine) are remarkable, whatever I can do is the least I can do.”