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How Canadian sniper dodged death in Ukraine — and learned how to use anti-tank weapon on YouTube

Now back in Canada, Wali describes the chaos he says is typical of war, the violent deaths of Ukrainian comrades and mad scrambles to escape Russian troops

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The fifth-floor condo in Irpin, a suburb north of Kyiv, was new and well-furnished, with attractive tile floors and an espresso machine on the kitchen counter.

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But the residents had wisely abandoned it and the Canadian sniper known as Wali knew there were scores of Russian soldiers nearby. He warned “Shadow,” his fellow Canadian foreign fighter, not to touch the curtains, a sure signal to the enemy they were inside and potential targets.

But the precautions were not enough. The Russians clearly had seen them enter the building and a tank crew decided to take a chance on where they were lurking.

“I saw the fireball three metres away from me,” Wali said. “It hit the structure between the windows of the apartment…. The window broke, it was a very violent explosion.”

A fierce firefight erupted and a member of the Ukrainian National Guard unit the Canadians were supporting was hit. Six of them crammed into a civilian truck they found and sped away, the wounded soldier screaming in pain with each bump in the road.

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Soon after arriving in Ukraine on the heels of Russia’s invasion in late February, Wali became a sort of celebrity among the foreign fighters who rushed to the country’s defence.

The Canadian infantry veteran had similarly travelled to Iraq to fight ISIS and his story captivated international media, who portrayed him with some hyperbole as one of the world’s greatest snipers. In a testament to his high profile, Russian disinformation peddlers later spread a false story he’d been killed in action.

But the incident in Irpin underscored how the experience was often more chaotic than poetic, an illustration of war’s “terrible disappointment,” the Quebecer said in a recent interview after returning to Canada.

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He and other foreign fighters were raided by a suspicious police SWAT team in Lviv. It took him some time just to find a weapon, any weapon. Then midway through his two-month stint in the war zone he picked up a whole new combat skill. Watching videos he found on YouTube, Wali taught himself how to use a Javelin anti-tank rocket launcher.

He did also eventually get hold of a sniper rifle, repeatedly cheated death at the hands of Russian artillery and tanks and witnessed the horrible deaths of less-lucky Ukrainian comrades.

Amid it all, he celebrated from afar his son’s first birthday.

“It was pretty much close calls every week,” says Wali, a nom-de-guerre he uses for security reasons. “Modern warfare is knowing how to stay alive basically.”

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Though the National Post could not independently the incidents he described, photographs and videos he provided appear to align with his story.

A veteran of the Quebec-based Royal 22nd Regiment, Wali did two tours in Afghanistan in the specialized trade of sniper before retiring from the Canadian forces and becoming an IT consultant.

Except he didn’t actually give up soldiering.

As Islamic State rampaged across Syria and Iraq, Wali travelled to northern Iraq and joined the Kurdish forces in their fight against the Islamist extremists.

It didn’t take long for Wali to become a celebrity among the foreign fighters who rushed to Ukraine’s defence.
It didn’t take long for Wali to become a celebrity among the foreign fighters who rushed to Ukraine’s defence. Photo by Courtesy of Wali

Then when Russia invaded Ukraine, a friend who has a Ukrainian family and was forming a foreign-fighter unit called the Norman Brigade urged Wali to join him. Within days of the war starting, he was in the country, to the chagrin of his wife.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy eventually invited foreigners to come help defend his country, setting up a new International Legion. The organization says more than 500 Canadians have joined. But the first wave of fighters from abroad were met with a little more trepidation, and in Lviv it appears a neighbour reported Wali and the rowdy British soldiers with whom he shared a flat. Next thing he knew, a SWAT team appeared at their door, shoving Wali against the wall, apparently convinced he and the others were Russian saboteurs.

The misunderstanding was soon resolved and he moved south to meet up with Hrulf, the Norman Brigade commander.

When they had a falling out, Wali made his way to Kyiv and eventually scored a top-shelf sniper rifle, though without a range-finder. That’s a crucial piece of gear for shooting far-away targets. The precise distance, temperature and wind speed are entered into a table that tells the shooter how to adjust the rifle’s scope to ensure the bullet follows the intended path. Wali also lacked a spotter, the sniper’s usual partner.

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“If I had all the means I had in Afghanistan, it would be slaughter all day long … it would be easy.”

He decided to make the best of it, and with Shadow ended up part of a Ukrainian unit in Irpin, the suburb made infamous when Russian artillery shelled escaping civilians. The 30 of them faced a Russian force they estimated at 300 troops, backed up by tanks, helicopters and drones.

Wali says he fired just two rounds from the sniper weapon, when at one point he saw a hand move a curtain inside a building known to harbour Russian soldiers. He doesn’t know if he hit anyone. The presence of refugees on the urban battlefield often made it too risky to take a shot. But when he spotted enemy positions, the information was sent to Ukrainian artillery, which bombarded the targets with their own guns.

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If I had all the means I had in Afghanistan, it would be slaughter all day long … it would be easy

After the Russians withdrew from the Kyiv area, he and Shadow travelled to Ukraine’s Donbas region, still the centre of the conflict’s fiercest fighting today.

The National Guard unit he joined had eight Javelin rockets, which have proven to be an invaluable weapon against Russian armour. But the non-rechargeable battery in one of their two launchers was dead, and the soldier trained to use them was being rotated out of the front. Which is when the Canadian stepped in, first downloading and reading the weapon’s manual, then seeking online tips.

“I went on YouTube and found a realistic-looking game using the Javelin,” he said. “I basically trained myself using games on YouTube.”

But the hunting for enemy tanks was often hampered by the overwhelming Russian forces they faced, and by inexperienced soldiers who too often gave up their position.

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Which is what happened one fateful day in the woods of Donbas. Wali tried to warn two Ukrainians to put out their cigarettes and stick to the small, damp trench they’d dug, rather than move closer to nearby Russian tanks. Instinctively, he moved several metres away from the pair.

Moments later a huge explosion lit up the site, pieces of burning shrapnel shooting through the air “like lasers.” Then he saw the two Ukrainians. One lay on the ground, his legs and one arm gone, clearly dead. The other was still barely alive, his body ravaged by the blast.

Then, “ten seconds after I came he stopped breathing.”

The Canadian sniper known as Wali.
The Canadian sniper known as Wali. Photo by Courtesy of Wali

Wali said he did often transmit the location of Russian tanks to Ukrainian artillery batteries or attack-drone operators. The language barrier and less-than-perfect radio communications sometimes delayed that process. But “everything on the Russian side was slow,” and the target vehicles were usually in the same position by the time the message got through.

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After his experience in Afghanistan, Wali wrote a self-published book — Mission:Sniper — and he plans to do the same this time. He hopes it can itself be a “weapon,” explaining how to defeat Russian forces on the battlefield.

Would he join the fight again himself? He says this is supposed to be “the last one” but adds that “I don’t have any injury and I don’t feel any sign of PTSD. I feel great and ready.” His wife is less equivocal on the question.

“She understands that we need to fight against such an obvious invasion,” he said. “Yet she thinks I did enough in my career and that I should 100-per-cent take care of my family, not others.”

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