A week after dying in an attack on the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, as reported by Russian media outlets in mid-March, a Canadian sniper known by the nom de guerre Wali posted a message on his social media accounts and complained about the news of his death in a video interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). “I pretty much was the last person to learn about my death,” he said.
What really happened is that he went to the front in Irpin without his cellphone and did not immediately refute the rumors spread by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine.
In a recent interview with EL PAÍS from somewhere near Kyiv, Wali confirmed that he has never been to the southern city of Mariupol, whose residents have been under siege for over a month. “I was surprised by such a simple piece of fake news. It would have been better for them to just say that I killed some war prisoners,” he said ironically.
Wali, who has been in Ukraine for five weeks, is one of several thousand foreigners who have heeded the Ukrainian government’s call for outside help against the Russian invader. But he is not just any volunteer. His story has made media headlines since the beginning of the conflict, although some of the claims have little basis in reality, as he himself admits. “The best sniper in the world at the service of Ukraine,” headlined one French magazine. “He can kill 40 soldiers in one day,” claimed an Indian digital news site. “He holds the record for long-range killing at 3,540 meters,” asserted a Spanish daily.
Wali said it wasn’t him who shot down an Islamic State combatant at a distance of over two miles (3.5 kilometers) in June 2017, setting a new world record. That honor goes to another Canadian from an elite unit known as JTF-2. “I’m good with a rifle but that’s all. The legend and the symbol are different from the person,” said Wali in a phone conversation marked by laughter, a dose of humility and a persistent cough that he blamed on the bombings (“we’ve breathed in a lot of smoke”).
The man behind the legend (and who declined to give out his real name for security reasons) is a 40-year-old whose mother is from the French Canadian province of Quebec and whose father is from Ecuador. He was part of the Canadian Armed Forces for 12 years, serving in an artillery regiment in New Brunswick and an infantry unit in Quebec, then participating in two missions in Afghanistan, where he did patrols and trained local troops. He began to draw attention to himself in 2015, a few months after leaving the army, when he decided to travel to northern Iraq to fight against the Islamic State alongside the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militias. “The only language that Jihadists understand is the language of violence,” he said at the time in an interview.
That was the origin of his reputation as a combatant in foreign conflicts. And then he decided to go to Ukraine, after a friend who is also a former soldier told him that they had to do something. Wali says that he did not have in-depth knowledge about the conflict, but felt that action was necessary. “Not everything is black and white, but what we saw was a large-scale aggression,” he said.
Upon his return to Canada in October 2015, after four months with the Peshmerga, he began working as a civilian computer programmer. He met his future wife, and they were married and had a child. “My family situation now is different from what I had when I joined the Kurds, but I couldn’t say no,” he said.
“I feel a commitment to my family, but also to my community and to humanity. I lend support through what I do well,” he said. But he also admitted that the adrenaline rush plays a role. “I think a lot of military folks are that way. It’s a mix of personality traits and sense of duty.”
I feel a commitment to my family, but also to my community and to humanity. I lend support through what I do wellWali, Canadian sniper
His job these days as part of a Ukrainian army unit includes communicating with artillery, surveillance duty and identifying enemy positions. For now, he has not had his finger on the trigger very much.
Wali kept coming back to the concept of the media war, of information as an instrument of war. He himself has built up his own public persona through various channels: he is active on social media and shot a documentary about his experience in Iraq. His own battle has two fronts: one involving a rifle and another one based on messages and opinions.
“I am seeking support with all this,” he explained. “To add more combatants, to receive more weapons.”
His high profile has attracted a lot of favorable comments, but also a dose of criticism – including that he could be encouraging inexperienced youths to travel to Ukraine to take up arms. “War is very tough, and I will never say otherwise,” he retorted, noting that no insurance company will cover foreign combatants, and that an inexperienced fighter would be more of a burden than anything else. “Having said that, I have faith in individuals. I am addressing adults who can make their own decisions.”
On March 19, the Norman Brigade – made up of international combatants, many of them Canadian – issued a statement noting that media attention around Wali was starting to endanger the mission, as well as his family and himself. He changed partners in what he described as a joint decision. “I didn’t like the atmosphere so I left. It’s not the end of the world. I joined a unit of the Ukrainian army. They [the Norman Brigade] criticized my media side, but they weren’t opposed at first.”
Wali said he does not know how much longer he will remain on Ukrainian soil, and that he does not care about any potential repercussions back in Canada. “It’s like worrying about getting mud stains after a hurricane has passed through.” He had no legal trouble when he returned from Iraq. Canada’s criminal code has grey areas when it comes to individuals fighting abroad, although some sections contemplate the possibility of trial in the event of war crimes or belonging to a group viewed by the government as a terrorist organization.
Wali knows that Russian forces would love to get their hands on him. But he is not that worried: “It’s a possibility, but it seems to me that they have more high-priority targets. I don’t think they’re going to spend that much energy on me.”