Two months after heeding President Volodymyr Zelensky’s call, sniper Wali is back in Quebec — unharmed, though he nearly lost his life there “several times.” But most foreign fighters like him who have gone to Ukraine have left bitterly disappointed, lost in the fog of war without even being on the front line once.
Posted at 5:00 am
“I’m lucky to be alive, it came very close,” says the ex-soldier of the Royal 22and Regiment, in conversation with The press at his home in the greater Montreal area.
His last mission in the Donbass region, in a Ukrainian unit supporting conscripted soldiers, somewhat accelerated his return. Early in the morning, having just taken up position at a trench exposed to fire from Russian tanks, two of the conscripts emerged from their blankets to smoke a cigarette. “I told them not to expose themselves like that, but they didn’t listen to me,” Wali says. A “high-precision” shellfire from a Russian tank then broke out next to them. The scene described by the maverick is blood-curdling. “It exploded hard. I saw the shrapnel go by like lasers. My body tensed. I heard nothing, I immediately had a headache. It was really violent. †
He immediately understood that there was nothing to do for his two hard-hit Ukrainian brothers in arms. “It smelled like death, it’s hard to describe; it is a macabre smell of charred meat, sulfur and chemicals. It’s so inhumane, that smell. †
His partner, who wishes to remain anonymous, says he called her an hour later in the middle of the night. “He tried to explain to me that two people had been killed. He said, ‘I think I’ve done enough, haven’t I? Have I done enough?” It seems he wanted me to tell him to come back, she says. He was very calm. †
In the end, his family life trumped his desire to help Ukrainians, Wali says. “My heart feels like I’m going back to the front. I still have the flame. I like the theater of operations. But I pushed my luck. I have no injuries. I think to myself, how far can I roll the dice? I don’t want to lose what I have here,” says the young father, who missed his son’s first birthday while sitting in the front.
After spending two months in Ukraine, Wali draws a “rather disappointing” verdict on the deployment of Western volunteer fighters, which began in early March, following a phone call from President Volodymyr Zelensky. The number of volunteers who showed up – more than 20,000, according to various estimates – was such that on March 6 the Ukrainian government had to urgently establish the International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine.
But for most volunteers who showed up at the border, joining a military unit was a hassle.
Zelensky appealed to everyone, but in the field the officers were completely helpless. They didn’t know what to do with us.
He and several other former Canadian soldiers initially preferred to join the Normandy Brigade, a private volunteer unit stationed in Ukraine for several months, led by a former soldier from Quebec whose nom de guerre is Hrulf.
Dissension soon arose among the troops and a large number of fighters left the Normandy brigade.
Three people who asked for anonymity described to: The press promises of weapons and protective equipment made by the head of the Normandy brigade that never materialized. Some volunteers were about 40 kilometers from the Russian front without protective equipment. “If there had been a Russian breakthrough, everyone would have been in danger. It was an irresponsible attitude by the brigade,” said one of its former soldiers, who asked for his name not to be mentioned for security reasons.
Cheating and impatience
The commander of the Normandy Brigade, who has also asked us to withhold his real name for security reasons, confirms that he has been abandoned by some 60 fighters since the start of the conflict. Several of them wanted to sign a contract that would have given them status under the Geneva Conventions, as well as guarantees that they would be treated by the Ukrainian state in case of injury. Hrulf claims some even had “plans” to deprive him of a $500,000 shipment of weapons supplied by Americans to create their own combat unit.
“There are guys who were in a hurry to get to the front without going through the slightest security check. The Ukrainians have tested us and only now are we starting to get more missions. There is an element of trust that needs to be built, and that is completely normal,” says Hrulf.
A “terrible disappointment”
“Many volunteer fighters expect it to be turnkey, but war is the opposite, it’s a terrible disappointment,” Wali sums up for his part.
With another Quebec infantryman nicknamed Shadow, the Quebec sniper eventually joined a Ukrainian unit fighting in the Kiev region.
But again, finding a weapon to fight with was a Kafkaesque exercise. “You had to know someone who knew someone who told you they’d give you an AK-47 in some old barbershop. You had to tinker with such soldiers’ equipment by picking up pieces and ammunition left and right, in many cases with weapons in more or less good condition’, he says.
Even before meals, it is often the citizens who take care of it. It’s the same for gasoline to move in a vehicle. You have to organize yourself constantly, to know someone who knows someone.
After a few weeks on Ukrainian soil, some of the most experienced Western soldiers were recruited by Ukrainian military intelligence and would now participate in special operations behind enemy lines, one of them said.
Others, less experienced, are “jumping from one Airbnb to another” while waiting to be recruited by a unit that will take them to the front, Wali says.
However, the majority have decided to go home, say several people interviewed for this article. “Many arrive in Ukraine with a bulging chest, but they leave with their tails between their legs,” says Wali.
In the end, he said himself that he only shot two bullets into windows “to scare people” and never really got within enemy firing range. “It is a war of machines”, in which the “extremely brave” Ukrainian soldiers suffer very heavy casualties from shelling, but “miss many opportunities” to weaken the enemy because they have no technical military knowledge, he sums up. “If the Ukrainians had the procedures we had in Afghanistan to communicate with the artillery, we could have caused a bloodbath,” he said.
But Wali does not hide his wish to return there despite everything. “You never know when foreign fighters will make a difference on the ground. It is like a fire extinguisher: it is useless until it catches fire. †