A week after he was killed in an attack on the city of Mariupol, according to some Russian media reports in mid-March, the Canadian sniper Wali posted a message on his networks and complained about the news: “I am the last person to know about me. death”, told the CBC network. What had happened was more of a tragedy of everyday order than of a warlike kind: he had marched to the front in Irpin without his mobile phone and was slow to deny the rumors spread by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine.
In addition, he now explains to EL PAÍS from the kyiv region, he has never been to Mariupol. “I was surprised by such simple fake news. They would have better said that I murdered prisoners of war, ”says Wali, who has been on Ukrainian soil for five weeks. He is one of the thousands of foreigners who have come to the country to fight the Russian invasion, but he is not just another volunteer. His story has appeared in multiple media since the first days of the conflict, although more linked to his legend than to reality. “The best sniper in the world at the service of Ukraine”, headlined a French magazine; “He can kill 40 soldiers in one day”, published a digital portal from India; “He holds the record for the longest distance death (3,540 meters)”, indicated a Spanish newspaper.
Wali confirms that he was not the author of the shot that, in June 2017, killed an Islamic State fighter from more than 3.5 kilometers away and set a new world record. It was actually the work of another Canadian. “I’m good with the rifle, but nothing more. The legend and the symbol are different from the person ”, he comments on the phone; he does so with a mixture of laughter, diluted humility and a persistent cough (“we have breathed in a lot of smoke,” he explains, as a result of the bombings).
Beyond the myth that has been built around this 40-year-old Canadian, the son of a Quebecois mother and an Ecuadorian father, his character has a very real origin. Wali — who has asked that his real name not be published — served in the Canadian Armed Forces for 12 years. He served in an artillery regiment in New Brunswick, in the infantry in Quebec, and served two tours in Afghanistan, where he patrolled and trained local troops. But his figure began to attract attention in 2015, a few months after he was discharged from the Army, when he decided to travel to northern Iraq to fight the Islamic State with the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia. “The only language that jihadists understand is that of violence,” he said in an interview those days.
That reputation as a combatant enrolled in other people’s conflicts was forged there. And with that fame he arrived in Ukraine, summoned by an ex-military friend, who told him that they had to do something. Wali says that he was aware of the tensions between kyiv and Moscow, but he did not know the subject in depth. “It’s not all black and white, but what we saw was aggression on a massive scale,” he says. When he returned to Canada from Iraq in October 2015, after four months with the Peshmerga, he started working as a computer scientist. He later met his current partner and they had a son. “My family situation now is different from when I joined the Kurds, but I couldn’t say no,” he says.
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“I feel a commitment to my family, but also to my community and to humanity. I provide support through what I know how to do,” she explains. But he also recognizes the call of the adrenaline that the battlefield gives: “It seems to me that many soldiers are like that. It is a mix of personality and sense of duty.” Integrated into a unit of the Ukrainian army, he says that he fulfills several functions: communications with the artillery, surveillance tasks, identification of enemy points. But so far he has rarely pulled the trigger.
Wali talks again and again about the media war; of information as a tool of war. In addition to having become a figure followed by the media, he himself has been building his relevance through different communication channels. He is an active user of social media and has also filmed a documentary about his experience in Iraq. His battle is fought on two fronts: on one he uses the telescopic sight and on another he publishes messages and opinions.
“I am looking for support with all this. Add combatants, receive more weapons”, she expresses. Wali’s media presence has generated a host of comments in favor of him, but criticism has also arisen. One of them is that it can cause young or inexperienced people to travel to take up arms. “War is very hard. I will never say otherwise”, he maintains, and comments that there is no insurance for foreigners, in addition to the fact that an individual without military experience would be a burden instead of a support. “That said, I have confidence in each person. I speak to adults who can make their own decisions.”
The Normand Brigade —made up of international combatants, mostly Canadians— released a statement on March 19 in which it pointed out that the media attention generated by Wali —and not endorsed by the high command— was becoming “a danger to the mission, for his family and for himself.” By mutual agreement, he had to change partners. The sniper replies: “I didn’t like the atmosphere and I left. It’s not the end of the world. I joined a unit of the Ukrainian army. They criticize my media side, but they didn’t object at first.”
Wali does not yet know how much longer he will remain on Ukrainian soil. He says he doesn’t care what repercussions he may face in Canada. “It’s like fretting about getting muddy after a hurricane hits,” he says. When he came back from Iraq, in fact, he had no legal problems. The Canadian criminal code has gray areas in this regard, although it contemplates in some of its parts that an individual who fights abroad can be tried if he committed war crimes or if he belonged to or supported a group classified as terrorist by Ottawa. He knows that he would be a desired prey for the Russian forces, who have already spread the hoax of his death. But he is not so worried about him, he assures: “It is a possibility, although it seems to me that they have higher priority objectives. I don’t think they put that much energy into me.”