Shadow’s war: A Canadian veteran describes weeks under fire in Ukraine

It happened in a split second.

About 10 days ago, a Russian tank that Shadow and a fellow Canadian — the sniper known as Wali — had been quietly stalking in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine turned and fired on them.

Two Ukrainian soldiers who were with them had ignored Wali’s advice a moment before by stepping outside the cover of their observation post — nothing more than a trench — for a cigarette.

Shadow — the nom de guerre of a former Canadian soldier from Sherbrooke, a member of the Royal 22nd Regiment who later served as a meteorological technician with the navy — had been about to join his Ukrainian friends when the tank opened up, landing a shell right between the two Ukrainians.

Shadow was blown back to the trench, his ears ringing from the explosion. He crawled up, poked his head outside and was greeted by a scene of utter carnage.

Ukrainian rescue workers carry an elderly woman under a destroyed bridge in Irpin, Ukraine, on April 1. Shadow’s first combat experience occurred in the suburb west of Kyiv as Russian forces tried to advance on the capital. (Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press)

One of the men had died instantly. The second Ukrainian soldier was still alive, but barely.

“He was, like, just a couple of feet from me and still breathing, but no legs,” Shadow told CBC News Thursday in an interview in Lviv in western Ukraine. “And then we made eye contact. I looked at him; he looked at me.”

It took a couple of moments for the soldier to die.

“So, he just, like, passed away in front of my eyes,” he said. “So I was like, alright, so yeah, just two of my friends died in front of my eyes.”

WATCH | The ‘hell’ of battle in Donbas region:

Donbas is ‘hell,’ says Canadian fighting in Ukraine

A former Canadian soldier who joined the fight in Ukraine has one word to describe the Donbas region: hell. 0:44

The brutal, capricious nature of war — the way ordinary moments can suddenly turn lethal — seems to have settled on Shadow in the days since he left the front in the embattled Donbas region, where Ukraine is holding back the weight of the Russian army.

Two among the thousands of volunteers who flocked to Ukraine after President Voldomyr Zelensky’s appeal for foreign fighters, Shadow and Wali were paired up almost from the start.

On that day in late April, they had been helping to hunt a Russian tank regiment that had clawed itself into one side of a scorched valley.

‘We need to get out of here’

Wali, a fellow Van Doo and sniper with combat experience in Afghanistan, was maneuvering around to get a clean shot at one of the Russian iron monsters with an American-made Javelin anti-armor missile.

The tank had been tantalizingly out of reach before it turned on them and struck.

Wali, who was interviewed by CBC News in early March, wasn’t prepared to give up even after the Ukrainian soldiers were killed. Shadow said that as Wali was looking for the best firing position, he knew they were outmatched.

WATCH | Shadow describes coming under fire in Irpin:

‘Bullets flying everywhere’ in Irpin firefight

‘Shadow,’ a former Canadian soldier, describes his first Russian firefight in Irpin, Ukraine. 2:24

“And I was like, bro, we need to get the hell out of here… there’s nothing we can do. We need to get out of here,” he said.

They slipped away with the tank firing after them.

“So yeah, that was my last patrol on the eastern front,” he said. “I have one word to describe [it]and it’s just hell.”

The last two months for Shadow have been a mad kaleidoscope of firefights and near-misses — nothing like the somewhat tame life he experienced over a dozen years in a Canadian uniform.

His first time in combat — ever — saw him thrown into the pitched battle for Irpin, an eleven-pleasant tree-lined community 20 kilometers west of Kyiv that proved to be the high-water mark for the Russian advance on the capital.

WATCH | A close call in a Donbas trench:

A Canadian’s close call in a Donbas trench

A former Canadian soldier now fighting in Ukraine survived a Russian tank attack in the Donbas, but his friends didn’t. 3:37

Shadow was tasked with assisting Wali by carrying ammunition and watching his friend’s back. During one Russian assault, the two men were blown out of their sniper’s nest by a shell.

“We got hit by a tank,” Shadow said. “He shelled the building and missed us by, like, three meters. After that, we started to get more small arms fire, and then we got out of the building, and then after that… a huge firefight.

“I haven’t … that was my first firefight. The Russians, they were like 50 meters from us, bullets flying everywhere, everywhere. We couldn’t do anything, and they actually tried to surround us.”

One of the other soldiers with them responded with a rocket-propelled grenade, giving all of them enough cover to withdraw, leap into a van and speed away before being overrun.

Bodies in the streets

In late March and early April, Shadow and Wali participated in the liberation of Irpin as Russian forces withdrew from north of Kyiv and concentrated their forces in the eastern Donbas region.

There’s a hint of bitterness in Shadow’s voice as he reflects on what he saw and the toll the war has had on civilians.

“We are talking about civilians dying every day,” he said. “I was fighting in Irpin, and then mass graves were found in Bucha, right? …

“If NATO had stepped in, the war would have been done in like less than a week, but because everyone sat back and watched, well, we are seeing all those civilians dying.”

WATCH | Answering Zelensky’s appeal for help:

‘I couldn’t stay home,’ says Canadian soldier in Ukraine

When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked for help, ‘Shadow,’ a former Canadian soldier, boarded a plane. 2:13

He said he’s equally skeptical of the West’s approach going forward. What Ukraine needs, he said, are boots on the ground.

“That’s what we need,” he said. “Prayers? I’m sorry, but it doesn’t do anything. Money? Yes, it helps. Armaments? Yes, it helps, but at the end of the day, the Ukrainians are left alone to fight against Russia.

“We let the Ukrainians fight alone against Russia, and it’s … I cannot, like, I don’t have any words for this. That’s why I had to come here to help them because I feel that the world has let down the Ukrainians. “

After too many close calls, he said, he won’t be returning to the eastern front.

“I did my time there. For now, I will do humanitarian aid. I’ll just stay here in Lviv and be as useful as I can be.”

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