It happened in a split second.
About 10 days ago, a Russian tank that Shadow and a fellow Canadian – the sniper known as Wali – were quietly stalking in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine flipped over and shot them.
Two Ukrainian soldiers accompanying them had ignored Wali’s advice a moment before when they emerged from 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 22e Régiment who later served as a meteorological technician in the navy — was about to join his Ukrainian friends when the tank opened up, landing a shells on the right between the two Ukrainians.
Shadow was thrown back into the trench, his ears ringing from the explosion. He crawled out, stuck his head out, and was greeted by a scene of utter carnage.
One of the men died instantly. The second Ukrainian soldier was still alive, but barely.
“He was, like, a few feet away from me and still breathing, but no legs,” Shadow told CBC News Thursday during an interview in Lviv, western Ukraine. “And then we made eye contact. I looked at him, he looked at me.”
It took a few moments for the soldier to die.
“So he’s just, like, passed away before my eyes,” he said. “So I was like, okay, so yeah, only two of my friends died in front of my eyes.”
WATCH | The “hell” of the battle in the Donbass region:
The brutal and capricious nature of war – the way ordinary moments can suddenly turn deadly – seems to have taken hold of Shadow since he left the front lines in the besieged Donbass region, where Ukraine is holding the brunt of the Russian army.
Two of the thousands of volunteers who poured into Ukraine after President Voldomyr Zelensky’s appeal for foreign fighters, Shadow and Wali were paired almost from the start.
That day, at the end of April, they had helped drive off a regiment of Russian tanks that had clung to one side of a scorched valley.
“We have to get out of here”
Wali, a fellow Van Doo and sniper with combat experience in Afghanistan, was maneuvering to shoot one of the Russian iron monsters with an American-made Javelin anti-armour missile.
The tank was horribly out of range before it turned and hit them.
Wali, who was interviewed by CBC News in early March, was not ready to give up even after the Ukrainian soldiers were killed. Shadow said that as Wali was looking for the best shooting position, he knew they were outmatched.
WATCH | Shadow describes coming under fire in Irpin:
“And I was like, bro, we have to get the hell out of here…we can’t do anything. We have to get out of here,” he said.
They slipped away with the tank that shot at 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 crazy kaleidoscope of firefights and near misses – nothing like the somewhat tame life he’s lived for a dozen years in a Canadian uniform.
His first time in combat – ever – saw him thrown into the pitched battle for Irpin, a once-pleasant tree-lined community 20 kilometers west of kyiv that proved to be the highlight of the advance. Russian on the capital.
WATCH | A close call in a Donbass trench:
Shadow was tasked with helping Wali by carrying ammo and watching his friend’s back. During a Russian assault, the two men were blown out of their sniper nest by a shell.
“We got hit by a tank,” Shadow said. “He shelled the building and missed us by about three meters. After that we started getting more small arms fire and then we got out of the building and then after that…a huge gunfight.
“I didn’t…it was my first exchange of fire. The Russians, they were about 50 meters from us, bullets were 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 them all enough cover to retreat, jump into a van, and quickly drive 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 northern Kyiv and concentrated their forces in the eastern region of Donbass.
There is a hint of bitterness in Shadow’s voice as he reflects on what he has seen and the toll the war has taken on civilians.
“We are talking about civilians dying every day,” he said. “I was fighting in Irpin, then mass graves were discovered in Bucha, right? …
“If NATO had intervened, the war would have been over in less than a week, but because everyone sat and watched, well, we see all these civilians dying.”
WATCH | Responding to Zelensky’s call for help:
He said he was equally skeptical of the West’s approach in the future. What Ukraine needs, he said, are boots on the pitch.
“That’s what we need,” he said. “Prayers? I’m sorry, but that doesn’t matter. Money? Yes, it helps. Armaments? Yes, it helps, but in the end, the Ukrainians are alone in the fight against Russia.
“We left the Ukrainians to fight alone against Russia, and that’s… I can’t, like, I have no words for that. That’s why I had to come here to help them because I feel like the world has let the Ukrainians down.”
After too many close calls, he said, he will not return to the Eastern Front.
“I’ve done my time there. For now, I’m going to do humanitarian aid. I’m just going to stay here in Lviv and be as helpful as possible.”