WORLD/SPECIAL REPORT

ON THE FIRING LINE

CANADIANS TRY TO KEEP THE PEACE BETWEEN WARRING GROUPS IN THE EXPLOSIVE BALKAN REPUBLICS

May 4 1992
WORLD/SPECIAL REPORT

ON THE FIRING LINE

CANADIANS TRY TO KEEP THE PEACE BETWEEN WARRING GROUPS IN THE EXPLOSIVE BALKAN REPUBLICS

May 4 1992

ON THE FIRING LINE

WORLD/SPECIAL REPORT

CANADIANS TRY TO KEEP THE PEACE BETWEEN WARRING GROUPS IN THE EXPLOSIVE BALKAN REPUBLICS

It is the region where the First World War exploded almost 78 years ago and it has again become an international powder keg. The Balkan republics of Yugoslavia are torn by a spreading civil war that erupted in June and has since claimed an estimated 10,000 lives and threatens to spread beyond the disintegrating federation’s borders. The fighting began after the republics of Slovenia and Croatia declared independence. Serbia, the largest republic and the federation’s fiercest defender, sent its armed forces into Croatia in support of the embattled ethnic Serbian minority. The spiralling violence alarmed the increasingly interventionist United Nations. In early April, following a ceasefire agreement, the United Nations dispatched 14,000 peacekeepers, including 1,200 Canadians, to disarm the com-

batants. Last week, Maclean’s foreign editor Bruce Wallace accompanied the Canadians on patrol along Croatia’s battlefront. His report:

The men of November Company’s Seven Platoon, from Baden, Germany, patrolled through Croatian countryside that was spellbindingly beautiful. The Canadians’ route took them along a single-lane rural road 100 km east of Zagreb, which they call “the Line” because it marks the Croatian army’s forward position of defence against the Serb-led Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA). In the lead armored personnel carrier (APC), platoon commander Lieut. Angus Matheson trained his Browning .50-calibre machine-gun on the forest-capped hills where hidden JNA snipers had a clear view of the road. What had once been a Serbian enclave of small

family farms plowed out of the steep hillside was now a minefield.

The Serbs abandoned their low-lying farmhouses in November to the occupying Croatian soldiers and to the ravages that followed when the JNA, in turn, shelled the buildings. The fighting had gutted every home along the 19km strip. The roadside was littered with carcasses of dead livestock, mostly sheep and pigs, shot or blown up by mines and rotting in the warming spring weather.

Wounded: Exposed daily to sniper fire from the hills, four Croatian soldiers were wounded along the Line last week alone. In conversations with Matheson and his men, the Croats expressed concern because, they claimed, even the hills behind them were “full of Chetniks,” a term describing nationalist Serbian guerrilla groups but which the Croats apply broadly, and spitefully, to all Serbian soldiers. Over the roar of the APC engine, Matheson cast doubt on the Croats’ claim. “I have been here three weeks and I have only seen one Serbian soldier behind Croat lines,” said the 29-yearold officer from Sydney, N.S. “And he had been dead for at least a month.”

Despite the sporadic gunfire and light shelling in the region, there are signs that fatigue on both sides is cementing the uneasy truce. In one gutted farmhouse in the village of Kamensko, 20 Croatian soldiers living in gruesome conditions told Matheson’s soldiers that they had not fired their mortars into the nearby

hills for four months. Secrecy was cast aside as they proudly showed the Canadians some of their weapons, including a Second World Warvintage German machine-gun and four powerful 120-mm mortar shells, which brought wideeyed stares from Matheson’s men.

But in the squalor of their living conditions, the morale of the frontline Croatian soldiers was waning. Their mortar was still positioned in the backyard, surrounded by debris of bricks, garbage, torn clothing and several more animal carcasses. The stench and the obvious potential for disease threatened to worsen their already appalling living conditions. They slept on filthy bedding on the concrete middle floor of a building that had no roof. Their only water came from a single outdoor tap. “If the UN does not help us get our borders back, then we will do it ourselves,” said an unshaven and dishevelled Marko Kovacevic, a Croatian reservist who was formerly a truck driver. He added: “But for now, I am ready to go home.” Hatred: As Matheson led his troops back towards their base in Sirac, 26 km to the north, he expressed a mixture of revulsion and sadness at the Croats’ plight. “At the moment, it is only hatred that keeps them here,” he said. “I’m shocked at the bigotry and absolute intolerance of both sides. As a Canadian, I just can’t understand a policy of no tolerance.” Behind him, as the APC lumbered past a cemetery where several Serbian tombstones had been smashed, a visibly agitated Sgt. Marty Spriggs, 28, from Pembroke, Ont., tapped Matheson on the shoulder, pointed to the graves and yelled: “Can you imagine how badly you would have to hate someone to do that to their grave?”

It takes little prodding to uncover the hostile emotions that fuel the ethnic war. “I have never met people who knew their family history better, who insist on citing you fact after historical fact, and who can tell you exactly every time they got screwed,” said Master Cpl. Rod MacDougall, 29, a member of a mineawareness team that was travelling throughout the UN zone giving advice on mine disposal. Indeed, the peacekeepers will be severely tested to soothe the emotions of people who, because of the war, have had new personal grievances added to their existing historical grudges against one another, and who distrust the motives of the international community. “We need the UN to throw the Serbs out of our country,” said Jure Illich, 42, one of the few passengers travelling last week on a train between Vienna and Zagreb. “If the UN does not help us, then they will become the enemy.” Despite international condemnation of Serbian attacks in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina last week, Illich, an unemployed wholesaler, accused a long list of countries of betraying Croatia. He claimed that Russia continued to arm the Serbs, that the Germans had struck a deal with Serbia to allow Slovenia to gain its independence without going to war and that the international embargo against arms sales in the region was punishing Croatia alone. “Give us 50 planes and we will take the Serbs,” he said. “Only guns can stop them.”

Making it clear that the peacekeepers are

not there to restore old borders took up a lot of Capt. Kenneth Chadder’s time and patience during his first three weeks in Croatia. “We tell both sides that it is up to their governments to resolve the borders,” said Chadder. The 34year-old from Guelph, Ont., is supervising mine clearance for one of four UN sectors—a daunting task in a country where the Croats have admitted to placing one million mines but have maps showing the location of only 10 per cent of them. “We are not going to be anybody’s savior,” said Chadder. “We are just here to disarm the troops and to make the place safe so that people don’t get hurt in the meantime.”

Rubble: Trying to reduce the antipathy of the Serbs and Croats towards the United Nations was a top priority for the Canadians after their arrival.

Soldiers have been instructed to avoid, when possible, carrying their weapons in public. As well, the 4th Canadian Engineer Regiment, based in Lahr, Germany, pitched in with some of their heavy machinery to assist in clearing rubble from a severely damaged hospital in Daruvar, the town that contains their headquarters. “It’s important to get out to show the flag as much as possible,” said Lieut. David Ready, 28, a personable platoon commander from St. Marys, Ont., as he waved to smiling children while patrolling through several small villages north of the ceasefire line. Peacekeeping, Ready said, offered a chance to apply his training in a real situation.

But the mission carried a personal price. The six-month tour in Croatia forced Ready to postpone his Aug. 3 wedding to Judy Hastings,

also 28. “I missed my sister’s wedding and my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary because of the Forces, so my family is getting used to it,” said Ready as he lounged on top of his APC during a break in the patrol. But he shrugged when asked if peacekeeping was worth postponing his marriage. “If they stop killing each other, I guess so,” he said. “But I’m not optimistic about this place after we leave.”

As his vehicle wound along the narrow back roads around Daruvar, Ready got a firsthand

look at the depth of Croatia’s ethnic hatred. While the farms along the front line had suffered damage from artillery fire, the damage to homes north of the front was caused almost exclusively by explosions triggered from inside the buildings. When Serbian families fled Croat-controlled towns, most of their homes were destroyed by fire and dynamite planted by their neighbors. In Croatian towns, the Canadians patrol past tidy homes, with neat lawns and tulips in the gardens, standing beside Serbian houses that have completely collapsed and burned. That was also the case with Cro-

atian houses in Serbian towns—a brutal message from one neighbor to another that peace did not mean that they could go home.

Like last year’s Persian Gulf War, the conflict has left a legacy of tribal hatred and a thirst for vengeance. But the destruction in Kuwait City was largely institutional. The Iraqis left oilfields ablaze and tried to destroy Kuwait City’s hotels and other buildings symbolic of the emirate’s ruling class, including palaces and museums. Yugoslavia’s civil war, too, has claimed an extraordinary share of symbolic targets, notably churches. But the neighbor-against-neighbor violence within small towns, which left baby carriages crushed under fallen bricks and clothing and furniture scattered across backyards, seems intensely personal.

Shot: That impression of Croatia was shared by Glenn McVeen, 24, a corporal from Cobourg, Ont. After midnight, and the last one awake in the tent that was home to 30 soldiers in November Company’s Six Platoon, McVeen sat warming his hands over the only Coleman stove as he described walking into a deserted Serbian home the previous day. It was the sight of a dead pet that disturbed him. “On the bed there was a dog shot through the head,” said an obviously distraught McVeen. “I love dogs, and this little guy was probably sleeping when someone came in. You have to wonder about a place where somebody would shoot a dog for fun.”

The others in Six Platoon had pets on their minds, as well. The platoon’s color is black, and when some soldiers spotted a black pig that day, they wanted to capture it to keep it as a

mascot during their six-month stay. That sparked a debate between those who wanted a pet and others who suggested eating the pig. Only the advice of an officer, who warned that the pig was probably diseased from feasting on the bodies of other dead livestock, convinced the platoon to drop the proposals.

In fact, health concerns are mounting. In Daruvar, medical officers have found minute traces of feces in the local water supply. But the Canadians have made their own living conditions tolerable: the food is varied and superb, and laundry is now getting done, although it has to be shipped 125 km to Zagreb. A lack of toilets is the most pressing problem. “The toilets are in sad shape,” said Quartermaster Claude Laplante of Rosemere, Que., as he drove back to Daruvar from a buying excursion in Zagreb last week. “I am trying to get a system built so the guys can sit down at least, but I had to go to 20 stores to find all the plumbing parts I need. It would take two years to set up the kind of paradise like the Canadians have in Cyprus.”

Obstacles: Generally, conditions are improving and obstacles are being overcome.

Because Yugoslavia was a non-NATO country, the Canadians did not have detailed survey maps of the terrain.

For the first two weeks, they operated using maps made in 1930. Since then, the department of national defence in Ottawa has been able to print newer maps, giving a more accurate picture of the size of cities and of the layout of roads and bridges.

Six Platoon made its own road. They carved a dirt track up the steep incline of a nearby hill and built an observation post, which is now home to 40 men. The platoon called their camp “Hill 141” because, said Lieut. Adam Barsby, the 24-year-old platoon commander from Newmarket, Ont., “that’s what they used to do in Vietnam.” Number 141, he said, “was the last house address we saw before we turned up the hill.” From their vantage point, the platoon can watch the JNA fire artillery and rockets into the nearby town of Pakrac, the site of some of the heaviest ceasefire violations to date. And in the stillness of clear, cold spring nights, the rumble of the Croatian army resupplying its front lines and repositioning troops can be heard and seen through high-tech night-vision equipment.

Now living apart from the rest of November Company, and without electricity, Six Platoon has acquired a spirited comradeship. The sol-

diers playfully insult one another’s provincial backgrounds, but are “all very proud to be Canadians,” said Pte. Robert Gagnon of Sturgeon Falls, Ont. The troops argue about one another’s musical tastes, and ghetto-blasters playing rock music compete with those playing country. But everybody agrees on their favorite tape: a recording of the April 13 mortar attack on November Company by the JNA.

Panic: The mortars struck during the company’s first night in Croatia. One soldier was recording a message to send home to his wife in Baden when the attack occurred. On the tape, which Six Platoon played repeatedly and glee-

fully for a visitor last week, some soldiers can be heard playing cards when the first distant rounds interrupted their game. Within seconds, the nervous laughter turns to panic when a huge explosion crashes about 50 m away. The soldiers are heard scrambling to get into their armored vehicles and, left rolling in the hasty rush for safety, the tape records the last three rounds hitting the camp. “We got caught with our pants down,” said platoon commander Barsby of the attack that left six Canadian soldiers slightly wounded. “But it has pulled us together and made us aware that this is not a game.”

Now, it is mines, not artillery fire, that pose

the greatest danger to the Canadian troops. “We have seen every kind of mine, from old stuff to state-of-the-art,” said Sgt. Michael Foster as he pointed out some of the mines he has pulled from buildings in Camp Polom, near Daruvar. Although he handles the dangerous materials, Foster, from Sudbury, Ont., claims to be more afraid of the poisonous snakes that share the rubbled buildings with the enormous collection of mines and unexploded ammunition. Some finds have been surprising: one box of .45-calibre cartridges bore a manufacturer’s stamp dating from December, 1944, and was made in the United States.

Other soldiers openly worry about the potent mix of guns and alcohol that afflicts the Croatian army. “It is Dodge City,” said Seven Platoon’s Matheson, describing the town of Sirac. The Canadian mess is located across from a local bar, where Croatian soldiers come to unwind and often fire a few rounds into the air. It is a fitting expression of intimidation in a country that sells a cigarette brand called Macho. But the widespread drinking leaves the Canadians nervous. One of the most notorious drinkers is a Croatian army ambulance driver. Said Matheson: “We joke that, if you get shot, you have a better chance of surviving the wound than of surviving the ambulance ride to the hospital.”

Mascot: But the local reaction to the Canadian pres^ ence has been generally posi2 tive. “They don’t consider us to be the enemy,” said Warg rant Officer Steve Gordon, « sitting alongside his troop’s ^ wooden Yosemite Sam mascot outside a tent at Camp ^ Polom. Gordon was also in| volved in de-mining opera| tions in Iraq after the Gulf £ War, an environment that he s found more hostile because “if you spoke English and wore a baseball cap, the Iraqis thought you were American.”

The experience in Croatia has clearly made a deep impression on many Canadian troops. “It is scary to see people who have so much in common killing each other,” said Ready. “Maybe that’s the way of the world.” And engineer MacDougall argued that “there are some real lessons for Canada to learn about intolerance.” Said MacDougall: “We have our problems at home and I know nobody thinks that this kind of thing can happen to us. But it’s a good warning.” Just to the south, BosniaHerzegovina’s descent into the chaos of another dirty war last week showed just how powerful those tribal emotions can be. □