COVER

COURAGE UNDER FIRE

CANADIAN PEACEKEEPERS OPEN A TENUOUS LIFELINE TO SARAJEVO

ANDREW PHILLIPS July 13 1992
COVER

COURAGE UNDER FIRE

CANADIAN PEACEKEEPERS OPEN A TENUOUS LIFELINE TO SARAJEVO

ANDREW PHILLIPS July 13 1992

COURAGE UNDER FIRE

COVER

CANADIAN PEACEKEEPERS OPEN A TENUOUS LIFELINE TO SARAJEVO

In the haze-shrouded hills surrounding Sarajevo airport last week, heavy machine-guns sounded out their death rattle. On one slope 2V2 km away, the muzzle flashes of a gun could be seen in the bright sunlight as it fired repeatedly from the lush green foliage. Down below, Canadian soldiers, who had just arrived at the airport as the largest contingent of United Nations peacekeepers to relieve the city, evaluated the threats around them with practiced eyes. The regular sound of gunfire made the potential dangers clear, but the soldiers appeared relaxed and calm under the hot sun. One young corporal casually shaved using a mirror hung on the back of his armored personnel carrier (APC), and then slung his wet towel over the casing of a spent Yugoslav tank shell, one of dozens littering the tarmac. His commander, Lt.-Col. Michel Jones, a native of Montreal, puffed a cigarette and gazed out at the hills. “As long as they’re not shooting at us,” he said, “I’m happy.”

The Canadians, a regiment of 800 troops, drove to the Bosnian capital in two convoys of 300 vehicles from their base in Daruvar, in neighboring Croatia. Their presence gave the United Nations badly needed muscle to add to its moral authority. Until they and 160 French troops arrived last week, the United Nations had just 34 soldiers in a city that civil war had turned into a deadly camp of rival militias. With the blue UN flag raised over Sarajevo’s battered airport, camouflage-painted Hercules transport planes from half a dozen nations finally began to fly in with badly needed food and medical supplies for 300,000 civilians trapped by three months of fighting.

The planes are vulnerable to attack from all sides, and the threat to the city’s new lifeline is evident. Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, the Canadian with overall command of the UN forces in Sarajevo, acknowledged the hazards as he welcomed a Norwegian plane arriving with 15 tons of syringes, antibiotics and medicines last Thursday. “There are no guarantees,” he said. “The people who fly in here have to have some nerve. But the UN can’t just get involved where it’s peaceful and comfortable and you take Saturday and Sunday off.” As if to illustrate his point, the next day a ricochet from a sniper’s bullet wounded Capt. Michael Rouleau of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. MacKenzie said that Rouleau suffered a slight graze on the face, but resumed duty shortly after the incident.

For MacKenzie, the opening of the airport and the arrival of the Canadians was both a relief and a personal triumph. Since he arrived in Sarajevo in March, the 52-year-old career soldier had been tied down by the crossfire of a war

that spiralled downward into increasing violence and bitterness as Serbian forces fought to seize control of territory from the republic’s mainly Muslim and Croatian population. With a tiny staff, almost no firepower and a limited UN mandate, MacKenzie found his hopes of bringing relief to the city repeatedly dashed. At one point in late June, he said that he had eliminated the word “optimism” from his vocabulary.

But the dramatic six-hour visit to Sarajevo by French President François Mitterrand on June 28 helped to focus world attention on the suffering in the city and put political pressure on both warring sides. Mitterrand flew in on a French helicopter, mingled with local people in central Sarajevo and visited the site of a murderous May 27 mortar attack by Serb militiamen on a group of people lining up to buy bread. Mitterrand described his visit as a humanitarian gesture to a city that had become a worldwide symbol of suffering, and he promised to send aid even if it had to be protected by force. The visit was a security nightmare for MacKenzie, who acknowledged in an interview last week that he was only able to relax when Mitterrand left safely. “I was delighted when I saw the helicopter become a small black speck on the horizon,” he said.

Flag: But Mitterrand’s visit also marked a turning point in the Sarajevo standoff. The next day, Serbian forces finally left the airport and UN forces raised their flag. Then, MacKenzie ordered his troops to leave their base in Daruvar, where they had been standing by impatiently for 17 days, and start for Sarajevo.

The troops began the 2V2day, 300-km trip in the 4 a.m. darkness of June 30. For Jones, the lieutenant-colonel who commands the regiment, it was a challenging trip. A Serbian militia commander known as “the Warlord” refused to let the Canadians pass through his territory in central Bosnia and threatened to open fire if they tried. Jones said that the man was clearly too drunk to conduct negotiations. “He stood in front of us with two bodyguards who pointed their Kalashnikovs [assault rifles] at us,” said Jones. The Serb’s forces also included two tanks, and a confrontation would almost cer| tainly have resulted in deaths. 1 As a result, Jones retreated about 20 km and he and his convoy settled in for the night.

The next morning, July 1, the Canadians met the Warlord again. And again he refused to let them pass, but Jones used what he later called “diplomacy and force.” He recalled: “I said, ‘At 2 p.m., I’m moving. And if you shoot, we’ll return fire.’ ” Jones deployed his troops in a combat stance, putting out snipers and bringing up his TOW armor-piercing missiles, antitank weapons and APCs with 50-calibre ma-

chine-guns. During a final meeting, the Warlord told Jones that the Canadians would have to retreat far back up the road. “I said, ‘No way,’ folded my map and said, ‘I’m leaving,’ ” Jones recalled.

“Then he said, ‘No, sit down, we’ll work it out.’ ” Within half an hour, the convoy was on its way—but it had lost almost a full day.

When they finally arrived in Sarajevo on July 2, dirty and unshaven after spending two nights sleeping in their vehicles, the Canadians found the city in ruins. Smashed and burned-out cars littered the streets; abandoned streetcars blocked roads, their broken overhead cables dangling menacingly; many buildings were burned out. Drivers raced through the city at high speeds, trying to minimize the risks from snipers who were targeting exposed cars.

City residents, after three months of fighting, had found ways of carrying on their lives while adapting to the dangers. They strolled casually in protected areas but darted nervously across open spaces exposed to sniper fire or stray bullets. And at the checkpoints that mark the boundaries between Muslim or Croatian areas and mainly Serbian neighborhoods, young men in a bewildering variety of uniforms cradled automatic weapons and struck macho poses as they interrogated nervous drivers.

Danger: Even amid the terrors of a war without a front line, the people were finding ways to survive. One afternoon last week in the heart of the city’s once-picturesque old quarter, under red-tiled roofs and minarets, they lined up to buy ice-cream bars, T-shirts and cigarette lighters. Children still played outdoors—although they sometimes adapted their games to the degree of danger surrounding them. MacKenzie recalled seeing children playing soccer in a vacant lot until the shooting in their area became too intense. “They just picked up the ball and played basketball against the wall where it’s safer,” MacKenzie said. “When firing died down they went back to playing soccer. People are amazingly flexible.”

For many local people, the arrival of the Canadian and French troops was a welcome sign of international concern. On the peacekeepers’ journey south from Daruvar, people cheered the Canadian convoy. Some cried and others offered coffee and slivovitz, the fiery local plum brandy. In one small city, recalled Gilles Trembley of the Royal Canadian 22nd Regiment, the fabled Van Doo, “It seemed like the whole town was on the streets cheering and waving.” The warm reception, said the 23year-old Ottawa native, was a welcome change from the boredom of waiting for more than two weeks at their base in Croatia for orders to move. “In Daruvar, the people were getting tired of seeing UN troops,” he said. Recalled Sgt. Christopher Johnson, 32, from New Glasgow, N.S.: “In a few towns we stopped and we were just mobbed. The streets were all lined with people, some of them were throwing flowers. It gives you a real good feeling.”

Johnson said that the dangers of Sarajevo did not particularly trouble him or his comrades in Six Platoon, November Company of the Royal Canadian Regiment. As he sat beside his APC in a parking lot in the centre of the city, watching Serbian tanks on a distant hill firing at an unseen target, Johnson recalled a nighttime mortar and artillery attack on his platoon on April 13, shortly after they moved into their positions in the Croatian town of Sirac. “So far, this is nothing compared to Sirac,” he said.

But some Sarajevo residents remain deeply pessimistic about the future. On Vase Miskina street in the city’s old town district, flowers cover the spot where Serbian mortar shells killed 22 people lining up to buy bread in May.

Posters on the walls nearby commemorate the incident with a blood-red poppy symbol and proclaim that the thoroughfare should be known from now on as “the street of defiance.” Several passers-by last week voiced skepticism that opening the airport to relief flights would do anything to improve their lives as long as fighting continued. Said Osman Music, a 46-year-old engineer: “It’s not good enough just to give us food and let us still be killed by these murderers in the hills.” Asked if he wanted a more powerful UN force to intervene directly to stop the fighting, Music said quietly: “Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you?”

His companion, 35-year-old Slaki Faruk, another engineer, was equally angry at the outside world’s powerlessness in the face of

the fighting that destroyed his home in a Muslim neighborhood. “Everything I had has been burned and destroyed,” he said. Tugging at the sleeve of his green cardigan, Faruk added: *‘Even this is from someone else, given to me. Now, I am like a charity case. I don’t even have any pictures from my childhood. Even that has been stolen from me by those terrorists.” And he stabbed his finger towards the outskirts of the city where Serbian gunners are dug in.

MacKenzie told Maclean’s that he is fully

aware that many Bosnians are disappointed in what the United Nations has done so far. Many do not understand that his peacekeeping force has only a limited mandate: to secure the airport and ensure the safe delivery of relief supplies to the city. That may do little to stop the sniping and shelling that still claim lives every day in Sarajevo. Canada’s chief of defence staff, Gen. John de Chastelain, told Maclean ’s that MacKenzie was not equipped to operate beyond the peacekeepers’ constraints: “If the aim of the operation was to get both sides in BosniaHerzegovina to stop fighting, and use force to do it, it could take thousands of troops and large numbers of heavy weapons and aircraft.” He added: “But UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has talked about going beyond the humanitarian assistance. He is talking about limited action to ensure that no one interferes with the humanitarian relief effort, but he is not talking about stopping the fighting.”

Last week, some people in the Sarajevo suburb of Dobrinja, a Muslim area near the airport that has been hit hardest by the fight-

ing, published a letter in a newspaper in Zagreb, the Croatian capital. Said MacKenzie: “They got 1,800 signatures of people who want to try me as a war criminal because they are dying in shelling and fighting, and who else are they going to turn to, to stop that, if not the UN?” He added: “We are a victim, if you want to call it that, of the limitations of our mandate— something every UN force is used to. It lacks a bit of impact if you respond that you don’t have the legal authority to get involved.”

In another incident last week, MacKenzie

said, a Serbian man whose brother had just died in an ambulance tried to attack the general, but other Serbs restrained him. “He looks at me and he thinks I’m to blame, because who else is he going to blame?” said MacKenzie. “He comes charging at me to seek revenge. And you understand him. These are not exactly good moments.”

Dilemma: The strictly limited UN mandate presents a dilemma for the peacekeepers. “Nobody had time to educate the two sides on what peacekeeping means,” said MacKenzie, Canada’s most experienced officer in such missions. “There is an anomaly here because there is no peace. Normally, we go in when there is an established peace and a demilitarized zone to park in and observe. Here, there’s no ceasefire and no ceasefire line.”

On Friday morning, Canadian troops positioned their APCs at strategic points along Sarajevo’s main street to make sure that supplies travelled safely from the airport to the city’s main distribution centre. By week’s end, cargo planes carrying more than 150 tons of

food, medicines and other emergency aid arrived from France, Britain, the United States, Italy, Norway and other countries. At one point during the day, three planes landed within 15 minutes, transforming the airport into a hive of activity for the first time since the war broke out in March. Indeed, UN officials even voiced concern that relief organizations might jam the airport with supplies that could not be distributed quickly enough to the beleaguered city.

For the Canadian peacekeepers in Sarajevo,

the work may soon be over. Last week, Boutros-Ghali announced that they would soon be replaced by 1,500 troops from France, Egypt and Ukraine. The Canadians, he said, will return to peacekeeping duties in Croatia. “Our guys have performed magnificently,” MacKenzie told Maclean ’s. “I’ve never been prouder of Canadian soldiers.” His admiration was widely shared. Said President George Bush: “I think the Canadians who have stepped forward deserve a great vote of thanks from the entire world for what they’re doing.”

MacKenzie says that peacekeeping missions are likely to increase in the future. Declared the general: “Peacekeeping is a growth industry. It is not going to go away as long as countries, and organizations within the countries, pursue their own agendas.” The veteran Canadian soldier was calling on all his peacekeeping experience last week as elements of the old Yugoslavia furiously pursued their agendas all around him.

ANDREW PHILLIPS