MAJ.-GEN. LEWIS MACKENZIE TALKS OF HIS UN POSTING AND BEING HELD HOSTAGE IN WARTORN SARAJEVO
DEATH THREATS BY FAX
MAJ.-GEN. LEWIS MACKENZIE TALKS OF HIS UN POSTING AND BEING HELD HOSTAGE IN WARTORN SARAJEVO
Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie has had many bad moments during his 4½ months commanding United Nations peacekeepers in Sarajevo, and one of the worst took place in the early hours of July 21. At 2:30 a.m., 350 Canadian soldiers lodged in a barracks near the beseiged Bosnian capital’s airport came under intense fire for more than an hour.Mortar shells hit the camp’s gate, kitchen and mess hall, and bullets pockmarked the walls. No one was hurt, but the attack was a sharp reminder that even the UN troops’ best efforts have done nothing to stem the fighting—and that they themselves have become just another target of Sarajevo’s duelling militias. With only about two weeks to go before the Canadians are scheduled to leave the city, MacKenzie confessed that he has no illusions that the shooting will soon end. “I stopped believing in fairy stories when I was five,” he said. “The happy ending here isn’t going to come for a long, long time.”
During his time in Sarajevo, the formula car racer has been held hostage, watched Bosnian gunmen murder Serbian soldiers who were with him, and received several death threats by telephone and fax machine. He has also kept a diary for the first time and is considering writing a book about his experiences when he returns to
Canada. By the end of next week, MacKenzie and the 800-member Canadian battalion, which arrived in the city on July 2 to ensure delivery of emergency relief, are expected to relocate to their base in Daruvar, Croatia, 300 km northwest. Replacing them will be soldiers from Egypt, France, and Ukraine, reflecting the religious divide—Moslem, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian—that has tom Bosnia-Herzegovina apart in the fiercest fighting Europe has seen since the Second World War. And MacKenzie, the 52-year-old Nova Scotia native who commands all UN forces in Sarajevo, intends to stay until the end. “When the last Canadian soldier goes out of Sarajevo,” he told Maclean ’s last week, “then I’ll leave.”
When they do, the Canadians will be able to claim much of the credit for bringing relief to 300,000 civilians trapped in a city under bombardment by Serb nationalists almost constantly since April. By week’s end, Sarajevo had received about 3,800 tons of food and medicine
on 330 flights from a dozen countries. But as the relief operation continued, it became increasingly apparent that the peacekeepers’ efforts had won them few friends among the people they were putting their lives on the line to help. Even before their barracks came under fire last week, Bosnian soldiers detained at gunpoint four vehicles carrying Canadian troops for 2lh hours, accusing them of smuggling weapons to the Serbs (a search proved the accusation to be false).
And MacKenzie found himself drawn into a messy squabble with the secessionist republic’s increasingly hostile government over a seemingly innocuous issue: how to transport Bosnia's Olympic athletes to the Summer Games in Barcelona. The Bosnians wanted to fly 27 people out of Sarajevo on a UN relief plane, but only two were athletes and UN officials told them to cut the delegation to 10. The Bosnians refused—and later left on a chartered plane. Relations between his force and the Bosnians, the general acknowledged at one point, were at “an all-time low.”
The peacekeepers’ problems were made even worse by the latest efforts to halt the fighting. On July 19, another ceasefire brokered by Lord Carrington, the European Community’s peace envoy, was scheduled to go into effect. But almost immediately after the deadline, both sides launched some of their heaviest attacks against each other. In Sarajevo, MacKenzie said, “all hell broke loose.” The failed ceasefire was the 39th attempt to stop the shooting—and MacKenzie was clearly frustrated at being caught in the middle. “God protect us from ceasefires,” he said. “It seems whenever we have a ceasefire, the level of fighting goes up.”
Talking to Maclean ’s, the general reflected on what he has described as his most difficult peacekeeping mission after eight previous tours in countries as diverse as Cyprus and Vietnam. Since he arrived in Sarajevo on March 8, he has recorded his experiences almost daily in a brown diary that he keeps on the desk of his second-floor office in the city’s telecommunications building, headquarters of the UN Protection Force. The day that stands out with special clarity, he said, is Sunday, May 10, when Serbian soldiers took Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic hostage. MacKenzie became involved in brokering the president’s release in exchange for the freedom of the Serbian commander in the city, who was being held by Bosnian troops, and some of his men.
The Serbs, accompanied by MacKenzie and UN soldiers, were taken in a convoy to be released. But Bosnian soldiers stopped the convoy, took out several Serbian officers—and shot them to death in front of MacKenzie. He saw at least three officers executed only yards away, “right in front of us.” The Bosnians took 200 other Serbs prisoner, and MacKenzie says that only the UN presence prevented more bloodshed. “If we hadn’t been there,” he recalled, “it would have been a massacre.”
That night, however, MacKenzie’s own life and that of other UN officers were directly threatened. Serbian troops, angry at the executions, stopped the peacekeepers’ vehicles, seized their weapons and held them hostage. They threw MacKenzie and his personal aide, Maj. Steve Gagnon of Montreal, into the back of a Serbian truck, separated from the other UN officers. MacKenzie said that he feared that the others might be killed—but he successfully
negotiated the release of all the UN soldiers. “We wound up in a mine field at 2 a.m., sitting in a tiny little car in the dark with Yugoslav army soldiers clearing mines around us,” he recalled. His verdict on the entire episode: “This is bizarre in the extreme.”
Equally bizarre is a practice that MacKenzie maintains both sides engage in to score propaganda points: firing on their own positions and then blaming it on their enemies. Last week, when he spoke to skeptical Bosnian journalists, MacKenzie cited the practice to illustrate how far all sides in the republic’s dirty war are prepared to go. “I got so frustrated about a month ago,” he told them, “that I said to both leaders: ‘If you’ll stop shelling yourselves, maybe we’ll have peace around here.’ ”
Despite their role in bringing in badly needed aid, the Canadians have received little recognition from the Bosnians for their efforts. Soon after the first small UN force arrived in Sarajevo, local public opinion turned against them. MacKenzie tirelessly explained that his mandate was limited to reopening the airport. But local people, suffering constant shelling, could not understand why the UN troops did not drive Serb gunners from the hills around the city. And on one occasion that became notorious in Sarajevo, a UN armored vehicle transported a Serbian leader, Biljana Playsic, into the city to visit members of her family. UN officials justified the action by pointing out that Playsic was taking part in negotiations and had to complete family
business quickly. But angry Bosnians quickly nicknamed the United Nation’s white vehicles the “terrorist taxi service.”
That kind of hostility was expressed in many ways—including death threats against MacKenzie himself. They come into his office by phone and even fax, which has allowed the general to send messages back inviting the people making the threats to visit him and talk over their complaints. However, MacKenzie said wryly, “nobody ever took up the offer.” The threats have come from both sides. “I was keeping score like a tennis match for a while,” said the general. The score so far? “I’d rather not say, but it’s fairly close.”
MacKenzie has had only one day off since early March. He travelled to Rome in mid-July to lecture at the NATO Defence College. His subject: peacekeeping. Otherwise, one of his
few relaxations has been watching videos of himself engaged in his favorite pastime, racing Formula Ford cars. MacKenzie has been a passionate racing driver since the mid-1970s when he served in Germany. Back in Canada, he won a national championship—and even competed against actor Paul Newman, another greying race-car enthusiast. MacKenzie’s wife, Dora, and daughter, Kimm, were initially “less than thrilled” by his hobby, he acknowledged, but he managed to convert them. One of his top priorities back in Canada, MacKenzie said, will be finding a race to compete in.
MacKenzie is also toying with the idea of turning the experiences recorded in his Sarajevo diary into a book. And when he leaves the city, he said, he hopes that it will not be for the last time. “I moved to this city when it was still a beautiful place,” he reflected. “I’ve watched it, stone by stone, wall by wall, building by building, deteriorate into enclaves of people trying to kill the people next to them.” Still, he said, he hopes to return as a tourist when peace returns. But with the city facing years, perhaps decades, of conflict, MacKenzie said, “I just hope I’m young enough to enjoy it.”
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