CANADA

VISITING THE FRONT

Anthony Wilson-Smith June 20 1994
CANADA

VISITING THE FRONT

Anthony Wilson-Smith June 20 1994

VISITING THEM FRONT

Jean Chrétien faces the reality of war in Bosnia

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

Clad in standard-issue green fatigues, black combat boots and flak jacket, the man known as “Canada One” wore little last week to immediately distinguish him from the 2,000 Canadian troops now on peacekeeping duty with the United Nations in Bosnia and Croatia. That was deliberate: Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s oneday visit to the war-tom former republics of Yugoslavia, though rumored for weeks in advance, was not confirmed officially until the last minute because of security concerns. “You never know,” said Gen. John de Chastelain, the chief of Canada’s defence staff, who accompanied him on the visit, “what kind of nuts are running around, especially in a war zone.” During a trip that included low-level helicopter flights over contested territory and a high-speed drive by jeep down Sarajevo’s infamous Sniper’s Alley, that concern was understandable. “I was not frightened,” Chrétien said later, “but I can tell you, I was always alert.”

CANADA

The visit marked the end of Chrétien’s longest foreign trip since becoming Prime Minister last November—an eight-day swing that included D-Day commemorative ceremonies in England and France. It was also the first visit by a Canadian Prime Minister to the area since troops were first posted there as part of UN peacekeeping efforts in 1992 and was, aides to Chrétien said, the first-ever trip by a Prime Minister to any area considered a war zone. More to the point, it drew attention to one of the most contentious foreign policy decisions facing the Prime Minister: whether to renew Canadian participation in the UN mission when the present six-month commitment expires in December.

Renewal is far from certain. At the end of his visit, Chrétien set two stiff conditions for doing so. One requires a demonstration by warring Serbs and Croats that they have the “will for a peace settlement”—which would be B9 demonstrated by a lasting ceasefire. The other, he said, is for other counHI A tries to agree to maintain the present embargo on arms sales to both sides. If both conditions are not fulHH filled, Chrétien said, “Canada, together with its close allies, will reduce its presence—or leave.”

As if to underline the difficulty of those conditions, the U.S. House of Representatives voted, on the same day as Chrétien’s visit, to push the White House to end support of the present embargo. (President Bill Clinton, who is not bound by the vote, said he is not yet prepared to do so.) Similarly, UN officials re-

I ported that Bosnian Serbs have stepped up their policy of “ethnic cleansing” recently by evicting Gypsies from the northern city of Banja Luka, which they control.

I A Canadian withdrawal would be a stiff blow, both to UN forces in the area—where Canada has the fourth-largest contingent among more than 30 countries—and to the country’s own traditional image of itself as a voice of moderation in an often unstable world. But Chrétien and other government officials insisted the threat is serious. For one, I Canada expects to pay about $130 million in costs directly related to the operation over the next two years. A withdrawal or reduction would decrease that figure accordingly. And, while the total of 2,000 troops appears relatively small, there are other considerations that inflate the final figure. “At any time, you have 2,000 troops serving a six-month posting, another 2,000 who have just come out and not yet back on normal duty and 2,000 more to train to go in,” de Chastelain said in an interview with Maclean’s. As well, senior military officials in Bosnia and Croatia say their troops are already overworked. “With 800 people, we’re doing the work of 2,000,” said Lt.-Col. Raymond Wlasecheki, an officer with the Calgary-based Lord Strathcona Horse in Sarajevo.

In fact, most of the Canadian troops in both republics operate daily under conditions that have the dubious distinction of being both deadly and dull. Most of the public attention on the area has been focused on Bosnia— and, in particular, Sarajevo—where some of the heaviest fighting has taken place. But more than half of Canada’s troops are posted in neighboring Croatia, where there is less at-

tention, but often, no less danger.

Croatia, bordering on the Adriatic Sea, is one of the most strikingly beautiful countries in Europe, blessed with a stunning combination of picturesque seascape, mountains and lush vegetation. It is also a bitterly divided killing field where age-old resentments have long ago overcome any attempts at logic. One of the flash points where Canadian troops form a thin line of protection for local residents is in a part of the republic that is dominated by Serbs. There, in the town of Pristeg, armed Serbs have set up checkpoints to control access to the area. Within that, the Canadians, under an agreement brokered in early April between both sides, patrol a narrow, 30-km-long demilitarized stretch of land. Within that, said Capt. Robert Pettigrew, the commander of C Company of the the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, “we oversee everything from prisoner and body exchanges to weapons seizures to mine clearing to mediating disputes between rural villages.”

By the baffling standards of the region, the Canadian mission has been a success in achieving a limited degree of reconciliation. Until four years ago, Croats and Serbs lived peacefully alongside each other. They socialized and sometimes intermarried, although for the most part, they lived in separate villages. Pristeg, which once had about 500 inhabitants, was one of the few villages where both groups lived. That changed with the outbreak of inter-ethnic fighting in 1990. Most of Pristeg’s Croatian population fled to other parts of the republic, where they are in the majority. Only the very old and the young remained, often afraid to leave their part of the village. “Those monsters,” said an elderly Croat woman, “they would kill us if they had a chance.”

But since the arrival of the Canadians, those sentiments—and dangers—have ebbed. Each Sunday, the Canadians hold a “reconciliation day” in which the two sides meet in a designated area to exchange greetings, letters and news of mutual acquaintances. “You look at these people on those occasions,” says Maj. Dave Burke, a native of Oakville, Ont., “and there seems to be no difference between them. Then, you remember that in the rest of the week, they want to kill each other.”

For Canadian troops in Croatia and Bosnia, their six-month posting invariably offers a wide range of emotions, contrasted against few creature comforts. At their local base, the troops live and sleep three to a unit in collapsible metal eight-by-20-foot sheds. They are allowed to speak to their families in Canada for 20 minutes by telephone each month and receive one 72-hour pass every month, when they usually travel to one of the betterequipped former resort towns in Croatia. The worst deprivation, inevitably, is the homesickness and time spent away from their families. “I ache when I think of my kids,” said Cpl. Timothy Kirk, whose wife, 12-year-old son, and three-year-old daughter are in Calgary. “I tell my son I’m here because there are other kids in trouble right now who need me. I just hope he understands.”

Some troops have more trouble understanding the actions of their own government leaders, who they blame for leaving them under-equipped and underrepresented for the tasks at hand. For the most part, Chrétien won plaudits for his visit. “No Prime Minister ever went to this trouble before,” said Cpl. Steve Beaudet, 23, from the Quebec City-region town of Baie-St-Paul. “It’s great.” But others, like Kirk, were more skeptical. “It’s very nice that he popped in for a day to see the troopies,” Kirk said sarcastically. “But after all, I guess he was in the neighborhood [Europe].”

Overall, Chrétien’s visit was marked by a spirit of polite—and occasionally stiff— demonstrations of goodwill on both sides. The Prime Minister, despite his reputation for public charm, appeared tired and occasionally ill-at-ease—at one point even putting his blue helmet on backwards. Some exchanges with troops were so forced that they bordered on the comical. Once, the Prime Minister, identified as “Canada One,” made radio contact in Sarajevo with nine units posted nearby. “How are things, guys?” he repeatedly asked. Each time, the soldiers, trained to be as concise as possible, responded tersely: “Fine, sir.” Finally, an alternately amused and exasperated Chrétien radioed: “You guys, you’re very quick to get to the point.” A lone voice responded solemnly: ‘Yes sir, over and out.”

The rest of Chrétien’s visit was filled with equally brisk, businesslike encounters. In Sarajevo, he was met by the commander-inchief of UN troops in Bosnia, British Gen. Sir Michael Rose, who said pointedly that “I hope the [Canadian] mandate will be renewed.” At the same time, Chrétien and Bosnia’s president, Haris Silajdzic, emerged after a 50minute meeting to acknowledge their disagreement over the issue of the arms boycott. “I told him I believe any change would just add to the present problem,”

Chrétien said later.

In fact, Chrétien’s advisers acknowledge privately that Canada is unlikely to completely withdraw troops from the region unless that action is accompanied by a pullout by its other principal peacekeeping partners in the region—Great Britain and France.

But a reduction in the present number of Canadian troops would “inevitably have a marked impact on what we are able to accomplish in the area,” said de Chastelain. “Clearly, we could not take on as many duties as we do right now.” As well, within a year, Chrétien and de Chastelain jointly face another difficult decision. Because only a limited number of Canadian regiments have suitable training to serve in the region, troops leaving the area after a six-month tour will eventually have to be rotated back for a second tour within 18 months of leaving if the Canadian presence continues. That would not be a problem after the present tour—but when the next rotation came, said de Chastelain, “we would have to have a lot of people go back in for another time, and we have to worry about how often you can do that.”

That touches on the real dilemma facing Chrétien and the government. Canada, says one adviser, “does not want to be stuck in a more dangerous Cyprus”—a reference to the fact that Canadian troops spent 29 years on a UN mission in a far more benign region. The issue, said de Chastelain, “is that we know we are saving lives in Bosnia and Croatia by being there, but that does not mean we stay there forever.” Even as he, Chrétien and others reflect on that, they can consider another old maxim about the Balkans: it is an easy place to enter, a much harder one to leave. □