CANADA

The pawns of war

E. KAYE FULTON June 26 1995
CANADA

The pawns of war

E. KAYE FULTON June 26 1995

The pawns of war

CANADA

While an escalating war raged around them, 11 helpless Canadian peacekeepers passed the time last week playing Ping-Pong and poker—trapped in Ilijas, a Serbian-held town no one else dared venture near. By all accounts, the 11 members of the Royal 22nd Regiment (the Van Doos) have been well-treated since Bosnian Serbs took them hostage on May 27. Last week, their captors even returned the C-7 rifles they had seized, as well as eight Canadian armored-personnel carriers and an ambulance. Camped in the town’s police station, the peacekeepers ordered pizza and reestablished daily radio contact with their base camp in Visoko,

20 km east. And by week’s end, they were loaded onto buses— along with a UN military observer—and taken to Serbian heaquarters in Pale. Hours later, the Bosnian Serbs pledged that they would soon release the Canadians.

The 11 soldiers—plus a 12th hostage, Capt Patrick Rechner, the UN monitor held by the Serbs since May 26 in Pale, just outside Sarajevo—were human pawns amid some of the heaviest fighting in the three-year war. North of Sarajevo, the Muslim-led government army amassed an estimated 7,500 to 15,000 troops as preparation for an offensive aimed at break-

Canadian troops face freedom from their Serb captors

ing the Serbian siege on the Bosnian capital. As G-7 summit leaders last week in Halifax issued a “formal warning” to the warring factions, an intense barrage of mortars and rockets—as many as 2,500 of them falling in a single day in the mountainous region a few kilometres from the Canadian base in Visoko and another camp in nearby Kiseljak—effectively shut down UN peacekeeping efforts. Despite the onslaught, Defence Minister David Collenette opted for caution. “It’s not for us to start tilting at windmills, trying to shoot our way out,” Collenette told Maclean’s.

Hie danger facing Canadian hostages was compounded by a series of contradictory actions on the part of the two warring armies. Late in the week, Bosnian government soldiers planted land mines around the Visoko base in a virtual blockade of the 700 Canadian peacekeepers. Hie mines—a clear indication to Canadians that the Muslims did not want their movements known—were dismantled two hours later, after Canadians complained they interfered with troop rotations and medical evacuations. “They told us that it was for our protection. We told them we can take care of our own,” said Maj. Pierre linteau, deputy commander of the Canadian Battle Group 2 in Visoko. Even more con-

fusing was the status of the remaining 114 UN hostages, seized last month after NATO air strikes on Serbian ammunition dumps. Earlier in the week, Serbian leaders in Pale announced that the hostages were free to move within the area. Later, the Serbs reversed themselves, saying the hostages would remain in captivity until the United Nations released four detained Serbs.

The disparities were particularly frustrating to Canadian efforts to rescue the 11 hostages in Hijas. Serb commanders gave Canadian peacekeepers the choice of returning to their operational posts or exchanging the 11 captives for fresh replacements—two offers the Canadians bluntly rebuffed, concerned that the former offer would be too dangerous and that the latter might only prolong the crisis. By week’s end, three options explored by the Canadian base appeared all but hopeless. A reconnaissance team set out Friday to determine if one possible route— I through checkpoints known as Papa “ and Mike at either end of a bridge g near the town—was passable after reï portedly being bombed in a fierce I round of shelling. The team was promptly turned back. Two alterna-

tive routes were abandoned after neither the Serbs nor the Muslims would guarantee a two-hour window in the fighting. “If we can’t have a oneor two-hour window when both sides know we’re going to cross, then it’s too unsafe to try,” said linteau.

In the meantime, reports from Visoko that the hostages have been healthy and “in good spirits” were of little comfort to the peacekeepers’ relatives back home. To preserve the families’ privacy, the Canadian Forces has refused to identify the detained Canadian soldiers. Military officials from the regiment’s base in Valcartier, Que., say they call family members at least once a day to keep them abreast of the latest developments. Family members are also in regular contact with the hostages by radio, but the conversations are often awkward bursts of static and small talk. Capt. Pierre Chabot of CFB Valcartier is responsible for the welfare of soldiers’ families, a role that means he is frequently their only link to Bosnia. Said Chabot: “Until very recently, someone from the base could go and check that the men are doing OK, and bring them food and water and everything they need. But things have been tightened up.”

In fact, the Serbs’ treatment of the hostages drew an unusual compliment from Collenette. ‘The Serbs have been pretty decent in terms of making sure our guys are protected,” he said. He added that he was not excusing the Serbs’ actions. “It’s like saying, ‘I kidnapped a kid off the street. Don’t worry, he’s getting ice cream and pop—but I won’t let him go.’ ”

E. KAYE FULTON

with correspondents’ reports