WORLD

Running on empty

‘We were smack dab in the middle of a major offensive and they wanted us out’

E. KAYE FULTON July 31 1995
WORLD

Running on empty

‘We were smack dab in the middle of a major offensive and they wanted us out’

E. KAYE FULTON July 31 1995

Running on empty

In a wry moment of levity, Canadian peacekeepers struggling to hang in with dwindling supplies of water and food nicknamed their post “The Charlie Victor 4 Fitness and Diet Centre.” From their mountain perch, the 13 soldiers, confined for more than three weeks to a small UN observation post in central Bosnia, tracked two very different aspects of war in the river valleys below. With high-powered binoculars, they followed the activities of their Canadian colleagues, restricted by the Bosnians to their headquarters at Visoko, 2.5 km to the north; on the western slopes, there were battles between the Muslim-dominated government army and Bosnian Serb forces. In the steaming heat, they could do little but watch. Finally, on July 16, ill and malnourished, they abandoned their post. “Noon on July 15 was the drop-dead date,” Capt. Mark Perego told Maclean’s after returning to the Canadian base. ‘We had no food or water after that. We held on as long as we could.”

From that vantage point, the ultimatums from the 16 NATO nations meeting in London last week held little promise of relief. Despite Foreign Affairs Minister André Ouellet’s claim that the United Nations was “drawing the line,” the 844-member Canadian contingent in Bosnia was spinning its wheels. Hoping for a breakthrough, a platoon of 46 Canadian peacekeepers prepared to join British and Spanish forces in the task of transporting 7,000 refugees from the besieged Bosnian enclave of Zepa to camps in Kladanj and Zenica, respectively 50 km northeast and northwest of Visoko. The Bosnian government thwarted those plans by refusing to permit Canadians to help its own people. Said Capt. Jacques Poitras, a military spokesman: “It is frustrating not to be able to

help people when we know they need help.” The Bosnian war remains both a political and a tactical cauldron of exasperating proportions. Foreign Affairs officials admitted that neither Ouellet nor Defence Minister David Collenette had defined a bottom line for Canada’s policy before they left for London. And Canadian officials were hard-pressed to elaborate on the policy that emerged after the meeting, during which Canada supported air strikes “if necessary” but, as Collenette put it,

‘We were smack dab in the middle of a major offensive and they wanted us out’

not “for the sake of it.” On the peacekeeping front line, there was confusion of another sort. “Every situation and every 10 km is different in Bosnia,” said Perego, a 35-year-old soldier from Gagetown, N.B. “Attitudes, beliefs or approaches, they are all different.”

Two of the few constants are the insufferable conditions—and the Canadian peacekeeping contingent’s dogged determination to adapt to them. During the 23-day standoff at the observation post, one of four such stations in the hills around the Canadian headquarters, the small unit repeatedly ignored the Bosnian army’s attempts to close them down. “The post was located on a very significant hill, close to a small Muslim community,” said Perego. “All around us was the Bosnian army and fairly large amounts of equipment. We were smack dab in the middle of their major offensive and they wanted us out.”

The relief unit arrived at the post on June 23, the day the Bosnian army imposed a blockade that cut off any chance of resupply. Within a week, the soldiers halved their daily water ration of four litres per man. The only food left during the last 10 days were French rations—the least popular among UN peace keepers. Breakfast was a tin of 30 g of processed cheese; lunch, a small piece of sausage with sauce and 150 g of beans; supper consisted of three pieces of chicken the size of quarters, with sauce and 150 g of rice. “And noodles,” said Perego. ‘We had 1,001 recipes for noodles. Noodles with salt, noodles with pepper, buried under noodles with salt and pepper. I will never eat cheese or noodles again.”

The jokes about peacekeeping emergency cuisine, however, were soon replaced by more serious concerns. Average daytime temperatures hovered around 40° C. The soldiers, wearing full army gear, including flak jackets and helmets, rapidly lost weight—as much as 16 lb. each. On July 12, a Canadian Forces physician from Visoko was allowed to visit the post—but only for five minutes. “It was a tactic to see whether they could try to break us,” said Perego. Suffering from dehydration, skin infections and diarrhea, two of the 13 Canadians were told they could leave with the doctor. The final decision to abandon the post was both a blessing and a crushing disappointment. We did not want to give in,” said Perego. “But we were no longer prepared to risk our lives.”

Although politicians back home might disagree, Perego argues that the experience was Canadian peacekeeping in its truest sense. “We’re engaged in something completely different than what we are used to doing,” the peacekeeper said. “It’s extremely frustrating, yet rewarding, too.” What was difficult to imagine last week was that there would ever be any peace to keep in the former Yugoslavia.

E. KAYE FULTON