THE CANADIANS WITH THE UN PEACEKEEPING FORCE IN CROATIA SHAPE A SERIES OF CEASEFIRES
A WEB OF HATE
THE CANADIANS WITH THE UN PEACEKEEPING FORCE IN CROATIA SHAPE A SERIES OF CEASEFIRES
Artillery shells and sniper fire continued to shower the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo last week, deadly concussions from the shattering of the Yugoslav federation. United Nations negotiators still struggled to convince the warring Serb, Croat and Moslem militias to open the city ’s airport so that humanitarian aid could be flown in. About 220 km northwest in the Croatian town of Daruvar, 800 Canadian Forces peacekeepers, who had been minding the uneasy truce in that country, waited in vain for the fighting in Sarajevo to stop so that they could help reopen the airport. Maclean’s European Bureau Chief Andrew Phillips was with the Canadians in Croatia. His report:
On a road just outside the devastated city of Vukovar, Canadian Forces Cpl. Claude Lapointe was doing his bit for international goodwill. Lapointe, a 30-year-old native of Gravel Hill, N.B., is one of 1,200 Canadians helping to keep the peace in Croatia. And ironically, his goodwill gesture last week was to tear down a house—or at least what was left of the house after a three-month-long battle between Serbian and Croatian forces last fall reduced Vukovar to little more than a pile of rubble. Within minutes, Lapointe deftly cleared away the remains of the structure with his armored engineering vehicle, a cross between an earthmover and a tank. “Now the people can rebuild,” he said. “It’s one way we can help them at least a bit.”
The owner of the house, a grizzled old man named Boro Sinik, thanked Lapointe profusely for his help. But the Canadians are not always received so warmly in the town. On the way to the site, Lapointe had sped past dozens of cars lined up under the hot sun to get gasoline. Because Vukovar is in a part of eastern Croatia that is controlled by Serbian forces, the city is
subject to UN sanctions against Serbia that have dried up local fuel supplies. Drivers waiting as long as three hours for their meagre monthly ration of gasoline gave Lapointe’s white-painted tank, with its UN markings and blue UN flag, sullen looks. “Sometimes they give me the finger,” he said. “The sanctions don’t exactly make us popular.”
After almost three months of monitoring the uneasy truce in Croatia, the Canadians, along with peacekeepers from a dozen other countries, can point to a steady decline in fighting and the movement of hostile troops out of UNdesignated “protection areas.” Towns that were all but deserted when the blue-helmeted UN soldiers arrived in early April are now
humming with activity. But the peacekeepers, stationed in the town of Daruvar, have also watched helplessly as the ethnic conflicts that tore apart Croatia spread to neighboring Bosnia, prompted by that country’s decision last March to secede from the crumbling Yugoslav federation. Fighting raged on last week in Sarajevo, Bosnia’s once-picturesque capital, derailing plans to send 800 Canadian troops to take control of the city’s airport. Instead, the Canadians, most of them from the Royal Canadian 22nd Regiment (the Van Doos), remained impatiently at their base.
The Canadians have also witnessed rising frustration—and some hostility—directed at the UN force, both from Serbs and Croats.
Many Serbs question how the same organization that sent soldiers to protect them could impose trade sanctions against Serbia alone. Some Croatians, too, express increasing anger at the UN presence and in particular at the Canadian troops who, they maintain, favor the Serbs. “There’s no question that the honeymoon is over,” said Lt.-Col. Michel Gauthier, 36, an Ottawa native who is commander of the Fourth Canadian Engineering Regiment, a force of 287 soldiers who provide support for the entire UN peacekeeping operation in Cro-
atia. “Now people are looking for results.” Those results will almost certainly come only with painful slowness. In Croatia, at least, the military conflict has dwindled to the desultory exchange of occasional sniper fire and mortar rounds. But the mutual hatred between Serbs and Croats that so appals the Canadian peacekeepers continues unabated. Serbs regularly turn up at the gate of the engineers’ camp in Daruvar appealing for help after their homes have been seized or destroyed by Croats. In Serb-controlled areas, it is Croatian homes that are dynamited or burned—a clear sign that both sides are intransigent. “There is so much hatred and suspicion,” said Sergei Cherniavsky, a 39-year-old Ukrainian in charge of investigating human rights violations on behalf of the UN in a mainly Croatian area. “There is
no solution in sight.” Chemiavsky’s files include dozens of complaints from Serbs that they have been fired from their jobs or had their property seized by Croatian authorities, complaints similar to those of Croats in Serbcontrolled areas.
Equally depressing for the peacekeepers is the web of rumors and mistrust that surrounds their activities. In all areas, the Canadians are still greeted mainly by waves and smiles as they drive through the lush, green countryside of eastern Croatia. But in those parts of Croatia now controlled by Serbian forces, Canadian soldiers have been refused service in restaurants because the owners resent the UN embargo, which cut trade links between Serbia and the rest of the world on May 30.
And in Croat-controlled areas, the Canadians find themselves the targets of bitter criticism from at least some local people. They accuse Canadian soldiers—without any proof—of smuggling food, beer and weapons across the ceasefire line to Serbian soldiers. Croatian soldiers have even stopped Canadian army vehicles from crossing the line on the grounds that the Canadians are taking goods to the other side. “We are very angry at the Canadians,” said a Croatian commander in the devastated town of Pakrac, who gave his name only as Nikola. “We don’t understand why they are helping our enemies.”
Other local people, including a vocal women’s group with the unlikely name of Fortress of Love, accused the Canadians of funnelling money to the Serbs by renting apartments from them and hiring them to work at their camp in Daruvar. “When the soldiers came to Daruvar, we welcomed them and gave them cookies,” said Vesna Dubravec, a schoolteacher and local leader of the group. “But there won’t be any more cookies. They should be helping the victims, not the aggressors. And it’s the Serbs who are the aggressors.” Added to their litany of complaints are allegations of sexual assault on a local girl by a 28-year-old corporal from the Royal Canadian Regiment.
¡ An army legal expert from the regiment’s base i in Lahr, Germany, is investigating the charges.
The accusations are frustrating for the Canadians, but also a sign of the depth of mistrust among local people that makes any political settlement to the conflict so unlikely. Canadian officers deny the smuggling charges, saying that they arose simply because the engineers regularly take supplies to some of their own men stationed on the Serbian side of the line. And the Canadians say that they do not check the ethnic background of the people they hire or rent from.
At the bottom of the criticism, the Canadians contend, is resentment from many Croats that the United Nations is enforcing a ceasefire that leaves Serbs still occupying some Croatian territory. Now that the Croats feel militarily stronger, some of them want the UN force to leave so that they can push the Serbs out. On June 20, about 200 people staged a demonstration in Daruvar demanding that the United Nations leave the area.
For some Canadian soldiers, the rumors and
allegations are unsettling, especially when the men are thousands of miles from home in uncomfortable camps protecting people who seem determined to destroy their own country. “These guys asked us in to clear up their mess and now they’re whining,” said one corporal after a few beers at a Daruvar hotel. “Hey, I sure don’t mind going home tomorrow.” Maj. Mario Albert, the second in command of the main Canadian battle group, had a more diplomatic response. “It’s frustrating for us to hear these criticisms,” said Albert, 36, of Chicoutimi, Que. “People here watched the UN intervene in the Gulf War, and maybe when they heard the UN was coming to Croatia they thought we were going to push the Serbs out like the UN pushed Iraq out of Kuwait. But they should understand that our role is peacekeeping, not peacemaking.” Added Capt. Eron Main, 25, of Comox, B.C.: “They thought we’d ride in on our white horse and fix everything. But it takes time, lots of time.”
Lots of time—and a cast-iron stomach, as well. Ron MacEachem, a 28-year-old captain from Cold Harbour, N.S., was assigned to liaise with both Croatian and Serbian forces. That involved dozens of meetings with leaders on both sides of the ceasefire lines, and almost every encounter was punctuated with cups of
industrial-strength black coffee and glasses of slivovitz, the potent local plum brandy. “It’s hard to refuse,” said MacEachem. “Even first thing in the day, out comes the bottle.”
At a meeting one morning last week, the ritual was the same, although the liquor was Belgian whisky rather than slivovitz. Col. Jovo Vukobard, a local Serbian commander, held court in his headquarters in a farmhouse in the hills south of Daruvar. Vukobard assured MacEachem that his troops were moving out of the UN area according to the peacekeepers’ schedule. But local Serbs, he cautioned, fear that the lightly armed UN troops will not be able to protect them from Croatian extremists. “Any incident against the people here would be a catastrophe,” he warned, before offering yet another tiny glass of whisky.
Despite the difficulties, MacEachem maintained that the UN force is gradually achieving its aims under difficult circumstances. He negotiated deals to set up five field telephones between Croatian and Serbian forces on opposite sides of the ceasefire line. The idea was to ensure that the hostile forces could communicate and prevent misunderstandings that might lead to clashes. “It’s very difficult just to get the two sides to meet in the middle, to hear each other’s concerns and to see each other as
human,” MacEachem said as his jeep bounced along the back roads of a Serbian-held enclave. “But every time you do it, you create local confidence.” He added: “It’s slow, but I don’t think it’s futile. You can see the improvements in the area day by day.”
Those improvements include a gradual return to normal life in the disputed area. Even in Vukovar, the devastated eastern Croatian city on the Danube River, almost half the original population of 84,000 has returned to live among the blasted houses and apartment buildings systematically destroyed by Serbian guns. Some residents have patched damaged roofs with plastic sheeting and managed to survive amid rubble that resembles the worst scenes of the Second World War. “At first, it was just dead here,” said Pal Mann, 27, a captain with the Canadian Engineering Regiment in Vukovar. “It’s quite a change just to see people doing normal things like going to school or walking a cow along the road.”
Still, some Canadian peacekeepers voice concerns that the UN force might simply end up stabilizing a situation of permanent hostility. If Serbian and Croatian leaders fail to work out a political settlement that can bring lasting peace, they say, the United Nations may become bogged down in what was once Yugoslavia for years, if not decades. MacEachem recalls his father, who was also an army officer, going to Cyprus in 1966 to serve with that Canadian peacekeeping mission. More than a quarter-century later, they are still helping keep the island’s Greek and Turkish populations apart.
That is a long-term worry. But last week, the Canadians in Daruvar had a more immediate concern: wondering when the warring factions in Sarajevo would stop killing one another long enough for the Canadian force to move southeast, take control of the city’s airport and allow humanitarian aid to reach 300,000 trapped civilians. For now, the Canadians effectively have nothing to do, having handed over their patrolling duties to Argentine soldiers on June 12 in preparation for the planned mission to Sarajevo. As shells continued to pound the besieged people of the Bosnian capital last week, prospects for the relief mission seemed to fizzle. “I think we’ve got our operation in this comer under control,” reflected Michel Gauthier, the engineers’ commanding officer. “But as for the rest of this place. ...” And he threw up his hands as if to say: who knows? □
‘HOW MANY OF US WILL DIE?’
For two months, the 300,000 people of Sarajevo have endured the almost daily pounding of Serbian artillery fired from the surrounding hills. Last week, one resident, Sandra Niksic, a 26-year-old television producer of Moslem origin, talked to Maclean’s correspondent John Holland about life in the war-torn city. Her account:
I wake up in the morning thinking, “Thank God I am still alive." Already I can hear bombs falling and the sound of the guns.
Around 8 a.m., my mother leaves on a 10-minute walk to the market where she buys bread, an occasional vegetable and a few eggs. The eggs cost about half a day’s wages. Then, she comes home and we sit together waiting for news about the war.
At midday, the silence comes for one or two hours. The tension is very bad. We know that [the
militiamen] are tired or changing shifts on the artillery guns on the hills. We wonder how many of us will die that afternoon. You get suspicious about the silence. What are they up to? Is my apartment the next target?
In the afternoon, the shelling starts again and we begin thinking about moving into the [community] shelter, except that it is dark down there. There is no electricity and it is dirty.
As dusk comes, the shelling becomes very heavy. Many shells land nearby and rock our apartment. I get angry because I can't go out like I used to with my friends, to the bars or to a disco.
Then, around 9 p.m., we all go to the shelter, except for my mother. She refuses to go. She never comes down. But I go down with my sister and we play cards by candlelight and talk about the wonderful future that we don’t have here now.
The shelling becomes more fierce. I hear the shelter shaking. The people are not scared anymore, just angry. They ask, ‘How can this be happening?’ They are becoming more radical in their thinking, more hateful.
Around midnight, it usually quiets down a bit. I fall asleep hoping that I will wake up alive in the morning and people will come to their senses.
If they stop the war now, I think that the Serbs, Croats and Moslems can live together in peace again. If it goes a few more months, though, I don’t think that will be possible anymore.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.