Sarajevo Diary

Lewis MacKenzie looks back on days of terror and controversy

September 6 1993

Sarajevo Diary

Lewis MacKenzie looks back on days of terror and controversy

September 6 1993

Sarajevo Diary

Lewis MacKenzie looks back on days of terror and controversy


Lewis MacKenzie was right when he warned his superiors that, in naming him to command the UN mission to Sarajevo in June, 1992, they were sending a soldier, not a diplomat. Over the next six weeks, the Canadian Forces general angered his bosses— and others who saw the Bosnian war as a clear case of Serbian aggression—with blunt public statements apportioning some blame for the fighting to Muslims and Croats as well as Serbs, and warnings against the folly of outside military intervention.

Now retired from the military, the 53-year-old MacKenzie continues to speak out on the Balkan war—for fees that earn him a six-figure income. His controversial views, along with the fact that he accepted $15,000 from a U.S.-based Serbian public-relations group to speak in Washington last June, have led critics to brand him a “Serbian agent.” Last week, MacKenzie turned the money from that engagement over to the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research.

But he continues to speak candidly about what he sees as an intractable military situation that can only be resolved by political negotiation. On Sept. 18, Douglas &

McIntyre releases his memoirs of his military career, Peacekeeper: The Road to Sarajevo. The following excerpts are taken from the chapters on Sarajevo, a city that he says has become a “sore on the conscience of the world.”

As war and chaos flared across Bosnia in June, 1992, Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie took command of United Nations troops responsible for enforcing an airport agreement that would allow humanitarian aid to be flown into Sarajevo. The mission marked the return to Bosnia of the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR), which had withdrawn to Belgrade, Serbia, in May as the war intensified. With a small advance group, MacKenzie drove westward from Belgrade, through checkpoints where menacing Bosnian Serbs threatened to kill him, to reach Sarajevo’s airport, where fighting between Serbs and Muslims still raged. “For the first time since I’d arrived in Yugoslavia back in March, I was really scared,” MacKenzie wrote in his diary that first night as tracer fire and mortars went off around him. “I wondered if I was losing my nerve. ”

After painstaking negotiations, UN soldiers were allowed to travel across front lines to establish their headquarters in the “PTT,” a Jivestorey government building near the airport. But there was no ceasefire to monitor. The warring soldiers were furious with their political leaders’ decision to hand the United Nations control of a strategic site that they had fought—and many had died—over. The UN troops were unwelcome, and the Canadian general got an immediate taste of the United Nations’ unpopularity in Bosnia—a dislike that quickly became directed against MacKenzie himself

JUNE 11 During the drive downtown, I saw that about 20 per cent more of the buildings on the main route had been seriously damaged during my three-week absence. The area around the presidency was a mess; trees and parts of buildings had been blown into the street. Across from the Holiday Inn, the Congress had been destroyed. The roof of the arena where Katarina Witt had won her gold medal for figure skating in 1984 had completely collapsed.

At approximately 2000h, the phone rang in my office-cum-bedroom. The voice at the other end of the phone had a very strong accent which made the individual very hard to understand; however, I could hear him being coached in the background by a female speaking perfect English.

“General MacKenzie, I command 2,000 soldiers. Many of my people have died capturing the airport. If you go near the airport, we will kill all your people.” This was not exactly the “welcome wagon” but I decided that I might as well talk to him.

“I’m not here to take the airport away from you. Your leaders, Dr. [Radovan] Karadzic and General [Ratko] Mladic, have signed a contract with the UN to hand over the airport to us so we can bring in humanitarian aid. This is not my idea, it’s yours,” I said. I could hear the female translating my remarks. “Karadic and Mladic are fools,”

the voice responded. “I command the airport area and you must stay away.”

Obviously, I wasn’t getting anywhere so I changed my tack. “Look, why don’t we get together and talk about this face-to-face. I’m prepared to come and see you or you can be brought to the PTT.” “No. No meeting, and you stay away from the airport or you die.” And with that, he hung up.

Welcome to Sarajevo, I thought, and went to bed in the “room” constructed with blankets suspended from wires strung between the walls adjacent to my desk.

MacKenzie quickly discovered that tried-and-true peacekeeping methods didn’t always work in Bosnia. Worried about the need to hold off a hostile force should the United Nations need to evacuate Sarajevo, he ordered the Canadian battalion to sneak anti-tank missiles—-forbidden under the agreement—into their air port compound. And Mac1 Kenzie discovered that the 9 international media, with its 51 ability to arouse world opinion by spotlighting atrocities, was his most potent weapon in trying to coerce the different sides into obeying ceasefires. But on occasion, using the media backfired when angry guns turned on MacKenzie’s own troops.

JUNE 20 The situation around the airport deteriorated during the day. Our people tried to raise a UN flag over the terminal building at 0928h and were fired at by snipers from across the road in [the suburb of] Dobrinja. Over 50 rounds were fired from tanks and mortars joined in from both sides. I was fed up and proceeded to make one of the dumbest decisions of my career.

I sent a letter to [Bosnia’s Muslim President Alija] Izetbegovic and Dr. Karadzic advising them that “I intend to withdraw my personnel from the airport as soon as possible. I am terminating all preparation and efforts to open the Sarajevo airport for the delivery of humanitarian aid until there is at least 48 hours of continuous ceasefire. Every time there is a breach of the ceasefire, the 48-hour clock will be reset to zero. I cannot impose the ceasefire. That is your responsibility. I suggest you both stop fighting now. When you do, I will start the 48hour clock.” A press conference was called and I advised the media of my communication with the two leaders.

Five minutes later, I received the report that Maj. Peter Devlin’s jeep had been hit with shrapnel. Maj. Devlin commanded N Company of the Royal Canadian Regiment, which was one of the two large rifle companies in the Van Doo battle group. His driver, Cpl. Jim Gordon, had been seriously injured in his left knee but had managed to drive their jeep out of the impact area in spite of the fact that all their tires, including the rear-mounted spare, had been cut to shreds by the flying metal. Maj. Devlin and the third passenger in the vehicle, Lt. Patrick Dray, had also been hit but fortunately their wounds were superficial. We didn’t realize how lucky they were until we saw their jeep, which definitely had seen better days. Cpl. Gordon was evacuated to our Canadian base in Lahr, Germany, the next day.

The shelling died down around 2200h, coincidental with a call from Barbara McDougall, Canada’s secretary of state for external affairs. She was on her car phone and wanted to wish us all well as we sought to open the airport. I thanked her for the call and made a mental note that she was the first politician to have made the effort. It was the first time that I realized that we hadn’t heard from the Minister of National Defence Marcel Masse.

Western European politicians were feeling the heat of public opinion for their failure to stop the war in Bosnia. To counteract that criticism, French President François Mitterrand decided to fly to Sarajevo to meet local politicians—on just one day’s notice. It was, as MacKenzie wrote at the time, “the most outstanding act of political one-upmanship by a European statesman since the Second World War [and] had the makings of a fun event. ”

JUNE 28 My immediate impression of the president was that he reflected his well-known nickname, The Sphinx. In spite of the considerable confusion swirling around him, including the inevitable Bos-nian VIP welcome consisting of mortar and sniper fire, which had started “on schedule” from both sides of the runway, you would have thought the president was on a leisurely stroll through the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.

Mitterrand asked to visit the toilet. I detected an immediate look of concern bordering on panic on the faces of my staff. I found out later that the water and electricity had been off for most of the morning and no one knew what condition the toilet was in. The president disappeared into our crude WC and closed the door concurrent with us all taking a deep breath. About two minutes later, we all exhaled with a collective sigh of relief when we heard the delightful sound of a strong and complete flush. The president emerged rubbing his damp hands together to dry them. Obviously, our single cold-water tap had also cooperated for the first time in days.

Who says prayer doesn’t work on plumbing?

French Health Minister Bernard Kouchner told Mitterrand that he should see President Izetbegovic as soon as possible.

After all, Izetbegovic was the legal president of the country and protocol dictated that he be first on the list of people to be visited. Mitterrand indicated that the one visit would suffice and therefore they should be able to depart in a few hours.

I was shocked. I never considered that the president of France would visit Sarajevo and only talk with one side in the conflict. I could just imagine the Serb reaction and they would take it out on the only permanent international mediator present in Sarajevo—me.

It was now or never. “Mr. President, with all due respect, I would appreciate you also seeing the Serbian leader in Bosnia, Dr. Karadzic. It’s important for me to be seen as an impartial negotiator by both sides. If you only see President Izetbegovic it will make it virtually impossible for me to deal with the Serbs after you leave. They are about to hand over the airport to us and I would hate to see anything jeopardize that.”

“D’accord,” Mitterrand replied. ‘Tell Karadzic that I will see him for only five minutes before I depart. I won’t meet with him, I’ll just say hello.” It would be five minutes, a quick handshake and that would be it.

Another problem. “Mr. President, your greetings will turn into a meeting, and the meeting will last an hour,” I explained. “Approximately two minutes after you start your five-minute meeting, fighting will break out. There will be a major firelight involving tanks, mortars and machine-guns on and around the airport terminal. We won’t be able to move from the building until Karadzic decides your meeting is over. I call it ‘showtime,’ and both sides are

good at this type of ploy to capture the attention of visiting VIPs.” MacKenzie then urged Mitterrand to make it clear to the Muslims that there would be no outside military intervention on their behalf.

“I’m of the opinion that it’s in the interests of Izetbegovic to keep the fighting going in the hope that the world will come to his rescue, providing he can make it look like the Serbs are solely responsible for perpetuating the chaos. God knows, overall, the majority of the blame rests with the Serbs; however, at this moment in Sarajevo’s

“I was fed up and proceeded to make one of the dumbest decisions of my career”

agony, whenever we arrange any type of ceasefire, it’s usually the Muslims who break it first. In addition, there is strong circumstantial evidence that a number of really horrifying acts of cruelty attributed to the Serbs by the media were actually orchestrated by the Muslims against their own people for the benefit of the international audience. There are no good solutions to this mess, Mr. President, only the best of the worst. I respectfully request that you attempt to convince Izetbegovic that he will not see international military intervention, if that is the case, and having done that, pressure him to sit down in the same room with Karadzic so we can at least try to arrange some sort of ceasefire.”

“Merci," was the extent of the president’s response. I had no idea if he rejected my personal opinion or endorsed it, nor would I ever find out.

After meeting with Bosnian President Izetbegovic, Mitterrand proceeded to the airport for his “short” meeting with Serb leaders before leaving Sarajevo.

I introduced them and Karadzic indicated to Mitterrand that he was about to hand the airport over to the United Nations and suggested they go inside for a short meeting. Mitterrand responded that they had to get on their way and that he just wanted to say hello.

As if on cue, machine-gun fire could be heard in the distance and almost immediately two of the Serbian tanks no more than 50 metres away fired in the direction of [the suburbs of] Butmir and Dobrinja.

The shock wave from their main guns blasted the crowd around the president and fortunately pushed us all in the direction of the building’s front entrance. All the Bosnian Serb weapon systems now opened up and the Muslims started to return fire with a fair degree of vigor. There was no choice; I took the president by the arm and started to move towards the entrance door. “Mr. President, I think we should get out of view, perhaps a short meeting is in order.”

Once in the office, Karadzic commenced a fairly rambling indictment of the Muslim threat, referring to Izetbegovic’s alleged desire to establish a Muslim fundamentalist state on European territory. From there he tried to convince Mitterrand that all the good Serbs had joined him in his battle against the Muslims and the ones that had remained loyal to the [Bosnian] presidency were traitors. All the Serbs desired was the right to establish their own independent territory within Bosnia. As citizens of Bosnia didn’t the president of France think that they had the right?

Mitterrand looked Karadzic square in the eye and said: “Perhaps, but you are not going about it the right way.”

Talk about succinctness. In one sentence, Mitterrand had summed up the West’s point of view and disarmed Karadzic’s arguments.

MacKenzie negotiated numerous ceasefires during his six-week tour in Sarajevo, but none held and few lasted more than hours. It was often difficult to determine which side was breaking the agreements, and UN officials in New York refused to allow MacKenzie to have satellite intelligence, which would have indicated where the Serb units (JNA) and the largely Muslim Territorial Defence Forces (TDF) were deployed. Instead, MacKenzie told Maclean’s, he received some satellite data surreptitiously from the American military. But the general grew increasingly irritated with what he described as the lack of awareness at UN headquarters about the dangers the peacekeepers were facing on the ground.

JULY 4 The situation in the city deteriorated. Everyone bunkered down at the airport and waited for the sun to arrive along with the usual reduction in shelling. Both sides were cheating, the Bosnian Serbs being the major culprit because they had the majority of the artillery. I met with [both sides] to protest but my heart wasn’t in it as both have lied to me for over a week saying they had declared all their weapons.

I had requested UN New York provide us with satellite or reconnaissance plane imagery so I could prove who was cheating and where, but the request was rejected. I convinced both sides to ask me to ask the United Nations for imagery, which I did, but that request was also rejected.

In the good old days of peacekeeping, it was rightfully considered bad taste to spy on the people you were trying to help. Bosnia was different, but the UN rules hadn’t caught up with the new challenges.

An outdated attitude regarding intelligence kept us from gaining the information that was both available and needed. Imagery would have also told us what the Croatian army was doing in Bosnia, which would have been nice. Non-UN sources were trying to help but it wasn’t easy to get the data to us and when we did receive some of it, we couldn’t share it with some of the [non-NATO] nationalities making up our staff.

That evening, I began to get hints from UN and non-UN sources that some nations were standing by with air power to give us a hand if need be.

That was the last thing we needed unless we were being directly attacked as a matter of policy by one, two or three sides in the conflict.

I sent a message to [UN commanders] stressing that the use of air power would clearly associate us with the side not being attacked and, thereafter, we would very quickly be branded an intervention force as opposed to an impartial peacekeeping force. If that was to be the case, I wanted all those weapons and ammunition that the United Nations said the Canadian battalion couldn’t bring to Sarajevo. I was being a bit sarcastic but it was an important issue, much misunderstood by non-military types and I wanted to make my point before someone came to our “rescue” and got us all killed.

As the Bosnian Serb forces rolled on and the impotent international community remained on the sidelines, Muslim soldiers and civilians turned on the United Nations and MacKenzie, furious that UNPROFOR had not lived up to its name as a protection force.

JULY 11 When I got back to the PTT, I had a chat with Vitali [Petrounev, MacKenzie’s deputy] about how things had gone during my absence. What he told me was disturbing in the extreme. It seems a number of our vehicles had been stopped by the TDF and everyone forced to dismount. On each occasion, the soldiers were looking for “that f—ing MacKenzie.” Vitali had been in one of the vehicles when it was searched and he was genuinely concerned for my safety. “They were really quite irrational when they mentioned your name,” he said.

To make matters worse, local newspaper articles had once again started to make fun of our UNPROFOR title by referring to us as “SERBPROFOR.” The accusations were so outrageous that they had to be part of a deliberate smear campaign.

Later that evening, Lt.-Col.

Richard Gray told me that one of his UN observers at a TDF gun position had 30 rounds from an AK-47 fired off beside his ear by an irate member of the TDF screaming: “You work for MacKenzie!”

I was devastated. Ordering people to what might be their death in war for the overall good of the mission is one thing, but asking them to put their lives at risk in what is supposed to be peacekeeping was unacceptable. For reasons only the [Bosnian] presidency understood, they were villifying me in an attempt to discredit UNPROFOR and my people were placed under increased risk as a result. The thought of one of our observers being intentionally shot with my name ringing in his ears before he died was quite honestly horrifying.

I could only assume that the president wanted massive military intervention, which I had explained he would never get while there was a peacekeeping force in his city as potential hostages. Perhaps there was a campaign starting to get rid of us so the door would be opened to the possibility of intervention. If that was the case, they were certainly going about it the right way.

Rumors were starting to circulate that my wife was a Serb and that she had been introduced to me by the “Serbian terrorist Mila Mulroney.” Mrs. Mulroney had indeed been born a Serb but left Sarajevo for Canada when she was five years old and never returned. She must have started her “terrorist” career at a very young age. Before I left, various members of the presidency asked me to pass on their regards to Mila as they had liked her very much when they attended university with her in Sarajevo. A terrorist and a university student by five years of age—I was impressed.

The war in Bosnia has clamed up to 200,000 lives, many of them civilians shot by snipers or struck by mortar fire as they walk Sarajevo’s streets. MacKenzie was particularly disturbed by one attack that killed a Bosnian teenager who, he later told Maclean’s, “looked so much like my daughter.”

JULY 12 At 2003h, we were all in our eating facility enjoying some pasta and the French army’s wine ration. Conversation had been loosened by a good Beaujolais when all of a sudden there were a number of loud explosions and the building shook violently. The noise came from the front of the building and without thinking, we ran into our large conference room with its solid glass wall facing the street. We lined up at the window and looked across the street. A number of cars were

burning in the parking lot and there was a lot of debris on the street and black smoke in the air. We could hear screaming but we couldn’t see anyone in the area of the shelling. The screaming continued and I glanced straight down the front of the building to the tiny grassy verge two floors below us at street level. What I saw will always be my most lasting and horrible memory of Sarajevo.

Seven teenagers had been accepting chocolate bars though a window on the ground floor from some of our people. One of the mortar

“The screaming continued and what I saw will always be my most lasting and horrible memory of Sarajevo”

bombs had landed in their midst. One youth had lost both his legs, which were now lying on the road and still moving. One other had been cut to pieces and would need amputations. A beautiful girl with long, blond hair was on her back on the grass staring straight into my eyes. Her hair was fanned out around her head and I immediately had thoughts of my daughter, Kimm. The girl was missing half of her head and her brain was exposed. Mercifully, she died minutes later. The entire area was awash with blood. A car drove up and three of the slightly injured jumped in and took off in the direction of the hospital.

Our shock and revulsion only lasted a few seconds. Richard Gray and [British Major] Vanessa Lloyd-Davies quickly organized a rescue party, which rushed downstairs to the scene and brought the casualties to our medical facility. They were brave to do so because the favorite trick in this war was to wait until the medical teams arrive and then fire some more munitions to maim the rescuers.

On July 21, MacKenzie gave another press conference in Sarajevo where he caused a furor by insisting that while the Serb forces bore the “majority of responsibility” for the conflict, the mostly Muslim Bosnian government had kept the fighting going. There could be no peace in Sarajevo, he said, “because I can’t keep the two sides from firing on their own positions for the benefit of CNN. ” The statement outraged UN officials in New York City, and resulted in MacKenzie being pulled out of Sarajevo to Belgrade “for consultations. ” He was allowed to return to Sarajevo on July 31 for a few hours so he could be on hand for the planned withdrawal of the Canadian troops who had served with him.


It was difficult to sleep as there was a lot of firing going on. This was my last night at the airport itself so I stood back from the window and watched the fireworks for hours, mesmerized by the beauty of it all yet, at the same time, realizing that every explosion represented more deaths and suffering in a war that should never have started and probably would never end until there was no one left to care.

Just before the sun came up, the first group [of Canadian soldiers] headed off towards Lukavica en route to the main Belgrade-Zagreb highway some 12 hours away. It was without a doubt the happiest moment of my life. They weren’t back in Croatia yet but over 800 soldiers had spent a month in one of the most dangerous places in the world and they all left alive. Cpl. [Dennis] Reid had lost his foot and 18 others had sustained injuries from shrapnel and snipers’ bullets but they were alive and, all things considered, that was a pretty good outcome. I thought a small prayer of thanks—to God and our regimental system that produces such good units and soldiers.

As we took off from Sarajevo airport for the last time, I watched French soldiers moving into the dug-in positions left by [the Canadian] battalion. The surrounding area was pockmarked with shell holes and the roads were blocked by burnt-out vehicles. Hardly a building was without damage and smoke was rising from the centre of the city. As we reached a few thousand feet, the city was transformed into a patchwork of red tile roofs and green parks against a blue sky. Sarajevo was beautiful again as my less-than-perfect eyesight was unable to see the scars of war as we gained altitude. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I thought, if it could look like that again down at street level. I glanced at Dobrinja. Even from that distance I could see buildings burning. □