Convoys of hope

Canadian truck drivers provide a lifeline for war victims

VINCE BEISER April 4 1994

Convoys of hope

Canadian truck drivers provide a lifeline for war victims

VINCE BEISER April 4 1994

Convoys of hope



Canadian truck drivers provide a lifeline for war victims


The convoy of six white trucks, bracketed by a pair of four-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruisers, slowed as it rolled into the remains of Derventar, a town in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina that was home to some 56,000 people before war broke out in April, 1992. On either side, the road was lined with roofless, shell-pocked skeletons of homes, half-collapsed apartment blocks and bullet-riddled storefronts. A colorful sign poked from under the rubble of a blasted café, still plaintively advertising ice cream. At the wheel of the lead vehicle, Murray MacDonald, a burly, 35-year-old truck driver from Trenton, N.S., his greying hair bound in a ponytail tucked into a baseball cap, rolled down his window. The problem was not a lack of ventilation; MacDonald wanted to be able to hear if there was any sniper fire in the area. Derventar, whose population now stands at fewer than 28,000, has been firmly under Serb control since last year, so outbreaks of violence are rare. Still, “you never know who’s had a bottle of slivovitz today,” said MacDonald, referring to the potent local plum brandy.

MacDonald has picked up many such tips

in the six months since he arrived in the former Yugoslavia to help transport humanitarian relief for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Recently promoted from driving trucks to leading convoys in the four-wheel-drive vehicles that act as advance scouts and, on occasion, driving emergency ambulances for the convoys, he is one of more than 100 expatriates from countries as diverse as Iceland and El Salvador who answered a Red Cross appeal for foreign drivers last fall.

The drivers—including a dozen Canadians, four of whom returned home last month after completing their tours of duty—have proven invaluable to the Red Cross’s humanitarian relief program in the former Yugoslavia. In the chaotic battle zones of Bosnia, only neutral outsiders are allowed across the front lines by warring Serbs, Croats and Muslims. Canadians are especially prized by the Red Cross because of their experience with the mountainous terrain and harsh winter conditions found in many parts of the war-ravaged region. The convoys, which transport everything from emergency food supplies to freed prisoners

and which can spend anywhere from a few hours to several days on the road, cover most of Bosnia as well as parts of neighboring Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro.

By Bosnian standards, the Serb-held town of Modrica, the destination of MacDonald’s convoy, was not such a bad place. At the “warehouse,” a couple of emptied shops on the bottom floor of a bullet-scarred apartment building, a crowd of young boys eagerly helped unload cartons of wheat flour and packages of oil, rice, canned fish and soap—goods that would then be distributed to the area’s 11,000 refugees as well as to g needy local families. As o they worked, mothers 3 strolled their babies down g sidewalks, past buildings whose every window had been shattered by the concussion of artillery fire. But there has been no fighting in Modrica since early 1993, and the front line is now a comfortable 10 km away. “There’s only occasional shelling now,” the head of the local Red Cross delegation said cheerfully.

MacDonald has seen much worse. During the winter he was assigned to the regular aid run from Belgrade to Gorazde, a refugee-swollen Muslim enclave 50 km southeast of Sarajevo that for more than a year has been cut off from the outside world and pounded with artillery barrages by besieging Bosnian Serb forces. (The shelling stopped in late February when all sides in the conflict began making progress towards a permanent settlement.) “When the trucks came in, thousands of people would run out, lining the roads, waving,” MacDonald recalled. “It makes your hair stand up, and your eyes water.” It can also leave nerves frazzled. Snipers twice fired at MacDonald’s truck, just behind the cab where he was sitting. None of the foreign drivers hired by the Red Cross have been killed, in part because they are under orders to wear flak jackets and helmets in dangerous areas. But a few—none Canadian—have been injured when their trucks ran over land mines.

MacDonald, who has been driving industrial and construction equipment since he was 17, had just finished a course on heavyequipment operation in Edmonton when he heard about the Red Cross job through Canada Manpower. The salary—about

$3,000 a month, paid by the Canadian Red Cross with funds from Canada’s department of foreign affairs—is less than he would make at home, but MacDonald thought the job sounded important. “I believe that no one should turn their back on aggression, and what happened in the Second World War should not be repeated,” he said. “So I came simply for that reason. And once I got inside, and saw how desperate it was for people here, I knew it was the right decision.”

John Forbes, a driver from Scotsborough, N.S., thought it would be just another job when he arrived in January. “1 wasn’t working at home, so I thought, Why not?”’ explained the 29-year-old trucker, relaxing in a bar in the Croatian capital,

Zagreb. “But it’s totally different for me now.

When you see kids dragging home little sleds full of Red Cross packages you’ve hauled, it’s a real different feeling.”

It is that feeling, says Forbes, that keeps him and other drivers on the roads despite the dangers they face. “The first shell I heard go off, I was scared out of my mind,” he admitted, laughing. “But once you’ve seen how the people are here—when you go in with your boots and coat and flak jacket and see people standing there in the snow with no shoes—you can keep going, no problem.”

During the winter, the narrow, snowchoked mountain roads, pocked with artillery craters, were at least as much of a hazard as the war itself. Even off the roads the drivers are not always secure. In the Bosnian

Serb stronghold of Banja Luka, where MacDonald is based, extremists enraged by the fact that the Red Cross delivers aid to their Muslim and Croat “enemies” frequently harass Red Cross workers and vandalize their vehicles. Hardline Serbs have spat at MacDonald while he was driving through town, and other drivers have been assaulted. A four-wheel-drive Red Cross vehicle was even blown up one night in January, as it sat parked in front of the house that MacDonald shares with several other drivers.

MacDonald, taking such incidents in stride, said that his years driving in Canada helped to prepare him for Bosnia. “If you take 65,000 kilos of fuel in a truck down a steep, icy road,” he pointed out, “you’re going to die if you don’t do it right. I’m used to having that rollercoaster feeling in my stomach.”

The worst moments, he and other drivers agreed, are when they find themselves unable to do their jobs. The ICRC has had to suspend all convoys several times when conditions were judged too dangerous. The most recent case was in February, when the Western powers, including Canada, threat ened air strikes against the Serb forces encircling Sarajevo. Convoys are also frequently turned back at military checkpoints when one or another of the warring sides refuses to allow shipments of food, clothing or housing materials through to civilians on the other side. “I had to bring back a whole truck full of shoes from Gorazde because the Serbs wouldn’t let us through,” said Gino

'The first shell I heard go off, I was scared out of my mind’

Connolly, 29, a former Canadian Forces corporal from Lac St-Jean, Que., who arrived in September. “They said they were for the Muslim military, not civilians. It’s crazy.”

Of course, their families back home in Canada are also a major concern. “My only worry is how they worry,” said Forbes, referring to his parents, two sisters and his friends at a construction company in Scotsborough where he used to work. “They’re as worried as anyone can be,” he added.

For Jerry Avery, a bearded 34-year-old who has been driving aid trucks since January, the hardest part of the job was leaving his wife and three-year-old daughter in Chester, N.S. “I tried to get my daughter to understand,” he said. “At Christmas, the relatives were asking about her, and she said her daddy was coming here to help little boys and girls. I guess she got it.” Avery, who spent four years as a driver for the Royal Canadian Regiment, said that he would have preferred to have arrived in the area as one of Canada’s peacekeeping soldiers. Driving relief trucks offered him a way to do his part, he said.

Denny Lane, the ICRC’s transportation chief for the former Yugoslavia, said the organization has been impressed by the drivers’ performance. Even so, relations between the ICRC’s prim Swiss bureaucrats and the somewhat less genteel Canadian truckers are occasionally rocky. (‘You have to fill out a form every time you change a lightbulb,” muttered one of the drivers.) Lane, an American, recently admonished some of the truckers to tone down the rowdy parties in the rented apartments where they live in groups of up to six. With the combination of occasional enforced idleness, cheap and readily available plum brandy and local wine, and a social scene that includes dozens of local ICRC employees, the drivers acknowledge that they sometimes get caught up in excessive merriment.

Struck by their experiences during the war and obviously drawn by a sense of adventure, several of the Canadian truckers have extended their initial threeor sixmonth contracts. A few, like Gino Connolly, hope to go on to other ICRC missions in countries like Somalia. “I just know I’m helping people,” he said. “It’s a beautiful experience.”

Murray MacDonald has signed on for a second six-month stint, but he reckons that a full year in the violence and misery of the former Yugoslavia will be enough. After that, he said, he plans to return to Canada and apply for the job he has always wanted—working for the Nova Scotia department of transportation as a driving instructor. “I’ll be clicking my heels together when I go home,” said MacDonald. “Being here really makes you appreciate Canada.”

VINCE BEISER in Derventar