WORLD

Back to Bosnia

Canada joins a U.S.-led NATO force

TOM FENNELL January 15 1996
WORLD

Back to Bosnia

Canada joins a U.S.-led NATO force

TOM FENNELL January 15 1996

Back to Bosnia

WORLD

Canada joins a U.S.-led NATO force

For days, heavy snow and deepening mud in northern Bosnia stalled attempts by U.S. army engineers to build a pontoon bridge across the swollen Sava River. But finally last week a break in the weather allowed the “water rats” to complete their job. As the engineers exchanged congratulatory high fives, hundreds of American troops backed by 70-ton Abrams tanks, moved from Croatia into Bosnia in what will become one of the largest military operations since the Second World War. By the middle of February, nearly 60,000 troops from more than 16 countries, including 1,000 from Canada, will be in place to enforce the fragile Bosnian peace agreement hammered out in Dayton, Ohio, in November. As the Americans celebrated, the first contingent of nearly 100 Canadian troops moved into their command post in the northwest Bosnian town of Coralici.

After a war lasting more than three years, policing the Dayton accord may not only be dangerous—it may simply be impossible.

The pact showed some signs of breaking down around the capital,

Sarajevo, last week as Serbian rebels captured, then released, 16 Muslim civilians, and an Italian peacekeeper was wounded by gunfire. Two Muslim policemen were also seriously injured by shots fired by Croatian fighters in the divided town of Mostar. Still, U.S.

Defence Secretary William Perry exuded optimism as he visited his forces and crossed their newly established bridge. “The peace implementation is here,” said Perry. “There is a bright prospect for peace.”

The NATO force, led by U.S. Gen. George Joulwan, had originally planned to have 60,000 troops fully deployed in Bosnia by next week. About 26,000 British and French troops are already in place, but the American contingent will not be up to its full strength of 20,000 until the end of the month. In addition to enforcing the new boundaries separating Bosnia’s Muslims, Croats and Serbs, NATO has also been assigned the dangerous task of disarming the warring sides.

The Canadians’ job will be to stabilize the northwest corner of Bosnia near Bihac, where they will help organize and direct a 1,600-member international force. Among

their tasks will be overseeing the repatriation of many of the 23,000 Muslims who fled the area when it was under siege by Bosnian Serbs. Under the leadership of Brig.-Gen. Bruce Jeffries, commander of the Second Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group based in CFB Petawawa, near Ottawa, the Canadians have been scrambling to get under way since Dec. 6, when Defence Minister David Collenette announced Canada’s participation in the NATO force. The first contingent of 82

peacekeepers left CFB Trenton, near Kingston, Ont., on Dec. 30, just hours after learning that they would be deployed in Coralici and nearby Velika Kladusa. Nearly all 1,000 Canadians, including 750 from Petawawa and 175 from CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick, will be leaving over the next three weeks.

Curious Bosnians watched as the Canadians and the rest of the NATO force moved in like a conquering army. Maclean’s European bureau chief Bruce Wallace reported from Tuzla, the U.S. force’s headquarters, that people appeared awed by the size of the army camped on the snowy fields surrounding their city. “They have brought peace,” remarked Damir Kovacevic. ‘With peace everything will be better.” And in Sarajevo, war-weary residents seemed pleased to

have a chance to get on with their lives. With electricity largely restored, the city’s streetcars are running again. Several foreign performers, including Bono, lead singer of the Irish rock band U2, turned up for a private party on New Year’s Eve. “The wit of the people struck me,” said Bono. “Laughter is evidence of freedom.”

But many of Sarajevo’s Serbs, fearing the prospect of living in a Muslim-controlled area under the new borders, were preparing to leave, some going so far as to dig up deceased relatives’ remains to take with them. The capital suffered years of bombardment and sniping from Serbian positions in the hills, and Serbs clearly expect retaliation. We would be slaughtered if we stayed,” said Milos Marijanovic, 45, as he got ready to leave Sarajevo. “In 20 years, when people have forgotten, maybe then we will be able to live together.”

If the peace process does falter, analysts say it may be because of events just beyond

Bosnia’s borders. Serbian militias occupying the oil-rich region of Eastern Slavonia have refused to return the area to Croatia. President Bill Clinton, fearing the political fallout if a large number of Americans are killed, has left the dangerous task of disarming the Slavonia Serbs to a lightly armed United Nations peacekeeping force possibly made up of Russian and Belgian troops. “Local Serb militia elements are very strong there,” says James Schear, a Balkan specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “The UN hasn’t had much luck in that area.” And luck is something both NATO and the UN will need in large supply if they hope to establish a lasting peace in a shattered land.

TOM FENNELL