Ottawa will honour Canadians who took part in a little-known battle
FIREFIGHT AT THE MEDAK POCKET
Ottawa will honour Canadians who took part in a little-known battle
In September, 1993, Canadian troops stationed in an area of Croatia known as Vojna Krajina engaged in a fierce battle with Croatian forces attacking a predominantly Serb enclave. The engagement, little known outside of military circles, was not publicized by the Canadian government, which was hesitant to draw attention to the increasing dangers the country’s troops were facing abroad. But this December, Ottawa will finally honour the soldiers who took part in that firefight by presenting them with a unit commendation. Maclean’s tells the story of the battle:
PTE. SCOTT LEBLANC’S machine gun jackhammered against his shoulder as he fired at the Croatian troops dug in 150 metres away. Grenades exploded around
him; bullets and orange tracer-fire screamed through the smoky air. The Croatians hammered the Canadians for 15 hours straight—thinking the 30 soldiers from the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry would buckle and run like other UN peacekeepers had often done. But the Canadians, members of one of three platoons making up the Patricia’s Charlie Company, held their ground. “They’re trying to flank us,” LeBlanc’s section leader barked, sending a jolt of adrenalin through LeBlanc’s exhausted body. Standing halfway out of his trench, the 19year-old reservist swung his gun around and opened fire on the Croatians. “We could see muzzle flashes and threw everything we had at them,” recalls LeBlanc, now a 28-year-old lieutenant who has just
returned from Afghanistan. “After that, everything got real quiet.”
The fierce battle took place in September, 1993, about a year and a half after Canadian peacekeepers had first arrived in the former Yugoslavia. Vicious fighting and appalling acts of ethnic cleansing made their task of disarming and separating the various combatants nearly impossible. Especially volatile was one mountainous region of Croatia called Vojna Krajina, or Military Frontier, home to an isolated pocket of some 500,000 Serbs. Fiercely nationalistic, the Krajina Serbs began to drive out Croats. But on Sept. 9, Croatian Commander Rahim Ademi launched an attack to capture an area of Serb-controlled territory in Krajina called the Medak Pocket. The UN, fearing that 400 Serbs living in four unprotected villages in the area were at risk of being slaughtered by Croatian troops, ordered the Patricia’s into the area—and into the biggest firefight Canadian forces had been involved in since Korea.
Five months into a six-month tour of duty, the Canadians were led by Lt.-Col. James Calvin, 41. The 875-man battle group was a patchwork of regular and reserve soldiers. In fact, 70 per cent of the front line soldiers were reservists—a makeup that, Calvin says, could prove dangerous in a war zone. “Reservists are just as long on valour and courage,” the now-retired Calvin told Maclean’s from his home on Wolfe Island, Ont., near Kingston. “But you can’t expect one to do the same things you expect from a regular soldier.”
Still, after four months in the region, Calvin considered his force seasoned, especially with his hand-picked group of platoon leaders, including reservist Lt. Tyrone Green. The morning of Sept. 9 started nicely enough for the Vancouver native in charge of 9 Platoon, Charlie Company, with sunshine poking through
the cracks in the boarded windows of the platoon’s quarters, a two-storey concrete building on the outskirts of the Serb-held town ofMedak.
But as Green dragged a razor across his chin, his morning shave was interrupted by incoming artillery shells. With soap still clinging to his face, Green, who is now a captain in charge of a Canadian Forces recruiting office in Vancouver, grabbed his helmet and raced to his M113 armoured personnel carrier. At one point he was knocked down when a shell landed in a nearby ditch. He wasn’t hurt, but four Canadians were injured in the shelling. “We counted 500 or more shells by the end of the first day,” says Green. “About a dozen fell in our compound and one landed about 10 metres from the front door.”
Not knowing where the shells were coming from, Green sent Sgt. Rudy Bajema to establish an observation post.
For the next five days, Bajema watched as the Medak Pocket was attacked by more than 2,500 Croat troops, backed by tanks, rocket launchers and artillery. The Serbs finally slowed the Croatian advance on Sept. 12, but it was not until they launched rockets into a suburb of Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, that the Croats relented and accepted a UN ceasefire.
Calvin, who didn’t really expect the Croatians to live up to the agreement, ordered his troops to occupy the Croat positions. “We started taking fire almost immediately from the Croats,” recalls LeBlanc. The battle raged for the next 15 hours. It was so intense that at night the light from burning buildings reflected off the soldiers’ blue UN helmets, prompting them to wrap them in khaki-coloured T-shirts. Finally realizing the Canadians would not back down, the Croats sent word to Calvin that they wanted to talk. They had good reason to call a truce: the Canadians had killed 27 Croats while not taking a single casualty.
Joined by Col. Michel Maisonneuve, a Canadian officer from the UN headquarters in Zagreb, Calvin met with Ademi at his headquarters in a town near the fighting. Ademi sat on one side of the table, blustering and yelling at the Canadians. “He looked like he was enjoying the role he was playing,” says Calvin. “Emotions were very high and I was irate my men were getting shot at.” But after an hour and a half, Ademi finally relented and promised to pull his troops out at noon the next day.
The Croatian commander, however, was determined to terrorize the Serb civilians living in the area before he left. By 10 a.m. the next morning, a thick umbrella of smoke covered all four towns in the Medak Pocket as the Croats tried to kill or destroy everything in their wake. The Canadians witnessed scenes that still haunt many of them. “They could see what was happening from their foxholes,” says Calvin. “My soldiers knew their role was to protect the weak and the innocent and they were absolutely incensed.” But fearing the ceasefire agreement with Ademi would collapse if they advanced, the Canadians could do nothing but hold their ground.
Finally, when the noon deadline passed, the Canadians raced ahead, but immediately encountered a company of Croat troops behind a barricade—and supported by missiles launchers and an ominous Soviet-era T-72 tank. Calvin approached the senior Croat brigadier; their conversation quickly became heated. The large, bearded Croat ordered his men to cock their weapons and point them at the Canadians. “We knew they were stalling so they could clean up evidence of their
ethnic cleansing,” Calvin recalls.
Calvin did not order his troops to fight, and instead tried another gambit. With the Medak attack almost a week old, the international media had converged on the area. As negotiations with his bearded counterpart deteriorated, Calvin held a news conference in front of the barricade and bluntly described the atrocities he believed were being committed by the Croatians. Realizing his country’s reputation was in jeopardy, the Croat commander suddenly stepped aside. “The transformation was instantaneous,” says Calvin. “He made a big show of removing the barriers.”
The Patricia’s then pushed on. Every building in their path had been demolished and many were still smouldering. Corpses lay by the side of the road, some badly mutilated and others burned beyond recognition. “We knew it was going to be bad,” says Green, “but the things we found there were worse than anything we expected.”
The Canadians documented everything they saw. Calvin’s subsequent report helped convince the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to issue an indictment in 2001 against Ademi, charging him with crimes against humanity. Made public one year ago, the report is a brutal list of murder and torture. Among the victims: Sara Krickovic, female, 71, throat cut; Pera Krajnovic, female, 86, burned to death; Andja Jovic, female, 74, beaten and shot. In all, the Patricia’s found 16 mutilated corpses— some with their eyes cut out.
The soldiers rotated home four weeks
later, but there was no hero’s welcome. At the time, Canadians were focused on the disturbing revelations that a teenager named Shidane Arone had been tortured and killed by Canadian peacekeepers in Somalia. Kim Campbell’s Conservative government was also facing a federal election and didn’t want the increasing dangers Canadian troops were facing in the Balkans raised as an issue. “When we got back to Canada a couple of weeks later, the first thing I did was call home,” says LeBlanc. “My folks hadn’t heard anything about the battle.”
The force did receive high honours from the United Nations in 1994, when its members were given the United Nations Force Commanders’ Commendation—the first of its kind and only one of three ever awarded. And, this December, the Canadian government finally plans to honour the troops by presenting them with a unit commendation. But the honours only go so far. With vivid memories of the battle, many of the soldiers still suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
As for Ademi, his case rests in legal limbo. After the indictment, he voluntarily turned himself over to the war crimes tribunal, proclaiming he had a clear conscience because “I did not order any atrocities.” Last February, the UN granted him a provisional release on condition he return to The Hague when the trial proceeds, likely next year. Calvin may be called to testify. “Ademi should be called to account,” he says. “No soldier should be able to get away with that.” Iffl
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