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A Search For Something Better

by Inspector Graham Muir


Vlade Maric and his family welcomed us into their home on a warm spring day in 1993. It was our first day in Croatia and unlike our military brethren who were garrisoned in one fashion or another, Inspector Bob Munro and I–both members of The Royal Canadian Mounted Police–were expected to live and work among the local folk.

My job as part of the United Nations Protection Force, UNPROFOR, was to command the UN civilian police station at Benkovac, Croatia, located approximately 50 kilometres west of Knin, where Vlade Maric and his family lived. Bob and I quickly came to understand that Vlade and his people were Serbs living in Vojna Krajina, a region that hugged the western boundaries of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The word Krajina –pronounced Cry-eena–comes from the Serb-Croatian word kraj, meaning end or edge. The name of the region means military frontier.

In the book The Death of Yugoslavia, authors Laura Silber and Allan Little note that the region is one of the great geo-strategic fault lines of European history, across which the warring empires of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Turks ebbed and flowed. The authors explain that it was the Austrians who created the Krajina. “They recruited Orthodox Christians who had fled the Ottoman subjugation of Serbia, settled them on the land, and employed them as a permanent defensive barrier against Ottoman expansion. In return, the Krajina Serbs enjoyed autonomy, being ruled neither by Zagreb (the capital of Croatia) nor from Budapest (the capital of Hungary), but directly by the Imperial capital, Vienna.”

The authors note that Krajina “embodied, from its very creation,” traits that were to burst on to the Yugoslav stage in 1990 with violent consequences. One of these traits, they say, was a fierce pride in local independence.

And so Vlade and his people proclaimed ancestral title to the region following hundreds of years of settlement and resettlement. They were, indeed, part of that ebb and flow of vanquished and liberated peoples. It was their destiny, so they believed, to hold it sovereign and defend it against Croatia’s assertion of title. And it was a war they fought with their homes, churches and schools at their backs.

Indeed, wives and loved ones were reminded of their lethal proximity to the fight by the daily artillery and mortar that punctuated their lives. In the midst of it all were the peacekeepers, a small army of occupation in its own right bringing with it the very tenuous prospects of peace.

In 1993, it was difficult to accept that peace might prevail. Signs of communities under siege were ever apparent. Road blocks, manned by the local police or militia were everywhere, as much to keep the warriors where the war was, as to confine and cordon our patrol areas. I was to learn that the inordinately swollen ranks of these civilian police forces were as much a concession to favoured men where a place could be found in blue to forestall the dangers of a life in green.

The standing army or Territorial Defence Force served as both press gang and fighting force. With war so close to home, it was common to see groups of men under arms moving towards the conflict as factory workers might migrate towards their daily lot. And a most incongruous sight it was to see the more mature men hefting their vintage carbines along with bits of kit and uniform from a bygone war, intermingled with fresh-faced adolescents sporting their Kalashnikov rifles and Rambo-like apparel.

Everything in every hospital seemed in desperate demand. Getting to a hospital was yet another matter. The country folk would often entreat us to take the boxes and packaging of their meagre medications with the remote hope we might return with something­anything­akin to the pill or paste that would relieve pain or restore body function.

People suffered, especially in the remote rural enclaves. Our best efforts to sustain a lifeline of humanitarian aid, in partnership with the many other agencies at work in the mission, were often thwarted. Bob and I were among 40 RCMP members scattered at detachments throughout Croatia and Bosnia, part of an international civilian police force connected to UNPROFOR. Bob was the equivalent of a regional commander. His tour would last about a year, mine would stretch over six months.

We weren’t on the ground very long before we noticed how emergency provisions in the form of staples, food and fuel provided by the international community often went missing under cover of darkness, only to find their way to the combatants.

While Vlade and others like him took some solace in having us amongst them, we were much maligned for our seeming impotence to do something about their plight. And so, when husbands died on the confrontation line, when the old and infirmed perished in mortar fire, when life-friends were lost to a sniper’s bullet, and when children were dismembered or died in unmarked mine fields, the peacekeepers were vicariously to blame.

But in spite of it all, there was a warmth, kindness and curiosity in Vlade’s home. There was an appetite to understand our different cultures and a willingness on their part to provide the small creature comforts as if in recompense for sharing the indignities of their life at war. For Vlade, life was on hold. He was pressed into service as part of the Territorial Defence Force. And while he wore the typical broken pattern khaki uniform, he had a gentleness in appearance and demeanour that revealed a certain reticence to serve. It was apparent that this man had a fierce love of his family and a deep desire to hold things in place. While away–for days at a time–he was expected to offer himself up as part of the defence force.

Vlade, I think, was glad of our company. He was proud and happy to share the home he had built with his own two hands. He would often seek us out just to sit and talk, and to drink and smoke. Notwithstanding his tenuous grasp of English, he was forever curious about the day’s events and our impressions of local affairs.

Vlade’s wife, Zivana, was a woman possessed of remarkable energy, unflagging support of her mate and an unabashed adoration of her two children. She laboured constantly. There were few amenities and only infrequently was there any electricity. Zivana rose early each day to bake fresh bread on her wood stove so that it was on the breakfast table before 7 a.m. She hand-laundered her family’s clothing along with our own, and put our uniforms out on the line to dry, turning our trousers inside out so that the distinctive yellow stripe wouldn’t alert the disreputable to the fact that the UN was in residence, thus increasing the potential for retaliatory vandalism or theft.

There was a contemplative quality and quiet sadness in this woman. Everything of consequence to her revolved around her home, husband and children. She lived in the same small quarter where she’d been raised, where she’d been courted and married, where her aged mother lived, and where she spent so many hours doing double duty as a daughter and a mother to her own brood. Through all of this Zivana lived with a constant and well-founded fear that it could all be wrenched away from her.

Her daughter, Dubravka, was a young girl of 12. Although slight and pale, she had great energy within and eyes that revealed an intellectual curiosity quite uncommon for one of such tender years. She was just beginning to learn English at school, the first in her family to do so. Patiently and dutifully in the service of her parents she would interpret and translate the best she could. Often, I know, she became the conduit of conversation that ought not to have graced the ears of one so young.

I have fond memories of Dubravka being gently mentored at Bob’s side at our small dining table, often by candlelight. She called him Mister Bob and would patiently listen to his explanations about Canadian geography or points of grammar and how it might relate to its Serbo-Croatian equivalent.

And what’s to be said of a boy of five? Milos was a sprite–a bundle of unbridled energy and enthusiasm charging violently in and out of our lives, jostling and wrestling as he went. He was a favoured child, or so it seemed. Such was the case, I noted, with the young fellows of their culture. He demonstrated little interest and no patience in language other than his own. For the most part, I think, Milos held us as a passing curiosity.

I spent only a short time at Vlade’s home before taking up residence near my place of work in Benkovac. Bob was to stay on with the Maric family for 10 months and my ‘comings and goings’ regularly found me at their kitchen table. And so the bond was formed with this family.

When Bob and I returned to Canada at the end of our UN tours, we went back to our domestic policing responsibilities with the RCMP.

But of course there was never a lasting peace in that star-crossed place. About a year after Bob’s departure in 1994, Krajina fell to the Croatian army.

At 4 a.m. on Aug. 4, 1995, the UN garrison at Knin sounded the air raid sirens. Just over an hour later, the first Croatian shells landed. For the Krajina Serbs, the situation looked bleak. The Croatians had more military expertise as well as a superior land force; it was estimated at the time that Croatian troops outnumbered the Serb defenders five to one.

Later that same day, two towns near Knin fell to the Croatians. From there, things went from bad to worse. In the afternoon, the Krajina Serb leadership met and decided to issue instructions for an evacuation. That evening tens of thousands of Krajina Serbs grabbed what they could and fled. Authors Silber and Little described the evacuation as the first stage in what would become the biggest single forcible displacement of people in Europe since World War II.

Indeed, there was a mass exodus of a quarter-million Serbs eastward into Bosnia and, for many, on into Serbia. Vlade’s small family found itself on the fringes of Belgrade, Yugoslavia. All that had been theirs–that could not be carried in hand–was lost.

In late 1995, I received a letter written in Dubravka’s hand, cautiously exploring the possibility that I or
Mister Bob might be able to sponsor the family to Canada. Thus began a long and arduous process, beset with predictable hurdles, including sporadic and crippled communications, laborious bureaucracy and the interminable waiting. Through it all was the uncertainty of success, but in the end the system worked.

The Maric family arrived in Winnipeg late one quiet night in August 1997. Bob and his fine wife, Darlene, were there to greet them. Accommodations and all the finer points were well tended thanks to Bob’s groundwork and the kind and able assistance of the local Serb church. And so began life anew in Canada for the Marics.

I knew that Vlade felt in his bones the profound loss and a choking sense of trepidation about how he would fare through it all. In the early days I think that Zivana wrestled with equal measures of anxiety and relief. She was anxious over whether the decision to come was the right one, yet she was calm in the knowledge that the young ones were finally out of harm’s way.

Dubravka flourished. Friendship came easily and so too did her studies. High school gave way to college courses and plans for a professional career. For his part, Milos seemed mercifully untroubled by the transition. Gregarious by nature and athletically inclined, he quickly found his place.

Overall, the Maric family demonstrated remarkable resolve while struggling with the vagaries of a new culture. They worked through the half-day language courses, and the ups and downs of jobs sought and secured. All the while Mister Bob was never far away, making his presence felt on those rare occasions when a subtle hand was required.

Months turned to years and in the Fall of 2000, Vlade announced the family would seek better prospects in Ontario–Kitchener to be specific. Friends from the old country beckoned and so too did the promise of long-term employment and hard-earned stability. The day after the moving truck deposited the sum total of their new-worldly possessions into their apartment, I found Zivana, sleeves rolled, and scrubbing her way into acceptance of their new home. It wasn’t long before I had the chance to introduce my wife, Corleen, to the family. One thing led to another and we found ourselves at their dining room table with all the requisite paperwork finally in place to commence the step towards Canadian citizenship.

The Christmas season turned into the new year and it wasn’t long before the Marics received the call to attend Citizenship Court on Feb. 13, 2001. The word went out and following some discreet inquiries I found myself with an invitation to attend with the understanding that I would lend my red serge to the pomp and circumstance of the day. When Citizenship Court Judge Frank Hayden learned of our story, he very kindly allowed me the honour of presenting each of the family’s Citizenship Certificates. It was a most remarkable and memorable moment and we celebrated as only the family knows how–good food and drink
in overabundance back at the Maric residence.

The last step in their journey to Canada is now complete. The offer of safe haven and hospitality is returned. Vlade’s small clan will do just fine and Canada will be a better country for having them. It is a better nation, too, for sending its Mounties abroad to return with a heightened sense of humanity and wisdom born of honourable work in the service of peace.


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