by Paul Gélinas
There are many incidents that occur during a United Nations peacekeeping tour that go by unreported. One such event happened in 1993 when our platoon-size UN patrol arrived in the village of Okucani, roughly 120 kilometres southeast of Zagreb, Croatia. At the time, I was a sergeant in the reserves, serving with 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
It was May 28th and extremely hot; there was no wind and the sun was blazing down on us without mercy. We were heading north–en route to our camp at Daruvar–when our young platoon commander decided we should stop in the village for a short break. Little did we know how close we would come that afternoon to being involved in a violent situation that could have ended in bloodshed.
One of my main responsibilities in Croatia was company transport. The job involved assisting with the control and use of all company vehicles and their maintenance. This included the task of making sure we had a steady supply of fuel and oil. My second major job involved the more dangerous side of peacekeeping. It had me commanding a pioneer section comprised of six highly trained men from across Canada. Two of them were infantry and four were engineers. Our task was to destroy arms caches, mines and other weapons of war found by us or by other infantry platoons in the company.
Each platoon was ordered to search specific areas within no-man’s land for hidden weapons and other ammunition, and it was while returning to camp from one of these missions that our patrol encountered the trouble in Okucani. In fact, we had just finished our tasking south of the village, in an area characterized by rolling hills, small hamlets and farms.
Our small convoy was comprised of four armoured personnel carriers, an armoured personnel carrier ambulance and a 2 1/2-ton truck. I was the lone passenger in the truck’s cab. The back of the vehicle, which was covered with a tarp, contained four engineers and a private as well as an assortment of explosives–minus their detonators–and other items needed to destroy any unauthorized ordnance found by the platoon.
Within minutes of stopping in the village, several civilians appeared from their homes and began surrounding our vehicles. At first we thought they were just coming out to look at the carriers and perhaps ask for goodies. There were several children as well as women and old people. Everyone seemed quite friendly, and some of the kids enjoyed climbing on our vehicles, but when we tried to move forward after saying goodbye, the crowd didn’t move. We decided to stay put because the risk of running over somebody was too great.
The crowd successfully detained us until about 30 Serb soldiers arrived. They, too, seemed friendly until they parked civilian cars in front and behind our convoy and told us there were snipers in the nearby bush. Within seconds my platoon commander contacted me by two-way radio with instructions to move our personnel from the back of my covered truck to the ambulance in front of our truck. The rationale behind this, I suppose, was to get these people out from under the tarp to a more protected area.
Our platoon commander also told me not to allow anyone into the back of the truck. But as soon as our personnel were out of the vehicle, the Serbs decided to go in and remove the explosives. They posted soldiers on the left and right side of the truck to prevent us from exiting and making any attempt to interrupt their plan.
The heat in the truck’s cab was stifling. Nevertheless, I had to make a quick decision on how to stop the Serbs from removing the explosives, and I had to do that without anybody getting killed. The tension, which was compounded by the intense heat, was unbelievable. My quick decision was to bluff the Serbs. I locked my door and told the driver to do the same. He wanted to close the driver’s window, but I told him to keep it open because part of the bluff was to make sure the Serb soldiers could hear what was going on inside the cab.
A small window in the back of the cab allowed us to see into the back of the truck. I placed the barrel of my rifle through this opening and shouted at the Serb soldiers to get out immediately. I then cocked my weapon which ejected a cartridge. To this day, I will never forget the sound that small cartridge made when it came in contact with the cab’s metal floor.
Indeed, the sound of metal on metal did the trick. The Serb non-commissioned officer immediately started to shout at his men to get off the back of the truck. It was now a matter of survival for me and my driver. On the driver’s side, a Serb soldier had managed to unlock the door by reaching in through the open window. Now, with his body leaning into the cab, he was trying to wrestle the rifle from my driver’s hand. My driver, meanwhile, was leaning his back against me and pushing on the steering column with his right foot and kicking at the Serb with his left foot.
On my side of the cab, I had one Serb soldier punching me with sledgehammer blows to the face and head. Another Serb soldier was trying to pull my rifle out of my hands, while a third was trying to open the locked door, an action he couldn’t complete because my elbow was pushing down on the lock. Fortunately, one of our personnel on the ambulance had by this time swung the carrier’s machine-gun around and had it trained on the Serb soldiers.
The noise and confusion continued as two Canadian soldiers jumped from the ambulance to the hood of our truck. They started yelling and kicking at the Serbs who were trying to get at me. This was when the Serb non-commissioned officer realized things were getting out of hand and that these UN peacekeepers were not going to back down. A lone Serbian police officer also joined the fray and was trying to get the crowd to back off.
Finally, the Serb non-commissioned officer ordered his soldiers to back away. The old sergeant was red in the face and very furious to say the least because his decision was not looked upon favourably by his men. However, in our view he made the right decision because we certainly had no intention of letting them have their way.
Our vehicles remained surrounded by Serb soldiers and civilians until a local politician and a general arrived roughly 45 minutes later. The latter ordered photographs to be taken of the platoon’s vehicles and we in turn trained our cameras on the Serbs, an act that infuriated the general who immediately ordered the Serb police–accompanied by an interpreter–to collect all film from our cameras.
Our platoon signalman quickly took his film out of his camera and inserted a fresh roll. He then quietly hid the roll he’d been using. The Serb police ended up with his unexposed film.
It wasn’t long before our battalion commander arrived on the scene and proceeded to resolve the situation with the Serb general. What was said between the general, the politician and our commanding officer is unknown to me, but the general finally released our vehicles.
The battalion, we were told, was in place on the heights above the village and was ready to attack and rescue our platoon by force if necessary. I was not surprised by how quickly the battalion moved into position to help us. Indeed, Canadian soldiers have a reputation for moving quickly when they have to.
The incident didn’t last that long and I don’t remember being frightened. Perhaps there was just too much adrenaline running through my system for me to feel that way. Although I do remember the tremendous sense relief when it ended.
Just before we moved out, a fighter aircraft, which had been sent from Italy, flew in low over the village. All of us were very impressed by the sudden appearance and loud noise of the jet.
Our convoy moved out very, very slowly because we didn’t want to re-excite the locals or the Serb soldiers. Back at our base camp we learned the reasons behind the incident. Apparently, some property had been damaged by a previous UN patrol and so the civilians thought the only way to get reimbursed for the damages was to attract some attention.
The following day our company returned to Okucani with more than 14 armoured personnel carriers. The objective was to show the United Nations blue flag and demonstrate that we were still there and would keep the UN mandate in effect.
The platoon’s warrant officer and I could not participate in the excursion because rumour had it there was a reward placed on us for our capture on Serb territory. I suspect this was just a rumour, but our company commander decided not to take any chances and left us in camp which was fine by me because I had my regular transport duties to attend to.
Overall it was a very interesting and dangerous encounter, but just one of many incidents experienced by today’s peacekeepers. My six-month tour, which ended Oct. 3, 1993, had funny days and sad days. We lost one officer and one master corporal in motor vehicle accidents. When that happens you quickly realize how fragile life really is.