A Show Of Support

September 1, 1998 by Legion Magazine


by Dan Black

Beyond the jagged edge of the evergreen forest the armored personnel carrier makes another sharp turn on the mountain road before heading down across the valley. I’m standing in one of the carrier’s rear hatches, watching a great big moon rise over Bosnia-Herzegovina. As the carrier shifts gears and gains more speed, my ears are pounded by the noise coming from the huge engine. Suddenly–in rapid succession–I see the twisted, moonlit skeletons of bombed-out houses and overturned vehicles; gloomy reminders of the 1991—95 war that killed 250,000 men, women and children.

Down below–squeezed into the belly of the carrier–five members of a 17-member Canadian Forces entertainment troupe are comparing notes on what they saw that day in the northwest Bosnian town of Drvar and in the quiet village of Martin Brod. A sixth member of the troupe–singer Kariah Arias of Toronto–is leaning against the side of the carrier’s centre hatch. She’s staring at what’s left of the small, shattered houses along the road. Only a few hours ago, Arias and other members of the troupe were laughing it up and taking pictures through the silvery mist below Martin Brod’s spectacular waterfall.

After crossing the valley and passing one empty field after another, the carrier turns east toward the Canadian camp in Zgon. I’m looking at the moon when there’s a tap on my left shoulder. It’s Reuf Jihic, a 33-year-old Bosnian-Muslim who’s been working as an interpreter at the Canadian camp in Drvar. “Please take one,” he said holding out a small package of candy. “It’s for the journey.”

When he’s not working for the Canadians, Jihic is at home in a village north of Bihac. “I had to defend myself and my family,” he said when asked about the war. “The war was bad for everybody. Today we need to forget the past and move on with building the future.”

Ahead of us–in another armored personnel carrier–the First Vice of The Royal Canadian Legion is settled in for the 80-minute journey back to the old carpet factory in Zgon that’s home to Camp Maple Leaf. It has been a long day and Chuck Murphy is looking forward to stretching out on the bottom bunk in a barracks that’s tucked inside the camp’s razor-wire perimeter. The Port Moody, B.C., resident is glad to be part of the May 9—16 Bosnia Show Tour that’s reminiscent of the troop shows of WW II and the Korean War.

Even at this early stage in the tour, Murphy is convinced the travelling show, of which the Legion is a major sponsor, will be a success. Organized back in Ottawa by the Canadian Forces Personnel Support Agency, the tour’s objective is to bring some much-needed relief to the 1,250 Canadian soldiers stationed in the region as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 32,000-strong Stabilization Force, SFOR.

The story behind SFOR and Canada’s role in it was explained the day before the troupe arrived in Drvar. The briefing occurred at the Canadian camp situated near the town of Velika Kladusa in northwest Bosnia-Herzegovina. Colonel Ray Romses, the commander of Canadian Contingent SFOR or CCSFOR, explained that peace in Bosnia was brought about in 1995 by the United States-brokered Dayton Peace Accord and the signing of the General Framework Agreement for Peace on Dec. 14, 1995. The agreement paved the way for a NATO-led peace implementation force, IFOR, that evolved into SFOR in December 1996.

To help out, Canada deployed an infantry battalion group to operate within the multinational force. Known as Operation Palladium, the deployment is Canada’s largest current peacekeeping commitment.

The story of how the war erupted in the former Yugoslavia is, indeed, long and complicated, but a quick look at the history shows it was a combination of Serbian expansionism, Croatian nationalism and Slovenian secessionism that helped destroy the Yugoslavia created by Joseph Broz Tito while he was president from 1953 to 1980. Canadian peacekeepers have been in and out of the former Yugoslavia since 1991 and many of the young men and women here today are on their second or third tour of duty.

The international community’s responsibilities under the General Framework Agreement for Peace include the delicate jobs of overseeing economic recovery, monitoring local elections, removing millions of unexploded land-mines and helping refugees return home to a safe environment. The main focus for SFOR, however, is on maintaining a secure environment. In military terms, that amounts to a kind of delay action that will hopefully give politicians time to work out their differences.

The Canadian contingent’s geographical area within SFOR is in northwest Bosnia. The area is roughly the size of Prince Edward Island and it’s dotted with villages and hamlets nestled along river valleys and among steep forested hills. Anyone who has seen the country is quick to realize how awkward it must have been for the participants to wage war.

Velika Kladusa, or VK as it’s called, is home to CCSFOR headquarters and the national support element that provides the services and support for CCSFOR.

Romses explained that the success of the Canadian contingent’s objective depends on a number of factors. High on the list is a battle group that’s made up of “well-led, well-trained and highly disciplined troops” who can apply sound military principles and values to the unique situations that exist in Bosnia.”

The stop in VK also included a mine-awareness briefing and a short visit with General Maurice Baril, the Canadian Forces chief of defence staff. He thanked the troupe for coming to Bosnia and added that the CFPSA show tours are very good for morale.

The CFPSA was created in 1996 to replace DND’s physical education, recreation and amenities operation that went by the acronym DPERA. Its job is to improve the quality of life for Forces personnel and their families no matter where they’re posted. During the last 20 years, show tour entertainers have visited Alert, N.W.T., Goose Bay in Labrador, Rwanda, Cambodia, Haiti, Israel, Egypt and Bosnia. “When we go to these locations, everyone is treated the same,” noted CFPSA Deployment and Support Manager Mark Larose. “The entertainers pretty well live and operate under the same rules as the men and women at the camps; they travel in military vehicles, sleep on cots, in bunk beds, eat in the mess and use the same washroom and shower facilities.”

Produced by Ottawa-based Carleton Productions International Incorporated, the Bosnia show tour is under the direction of Mark Ross. Its main sponsors are The Royal Canadian Legion, Canadian Airlines International, Skylink Aviation Inc. and Canada Communication Group.

In addition to singer Kariah Arias, the lineup includes blues guitarist Tony Diteodoro of the Ottawa-based Tony D Band, magician Luc Leduc of Ottawa, singers Suzie Vinnick of Toronto and Gail Gavan of Nepean, Ont., Chris and Geoff Dahl of Da Blooze Brothers of London, Ont., and a six-member dance team from the University of Ottawa that Diteodoro has nicknamed The Naughty By Nature Dancers. The tour’s band is percussionist Miche Pouliot of Ottawa, lead guitarist Damian Arokium, bass guitarist John Dymond and keyboard player Ken Fahie, all of Toronto. Also helping out are technicians Corporal Ron Hawboldt, Master Corporal Rick Rowsell, Daniel Brown and Leo Rodriguez.

With two performances already behind them and two more to go, the entertainers say they’re starting to gel as a group. Before it left for Bosnia on a non-stop Canadian Forces flight from Trenton, Ont., to Zagreb, Croatia, the troupe had only a few days to rehearse. “Normally when you gear up to go on the road you give yourself a lot more time to prepare,” explained Pouliot prior to the first show in Drvar. “We have a few wrinkles to work out, but I think the players are seasoned enough to know what to do. We’re also really looking forward to meeting the troops and getting up on stage.”

At Drvar, the portable stage was set up in a field opposite the camp’s main building–an old grain mill and grain storage facility. While warming up prior to the first show, a few of the performers had to protect their eyes from the sand and dust swept up by Baril’s departing helicopter.

The Drvar shows were big hits. They attracted hundreds of soldiers, plus several invited guests from the town. The soldiers showed their appreciation by singing, clapping and dancing. Several were led up to the stage where they jived with dancers or participated in Luc Leduc’s illusions. Afterwards, Murphy said he was glad to see the entertainers mix with the soldiers. “They’re taking a real interest in what the guys are doing over here. The shows are great and we’re (the Legion) proud to be part of it…. It’s the kind of thing we should be doing because it helps the Canadian men and women stationed here get through their six-month tour.”

Murphy’s views reflect the same spirit that was behind the Canadian Legion War Services Inc. Established in September 1939, the CLWS was a non-profit organization that operated within the directorate of auxiliary services of DND. One of its main goals was the formation of troupes to entertain armed forces personnel in Canada and overseas during WW II.

The Legion’s current commitment to the CFPSA show tours amounts to $75,000 over three years. Murphy said it’s money well spent because it gives soldiers in remote areas something they can look forward to and enjoy. He said the soldiers can see that the Legion is concerned about their welfare and is doing something about it. “I think they appreciate the fact that the show tour gives them a nice break from their everyday activities.”

Indeed, the need for a break was apparent in Drvar where soldiers have fresh memories of the April 24 riot that ravaged the downtown core and left a number of people, including four Canadian soldiers, injured. Murphy talked to a number of soldiers who were in the thick of it that day. He also climbed into an armored personnel carrier and saw the destroyed house where an elderly Serb couple was murdered April 14. He also saw the charred remains of the International Police Task Force office and the burned-out, over-turned bodies of five or six vehicles belonging to international relief workers. “It really does look like a war zone,” he said. “The place is a shambles.”

Before the war, Drvar was a city of 20,000 people. Observers here say that 97 per cent of the population was Serbian and a lot of them had work at a local lumber mill. All that changed in 1995 when Croatian forces launched an offensive that recaptured all Serb-held territory except Eastern Slovenia. Drvar went from mostly Serb to mostly Croat in a very short time. Even the lumber mill was taken over by a huge company in Zagreb that employed only Croats.

A contributing factor that led to the double murder and riot in Drvar is the unwillingness by some communities to accept one of the fundamental thrusts of the Dayton accord: The safe return of people displaced from their homes during the war. This is a major concern because there are approximately 1.8 million refugees who still have to settle somewhere, and most want to go home. Adding to the problem is the fact that many of their homes are destroyed or occupied by people who don’t want to go.

During postwar municipal elections, people who hadn’t returned home were allowed to vote by proxy. In Drvar, a moderate Serb named Mile Marceta was elected mayor, but unfortunately for him some powerful people in Zagreb–160 kilometres to the north–had other ideas. They didn’t want to see Croats lose their influence in this part of Bosnia. And so, in scenes reminiscent of the war years, people were killed and houses burned during a violent cycle of revenge.

Marceta was severely beaten and left for dead during the riot.

Private Travis William Ebert, 22, of Niagara Falls, Ont., was in downtown Drvar when the riot broke out. “It was around 11:30 in the morning and we had just finished up an eight-hour patrol. At first, everything seemed fine. There were 30 or 40 people in front of the municipal building and it looked like a peaceful demonstration. Then–in a flash–about 150 people showed up and this woman began cheering them on.”

People rushed inside the municipal building and beat the mayor with rocks, chairs, logs, ashtrays and bottles. “He came out of the building and his face was covered in blood,” said Ebert. “He kind of staggered toward us and we sent him in the direction of the IPTF building. That’s when the crowd turned on us and began pelting us with rocks. Sergeant Dave Fisher got hit four times.”

Ebert said there was little time to think. “Your job in the army is to close with and destroy enemy soldiers, not civilians. These people were all civilians. They’re the very ones we’re trying to help in this town.”

The mob grew to between 500 and 700 people as it headed toward a number of apartment buildings where several Serb returnees were living. “Before the crowd showed up, we got a message over the radio to start getting the returnees out of the building and into the school where we were located,” explained Gunner Drew Clark-Dawes of CFB Petawawa, Ont. “The crowd arrived and started throwing rocks…. It was very tense, but the 16 or 20 guys we had there handled things really well.”

The deputy commanding officer of 1RCR Battle Group, Major Greg MacCullum, said Canadian soldiers took a lot of abuse that day. “The original 20 guys who were there at the school had a pretty tough go. They were hit with rocks, bottles and sticks and some people were throwing fire bombs, but our guys showed great restraint. What they did that day tells me how effective our training is. More importantly, it tells me a lot about the nature of the Canadian soldier and the common sense these particular soldiers exercised.”

In addition to its CF contribution, Canada has 16 Royal Canadian Mounted Police and 14 municipal/provincial police personnel in Bosnia. They’re attached to the IPTF and a few of them, including sergeants Ben Jillett and Vic Josey, are in Drvar. Jillett has been a member of the Legion’s Col. Alex Thomson Memorial Branch in Mississauga, Ont., for the past 21 years.

Both men say the IPTF is making some progress in the town that’s often referred to as The Wild West. “We’re developing a fairly good working relationship with the local police,” said Josey. “It’s not easy for them either because the international community has an agenda, they have an agenda and IPTF has an agenda…. One thing we’ve discovered is that you can’t move forward at the same pace as you would back home because the circumstances are so different…. If you try to force the agenda, it works against you and nothing goes forward.”

*  *  *

It’s nearly 10 p.m. and the armored personnel carrier is getting close to Camp Maple Leaf in Zgon. The moon is smaller, but a lot brighter. Up ahead, the road is a thread of moonlight between the folds of the hills. Reuf Jihic and I are still standing in the carrier’s rear hatches, swaying back and forth like a couple of jack-in-the-boxes. Going by on our right is a cemetery containing the remains of several children and a number of teachers who during the war were taken from their school and slaughtered as part of an “ethnic cleansing” campaign that reminds one of the Holocaust. Their bodies were found in the bottom of a well and tonight the moonlight is flashing off the wooden markers.

Finally, we arrive at Camp Maple Leaf. Early the next morning, the show tour heads to Camp Holopina at Coralici. Along the way, a number of performers stop at a Canadian Forces platoon house in Bihac. During a performance there, some of the local children swarm around Chris Dahl as he hands out suckers. “It’s pretty exciting over here,” said Dahl. “It’s totally different from anything I’ve ever done before…. It’s amazing when you drive around and see the towns and villages; the bombed-out ones, the split-down-the middle ones and the ones that seem to be thriving.”

The show tour’s producer and I take a different route to Coralici. Just outside Zgon–in the town of Kljuc–we make a sharp turn and then travel up a rough mountain road to the ruins of an old castle. While standing on the top of a cliff, Mark Ross and I look down at the town and try to imagine what it was like during the war and how so much hatred could exist in such a lovely land. We feel lucky to be Canadian.

Turning around to face the castle, Ross and I see an old Muslim goat herder squatting on a rock below the castle wall. He takes out a pipe and Capt. Shawn Luckhurst, 33, of Peterborough, Ont., bends down to give the leather-faced man a light. The goat herder takes a puff and then after scratching his grizzly chin tries to tell us something about the war. Clearly, he’s a survivor; an old man with many stories to tell.

In Coralici and in Velika Kladusa the show tour matches the success it had in Drvar. “The show here in Coralici was excellent,” said Capt. Colin Mombourquette, a military psychologist forCCSFOR. “It was much better than the show I saw in Cyprus 20 years ago. The show tour is very important because the routine we have here is very demanding; long hours, long days and it goes on week after week after week. The tour came at a really critical time. It was superb.”

Corporal Jeff Brideau agrees. In Coralici, he was invited up on stage to play his guitar alongside Diteodoro. “It was an absolute thrill to be up there. I’ve seen Tony play in Ottawa many times, but I never thought I’d get the chance to play with such a master.”

Before flying home out of Zagreb, the tour’s participants meet for a farewell dinner. “This show tour is as good as any I’ve seen,” said Larose. “The performances were excellent. There was good flow and there was a lot of variety and fast action and some really good home-grown entertainment. The entertainers also mingled with the soldiers…and showed sincere interest in what they are doing over here for world peace.”

*  *  *

Two days after the show tour returned to Canada, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien made a quick visit to Camp Maple Leaf. He told soldiers from 1RCR Battle Group that “Canada is very proud of you.” He told them they have played a good and useful role. The prime minister also used his visit to extend the mandate of Canada’s troops in Bosnia for another year.

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