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Winding Down In Bosnia

by Ray Dick

It’s cool, grey and drizzling rain in a mountain valley near the northwestern Bosnian community of Sanski Most, the early morning stillness broken only by the rumble of vehicles moving into position to block a 3.5-kilometre section of rural road. The soldiers in the vehicles are Canadian, mostly Royal Canadian Dragoons from Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, who now call Camp Maple Leaf in Zgon their home. Routinely, the soldiers conduct patrols within a few hours’ drive of the base and this helps protect the civilians from the bitter ethnic strife. This morning, however, the Canadians are conducting an unannounced weapons sweep, and they are performing the search as part of their regular responsibilities with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force in the Balkans, a force that is already starting to downsize. In fact, the last Canadian six-month troop rotation—Roto 14—is scheduled to finish in November 2004. That roto will be half the size of the current Roto 13, and be made up of members of the Royal 22nd Regiment.

The searches always result in the collection of firearms or other weapons.

On the surface, everything looks peaceful on this December morning in 2003. However, you don’t have to look far to find evidence of the 1991-95 war. Some of the farmhouses destroyed in the war are being rebuilt. Only the bullet-marked skeletons remain of other homes whose occupants were forced to flee from the ethnic cleansing and fighting that killed more than 200,000. Bunkers sit on hillsides and millions of landmines are still hidden in the fields and roadsides. “There are a lot of three-legged goats around,” commented one Canadian soldier. It’s an area the Canadians know well. Some 40,000 have served here and elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia since 1992. Twenty-three have died in the process.

An ever-present watchdog barks a warning as the well-armed Canadians make their way single file down a narrow lane to one of the first farmhouses on the weapons sweep. A well-trained German Shepherd explosives-sniffing expert, courtesy of the local police department, stares the watchdog down as the soldiers fan out across the farmyard. A warning is soon sounded. Four bullets from an AK-47 assault rifle are found hidden in an eavestrough of an outbuilding.

Little else is found during the search of the property, save for a spent anti-aircraft shell casing. The owner explains that the ammunition is not his and was abandoned during the war. He was nervous, he said, but it was not because of the dogs and armed soldiers. He had a small business in nearby Sanski Most and was uneasy about his neighbours’ reactions to the raid. He didn’t want his name used or photos taken of his family.

There was a warmer welcome as the troops cautiously approached the next farmhouse down the road. Lucija Bozig hugs one of the Canadian soldiers and her husband Franjo invites them into his partially reconstructed house for something to eat. “I don’t hide anything—they’re more than welcome to search,” says Lucija, who was forced out during the war, robbed of all money and valuables and sent to live in Croatia. Her three children remain in Croatia, but she and her husband returned in 1997. They were given back their land and some materials to build a new home.

But poverty is pervasive, and an uneasy peace reigns in the valley. She believes the fighting will begin again when the NATO Stabilization Force (SFOR) pulls out of Croatia. “It’s absolutely necessary for the forces to be here,” says Lucija.

“We’re ready…just wait until you guys leave,” another young Bosnian told a Serbian-speaking journalist during a walking patrol through another town in the area, a view voiced by many in this country with 40 per cent unemployment and where some of the main activities seem to be in organized crime, such as smuggling and prostitution.

The tour was an eye-opener for the small group of Canadian journalists who were invited by the Canadian Forces to visit the bases in the Canadian area of responsibility in the northwest corner of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a rugged mountainous area about the size of Prince Edward Island. The group flew into Zagreb, Croatia, after an eight-hour flight from Trenton via Canadian Forces Polaris, with a short stopover at a NATO base in Germany.

Inside the austere airport, armed personnel checked passports, but a Canadian Forces presence eased the transition to Croatian soil. It wasn’t until after an hour-long bus ride that the devastation from the war became evident, when the bus crossed into Bosnia and approached Canadian Forces Base Black Bear in Velika Kladusa.

A few children waved from the sides of the road, but most of the residents in this area go about their business as usual, having become accustomed to having Canadian soldiers in their midst, either on foot patrols or riding their Iltis jeeps and Coyote armoured personnel carriers.

Camp Black Bear is the headquarters and support base for the Canadian contingent in Bosnia, which is scattered among three main bases—Camp Maple Leaf at Zgon, Camp Casa Berardi at Drvar and Camp Courcelette at Bihac. The National Support Element (NSE) includes more than 200 regular force and reserve troops that provide the camps with supplies, transportation of personnel and equipment, warehousing and repair of vehicles, weapons and electronic equipment. The military contingent includes a detachment of Griffon helicopters from 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron in Edmonton, a health services platoon headquarters, a unit medical section, a military police platoon headquarters and an investigation services detachment.

There is also a civilian component at Camp Black Bear, including those in the Canadian Forces Personnel Support Agency and civilian companies that have provided services to the military under contract (Civilians Into The Mix, March/April 2001). There are also about 300 locally engaged civilians throughout the Canadian area of operations, who view with trepidation the announced decrease and eventual departure of foreign forces from their soil. The NATO contingent of approximately 12,000 troops is to be cut by half later this year.

Between patrols, weapons searches and other duties, the Canadians do find time to prepare for a Christmas away from home. At Velika Kladusa, a Christmas tree has a place of honour in the mess and some decoration is evident around the renovated sea containers that serve as home for those who won’t be getting leave for the holiday. The atmosphere, however, is more Spartan in a bunker-like headquarters building where the commander of the Canadian contingent in Bosnia, Colonel John Tattersall, briefs a group of journalists. “The threat level now is low, but it is not nonexistent,” says Tattersall, a native of Chilliwack, B.C. There were terrorists in this country, smuggling and organized crime, and the white slave market was active. Minefields were everywhere. “We are constantly finding weapons,” he says, and after years of fighting and ethnic strife, “there is a culture of corruption.”

But there were hopeful signs, too. People were tilling the land, and herds of goats were grazing the steep hillsides. “I think it’s the right time to look at the reduction of our forces.”

Captain Peter Ruggiero, operations officer at Camp Black Bear, describes the situation in Bosnia as “relatively stable, but fragile.” He adds his own warning about landmines, saying it will take 50-80 years to de-mine the entire country. “Stay on hard surfaces,” the journalists were told. “And don’t pick up anything that is not yours.”

Fully kitted out with helmets, gas masks, flak jackets and emergency rations (in case of ambush, accident or some type of terrorist calamity), the journalists board an SFOR bus for a several-hour ride to Zgon. The roads are treacherous, and vehicle accidents (and landmines) have claimed most of the Canadian lives lost in the Balkans.

Ruling the roost at Camp Maple Leaf are about 600 members of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, the Canadian battle group for this rotation, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Dean Milner. The colonel is no stranger to this area of operations, which has about 300,000 people. He was here in 1994-95, and was detained by the Serbs for 15 days. “A lot has changed since then,” he says. “But we’re still doing some good things here, and we’re still providing a solid deterrence.”

The biggest problem was the economy, and the Canadians were providing a lot of aid to the civil power, the police and the military to combat the resultant organized crime problems. “We’re finding fewer illegal weapons on our searches,” says Milner. “But the people here are still not comfortable with their neighbours, and they don’t want us to leave.”

Milner’s comments were amply demonstrated in the weapons search near Sanski Most. On the eve of the raid, Dragoons liaison officer Lieutenant Chris Hardy of Logan Lake, B.C., boards an Iltis jeep along with driver Corporal R.J. Clarke on his third Bosnian tour, an interpreter and myself for a visit with Sanski Most Police Chief Atif Dzagic. This visit is part of the liaison work the Dragoons carry out with local officials, but this time the chief is informed of the time, but not the place, of the upcoming search for illegal weapons. The chief’s men, along with some explosive-sniffing dogs, are to join the Canadians in Sanski Most before proceeding to the search area.

In the dimly lit police office, the liaison is going well. Dzagic, who spent about seven months in a Serbian concentration camp, explains the details to Hardy of a recent burglary of a gun store in the city. “The damage was huge,” he says. “There were 32 pistols of different types stolen and three hunting rifles. It’s the first time since the war that we had such a robbery.”

Back at camp, Lieut. Pat Slack, a former schoolteacher and now a reservist from the Queen’s Own Rifles in Toronto, is making final preparations for the early morning raid. The soldiers are armed, and heavier firepower is available from the Coyotes that will be parked on the road nearby. They ask to search the buildings, but if necessary they can cut locks and smash down doors. “Most Bosnians, however, have proved to be accommodating,” says Slack. “We have found little resistance inserting ourselves into their homes. Sometimes it’s harder for us than for them.” He adds that he also has confidence in his men. “As a high school teacher I had 30-35 kids in each class. In the army I have 34 guys who want to be here. These men carry out difficult and complex tasks, and I can trust them with a loaded gun in a marketplace.”

Although journalists had time to witness only a few small seizures at the start of the weapons collection exercise, the final tally for the platoon over two days of searching roughly 100 rural homes was five guns, one grenade, a bayonet and a small amount of ammunition. Some of the guns, although found in outbuildings, had recently been cleaned and oiled.

For the journalists, it was another bus ride through the mountains, this time the destination Camp Casa Berardi in Drvar, a huge concrete structure that once housed a bread factory and which many of the troops who serve or served there call Castle Greyskull. On the way, the evident damage was mixed with relics of WW II and monuments to one of the greatest leaders of the Yugoslav peoples. The only man who has ever been able to make the hostile tribes live together in relative peace was Croatian leader Josip Broz, who emerged from the ashes of World War II as Marshal Tito.

Tito, who died in 1980, is prominently remembered. On the highway to Drvar, mountainside trees have been cut, etching the name Tito so it can be seen for miles. In the city itself, a park has been constructed with a path leading up to Tito’s caves. Here hundreds of German soldiers who landed in gliders to take Drvar were killed. Tito and his men escaped through the mountains via these caves.

It’s early morning at Castle Greyskull when Sergeant Vince Higgins of Truro, N.S., and three other young soldiers of 1 RCR in Petawawa roll out of their cots in tents set up amid the old bread-baking machinery and leave on a foot patrol through the town. We walk along streets where roofless buildings have been abandoned, interiors of homes and businesses looted and burned, and many residences still bear the scars of bullet wounds. Higgins has seen worse. This is his third tour in this town that had a prewar population of about 10,000, 99 per cent of them Serbs. The Croatians took over the area during the war, and when Higgins was here for the riots in 1998, the town was 80 per cent Croatian. “They had some growing pains in resettlement,” says Higgins. Now the population is about 8,000 Serbs and 2,000 Croatians.

It is also not new to Cpl. Rich Lamontagne of Welland, Ont., who was on his second tour in Bosnia. During the foot patrol he talks, through an interpreter, to local business people and residents, asking if they have any problems, such as robberies, intimidation or organized crime. “They are very cooperative… they never give us a hard time,” says Lamontagne. Bringing up the rear and making sure nobody strayed from the hard-packed surfaces were Private Anthony Vail of Brown’s Flat, N.B., and Pte. Chris Stamplecoski of Wilno, Ont. They are enjoying the experience of their first tours.

Christmas is also on the minds of the Canadian troops, mostly reservists, at Camp Courcelette in Bihac, one of the smaller Canadian bases in Bosnia (about 100 military and civilian personnel) along with a Canadian presence at international camps at Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Sipovo and the radio rebroadcast sites on Mount Gola and Gos Peak.

The atmosphere at Bihac was welcoming after another hours-long bus ride. Christmas ornaments and Christmas cards from schoolchildren across Canada decorated the mess facilities. One of the favourite evening pastimes among the troops not out on patrol was to sit around an outdoor fireplace to talk about events of the day and future assignments.

It has been relatively quiet here as the tour winds down, and this is evident as a foot patrol of reservists led by Major Dwayne Hobbs of the Toronto Scottish strolls through this ancient city of about 40,000 people along with Sergeant Major Jim Devine of the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, Master Corporal Ted Teoh of the Royal Canadian Regt. and Cpl. Dwayne Marshall of the Royal Regt. of Canada. Damage from the war is noticeable, and one incident brings that to mind as the armed patrol moves through a busy market area. A loud bang is heard. A young boy has thrown a firecracker and an irate mother hauls him away, scolding her son and shouting apologies to the soldiers.

It’s back to the bus and the winding mountain roads for the journalists as they head back to Velika Kladusa for a one-night stay in the now-familiar renovated sea container before proceeding to Zagreb, and the first hotel room for 10 days. In the cargo hold of the CF Polaris is the body of a Canadian soldier who committed suicide while serving in Banja Luka—the 24th Canadian to die in Bosnia.


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