Perhaps even more than in Egypt or Cyprus, Canadian soldiers faced arduous and perilous conditions in Yugoslavia. This Balkan nation was composed of a number of ethnic groups that were historically hostile to each other. This diverse ethnic composition, and resulting rivalries, reflects the Balkan's centuries of history as the front line of conflict between the Islamic and Christian world. Ethnic tension in the region, never far from the surface, has traditionally found an outlet in violence, and historic and ongoing betrayals, real and imagined, have left the groups with a deep distrust of their neighbours. Religious differences are also a factor. The Serbs (Orthodox), Croats (Catholic), and Kosovars (Islamic) are, predominantly, of different faiths. (The population of Bosnia was fairly evenly divided between these three religions.) Under the communist rule of Marshal Tito, these tensions had been kept in check. Yugoslavia survived the first decade of the post-Tito era, but the pessimists proved to be correct. When civil war broke out, the only military force was the Yugoslav National Army. It was soon fractured as the various ethnic nations broke away and formed independent states. Those states formed militias comprised of people with scant training and devoid of military discipline and organization. As one historian aptly states: "Rival militias fired weapons in the vicinity of opposing troops, more often than not, intent on killing civilians. The result was to create a pattern of combat where military casualties were few. The new armies knew how to kill, but not how to wage war against other soldiers properly. Unprotected civilians were a different matter. And so, the objective in these wars was not to defeat the opponent's combat power but to consolidate new ethnic nation-states by killing or driving out those who did not fit." (1) Such ethnic cleansing, as these tactics came to be known, was practised by all parties in the civil wars that erupted in 1992, and Canadian soldiers became witnesses to unspeakable acts of barbarism.
Slovenia and Croatia declared independence in 1991. The Yugoslavian government attempted, through force of arms, to prevent the secession of these two would-be autonomous states. The stated reason for this action was to protect Serbian minorities in those countries. Slovenia separated easily after a short standoff between Slovene forces and the Yugoslav army garrison and has quietly settled down to integrating into mainstream western European life. In Croatia, Serb fears proved to be well founded, and, by 1995, the Serb communities that had occupied eastern Croatia's Krajina area for hundreds of years had been expelled. The Croats, despite the best efforts of Canadian peacekeepers, had "ethnically cleansed" the Serbian population. For their part, the Serbs undoubtedly wanted to retain control of a greater Yugoslavia. The result of these three-sided civil wars was thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of political refugees (perhaps as many as 1.7 million according to UN estimates).
Bosnia, celebrated by many as a successfully integrated multicultural society, also pushed for independence and, in the process, a civil war erupted between Bosnia's three main ethno-religious groups: Serbian, Bosniak (Bosnian Muslims), and Croatian. (Convenience, however, sometimes brought the Bosniak and Croatian elements together against Serbs seeking annexation of their territories to Yugoslavia itself.) Canada was precipitated into the Bosnia morass in dramatic fashion in 1992. The first Canadian contingent to the UN peacekeeping mission in Yugoslavia, UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force), dispatched from Germany, was nominally based on the 1st Battalion, Le Royal 22e Régiment (1 R22eR), with about 40 per cent coming from 3rd Battalion The Royal Canadian Regiment (3 RCR) as well as a combat engineer squadron (company) from 1 Combat Engineer Regiment in Lahr, a critical unit in an area saturated with unmarked minefields. The UN had requested that this totally mechanized battalion replace most of its M113 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) with trucks. The Canadian commander in Germany, Brigadier-General Clive Addy, advised by Brigadier- (soon to be Major-) General Lewis Mackenzie who was already in Yugoslavia, refused. Canadian troops arrived in Croatia with all their APCs including those equipped with TOW (Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided) anti-tank missiles and 81mm mortars. Addy and Mackenzie were quickly proven correct in their conviction that the protection and firepower this equipment provided would be essential to ensure both the success of the mission and the safety of Canada's soldiers. The original UNPROFOR mandate was to deploy along the Serb/Croat ceasefire line, and the Canadians, pretty much the first contingent on the ground, were slowly starting to familiarize themselves with their new mission in May and June, while a full-scale civil war was raging in Bosnia. UNPROFOR was instructed to open a way for convoys of food and medical supplies. Thanks to their robust equipment, the "Vandoos" and "Royals" of 1 R22eR were the only real option available to the UN in order to accomplish this task. Fittingly, on Canada Day, 1 July 1992, the world press was reporting the saga of these troops forcing their way through Serb checkpoints and deploying around the airport and downtown of Sarajevo. Major-General Lewis Mackenzie, the senior UN commander in Sarajevo, and the Canadian soldiers gained worldwide prominence due to extensive media coverage. In early August, 1 R22eR returned to Croatia, but, later that year, Canada sent a second battalion-sized battle group to Bosnia -- 2nd Battalion of The Royal Canadian Regiment. This contingent included a squadron of the 12e Régiment Blindé du Canada (12 RBC) with their Cougar armoured cars (2) and a squadron of combat engineers from Valcartier, Quebec.
The theoretical aim of the Canadian contingent's participation in UNPROFOR II, the UN force in Bosnia, was to escort humanitarian relief convoys, but it quickly became involved in trying to mitigate the impact of the civil war. The most dramatic incident was its intervention on behalf of the besieged Muslim communities in eastern Bosnia. At Srebenica, French General Claude Morillon (Mackenzie's replacement as the UN commander in Sarejevo), with a small escort of Canadians, worked out an agreement whereby the Muslims in five United Nations "safe areas" were to disarm but be protected from the Serbs by UN soldiers. The Canadian contingent increased, eventually, to as many as 175 before being replaced by a lightly armed, 500-man Dutch battalion. Canadian soldiers were, like the local populations, besieged for months at a time. These troops sometimes survived on half rations, and, on being relieved, often looked as haggard as the populations they were protecting. The cost to Canadian peacekeepers in injuries from hostile fire and mines was a heavy one. The Serbs eventually crushed four of these five "safe areas" in 1995. The one exception other than Sarajevo, which was really a sixth "safe area," was Gorazde. Unlike the other four, it had no peacekeepers in 1994, only a team of UNMOs assisted by British Special Air Service (SAS) patrols. The story of the role of a young Canadian UNMO, Major Pat Stogran, in protecting Gorazde has recently come to light. (3) The other "safe areas" protected by UN peacekeepers later fell to Serb forces, but the use of NATO air power saved Gorazde. The air strikes were used on the recommendation of Major Stogran and directed to their targets by the SAS patrols. NATO had made air power available to the UN when evidence came to light that Yugoslavia was giving strong military support to Bosnian Serbs. This was the first instance of its use (and the first instance of the use of NATO air power against ground targets). Serb forces were very near to investing the town but backed off when the air strikes were escalated from local tactical targets (individual tanks, etc.) to strategic targets deep in Bosnian Serb territory. British UN peacekeepers then entered the town, which was the only one that did not fall to Serbs in the final phase of the war in 1995.
The Canadian contingent was able to protect the Serb enclave in the Krajina region of eastern Croatia until 1995 when a major Croatian offensive succeeded in expelling the entire Serb population. In 1993, the Canadian contingent, 2 PPCLI battle group, had been able to stop an earlier offensive. The men of 2 PPCLI did so despite the battalion having a great deal going against it. Of its 875 soldiers, only 375 came from the unit: the remainder were augmentees, 385 militia soldiers and 165 from other regular force units. Only a long period of intense combat training that allowed the building of cohesive teams at section, platoon, and company level allowed 2 PPCLI to avoid disaster. (4) Croatian forces attacked the Canadian soldiers over a period of four days. The Canadians returned fire, suffering several wounded but no loss of life. Croatian officials publicly admitted to losing some 27 killed and wounded to UN fire in this action, but their actual losses were probably much higher. (5) Eventually, 2 PPCLI launched a full-scale assault, the first by the Canadian army since Korea, to reoccupy the ceasefire zone. Although its objectives were achieved without firing a shot, a tense confrontation took place between Croatian tanks and Canadian TOW M113 APCs. This confrontation ended only when the commanding officer of the Patricia's called forward 20 international journalists accompanying the troops to witness what was going on. The Croatians left the Krajina region but not before inflicting scenes of death, rape, pillage, and wanton destruction on the areas they briefly occupied. The Canadian "peacekeepers" who witnessed the carnage as they moved in were left with indelible scars. The experience of Yugoslavia clearly provides the lesson that peacekeeping is best carried out by combat trained, well-equipped troops.
Bosnia, however, is far from the only peacekeeping mission that Canada has recently undertaken. The 1990s have seen Canadian troops in locations as diverse as El Salvador, Cambodia, and the Israeli-Arab border. Canada has been particularly active in Africa. Angola, Mozambique, Rwanda-Uganda, the Sahara, and Somalia have all received Canadian peacekeepers over the last few years. The most famous, and infamous, of these African operations occurred in Somalia, although the UN mandate in Somalia was one of combating military factions interfering with relief rather than peacekeeping.
Most recently, Canadians have been attempting to keep the peace in Kosovo. Kosovo, another province that has attempted to break away from Yugoslavia, has also endured the wrath of the Serbian military and the ethnic cleansing campaigns of Serbian politicians.
- 1. Lee Windsor, "Professionalism under Fire: Canadian Implementation of the Medak Pocket Agreement, Croatia 1993," Canadian Military History 9:3 (2000). Available online . This article includes a detailed description of the Medak Pocket action that involved 2 PPCLI.
- 2. The Cougar, a six-wheeled vehicle armed with a very good 76mm gun, was purchased as a tank trainer, that is to say, a vehicle that would enable a squadron or regiment to convert quickly to tanks. It was also used in Somalia where its 76mm gun was fired at least once. It was never conceived that it would be used in battle but, in fact, did prove reasonably effective in the convoy escort role. TOW equipped M113s, which could match any tank in the area, often backed up the Cougars. The infantry were mounted in the wheeled Grizzly APC, a sister vehicle to the Cougar. The wheeled Grizzly, instead of the tracked M113, made sense in an area where convoy escort was to be a major focus.
- 3. For more information on this incident, please see Gillian Sandford and Chris Wattie, "Canada's Unsung 'Superhero,'" National Post, 12 January 2002. Available online . Major Stogran, who was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, later commanded the 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia's Light Infantry during its deployment to Afghanistan in 2002.
- 4. Ironically, time did not permit battalion-level training as part of the three-month work up period. Nevertheless, the intense training prior to deployment and the professionalism of the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Calvin, and his staff was such that the battalion assault to reoccupy the Krajina ceasefire zone was executed without a hitch.
- 5. For details of this defensive action, see Scott Taylor and Brian Nolan, Tested Mettle: Canada's Peacekeepers at War (Ottawa: Esprit de Corps Publications, 1998), pp. 123-41.