The following article was reprinted courtesy of the Globe and Mail newspaper, as originally published on 12th March, 1994. During the Civil War in the former Yugoslavia the Canadian UN peacekeeping forces began to sustain more casualties during the peacekeeping operations and this sparked a great debate whether our role should continue or should the Canadian Armed Forces pull out and simply let all the Yugoslavs go at it and slaughter each other. The Prime Minister at the time and some members of parliament and media were calling for a pull-out and the article below was a response in this debate. We had watched the tragic events unfold since the beginning of the war and it was clear that the possible pull-out of Canadian peacekeeping forces, however, imperfect the mission might have been, would have led to complete disaster and more insane blood shed. The article, written by Louis Gentile, spelled out the purpose of the Canadian commitment to stay the course and finish the mission that we started so beautifully that we took it upon ourselves, rather than writing our own letter, to send it to 265 members of Parliament to send this article instead with a few simple comments. 265 copies went out and while only about five responses came back, a month or so later the Canadian Prime Minister who seemed disinterested in this international mission, paid a visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina to visit the Canadian troops there and subsequently the Canadian mission continued. We believe that this article had a significant impact on the outcome as it speaks to the purpose of the mission so beautifully that through our own conscience our participation, commitment and sacrifice, spoke volumes as to who we are as a country and a people.

 

Peacekeeping: What a billion dollars buys

 

I have recently returned to Canada after a 13-month tour of duty in Bosnia with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I have been struck by the questions raised in the national media about the wisdom of our government spending more than $1-billion thus far on our peacekeeping efforts in the former Yugoslavia.

Like most Canadians, prior to my experience in Bosnia, I had little contact with the military and had little idea what peace-keepers abroad actually did. After more than a year in Bosnia, often working directly with UN soldiers and Canadian UN soldiers in particular, I know exactly what they do on a practical level, and what Canada’s billion-plus-dollar investment has achieved. Our soldiers may not be at war but they are certainly in a war (and for soldiers often under direct fire from a hostile army, and for their families, the distinction is academic).

I was in the eastern Bosnia enclave of Srebrenica last March and April as the UNHCR representative, both before and after the arrival of a Canadian company, which was deployed in the town after it was declared a safe area by the UN Security Council. Even prior to the arrival of the company of Royal Canadian Regiment on April 18 a small group of five Canadian soldiers was stationed in the town by French Lieutenant-General Phillippe Morillon (then commander of UN forces in Bosnia).

We live together in what had once been the town’s telephone and telegraph building. Conditions were atrocious. The population of 50,000 was starving and desperate to flee.

Shells from the ever-advancing Serb forces were pounding the town daily. The conditions in the only hospital, directly across the street from us, were such that when I escorted a Belgian surgeon from Medecins sans frontieres there he almost threw up on the steps entering the hospital because of the stench. He had arrived with our convoy to assist the only surgeon in Srebrenica, who was nearly mad from all the horror he had witnessed.

The garbage bin in front of the hospital was overflowing with human body parts, amputated arms and legs. Ravenous dogs could be seen strolling with human hands dangling from their mouths. Everybody in the town believed they would be slaughtered by the advancing Serb army and many had good reason as they had just fled nearby towns like Cerska and Konjevice Polje which the Serbs completely annihilated. We were far from confident of getting out alive ourselves.

In Srebrenica alone I witnessed a lifetime’s worth of heroism by Canadian troops. So many images come to mind: Sergeant Gordon Morrison running out under artillery fire to assist two other Canadians wounded when Bosnian Serbs shelled our helicopter medical evacuation of some of the most seriously wounded civilians on March 23, 1993; Canadian soldiers dragging wounded children into the back of a blood-splattered armoured personnel carrier while under direct artillery fire on April 12, 1993; a wounded Canadian soldier being evacuated by helicopter on a winch clutching a wounded Bosnian baby in his arms, and the baby dying just as the winch was lowered. Most of all, I was touched by their empathy and good will to local population despite the impossible circumstances in which they found themselves.

During the span of one month last year, along with UNHCR and MSF, Canadian troops in Srebrenica played a pivotal role in evacuating 8,000 civilians (women, children, wounded, and elderly)l, in cleaning up and restoring the town, assisting humanitarian convoys and avoiding mass starvation and, most important, in establishing the safe area thus saving tens of thousands of lives. The "Van Doos" went on to replace the RCR company and carried on the role of devotion to the civilian population of Srebrenica, helping to rebuild the town, and risking their lives to protect them.

By July of last year, when I returned to Srebrenica before moving to the town of Banja Luka, the town had been transformed. It was then and is still now be sieded by Bosnian Serbs, but the progress made by a relatively tiny number of troops against overwhelming odds has been remarkable.

It is not so much the occasional act of heroism as the solid professionalism, empathy, and courage demonstrated on a daily basis that earns them the respect of all those who have witnessed their work first-hand. It is this standard of conduct which serves as an example for all our troops serving at home and abroad.

So when asked what we as Canadians have received in return for a billion dollars of peacekeeping in the former Yugoslavia, I respond: "Tens of thousands of lives." Is it worth the price" I leave the answer to each and every Canadian and his or her conscience. (Expl. Pg. # 4)

 

Louis Gentile, Toronto 

 

 

In another operation during the battle for the Medak Pocket (Operation Medak Pocket) in September 1993, Canadian UNPROFOR troops muscled their way into an buffer area between some Serbian villages, occupying abandonded Serbian and Croatian Army positions.  In doing this they prevented at least some of the slaughter of defenceless Serb civilians by Croat forces. As with any civil war, there were not completely innocent parties on any of the three sides. 

For the first time UNPROFOR did not back down, but rather with the Canadians as UNPROFOR’s best trained troops with professional career officers and NCOs, they "stuffed their blue berets in their pockets", put on their helmets and slugged it out with the Croatian Army and against a rain of heavy artillery and automatic cannon fire, ultimately bringing the incursion along that front to a stand still. It was reported that during an intense night battle four Canadians were wounded, and 27 Croatian Army soldiers were killed or wounded according to the initial Croatian Army reports, and according to the Canadian Commander Lt. Col. James Calvin.