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General Lewis MacKenzie describes the impossible situation Canadian peacekeepers were in. (VINCENZO PIETROPAOLO)
General Lewis MacKenzie describes the impossible situation Canadian peacekeepers were in. (VINCENZO PIETROPAOLO)

John Doyle

A tale of Sarajevo so grim it’s must-see Add to ...

War, killing and remembering. That’s your weekend menu. And it is as it must be, on the cusp of Remembrance Day, and close as we are to the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.

Sector Sarajevo (Sunday, History, 9 p.m.) is a stunner. For what is apparently the first time, grim details of the 1992 Canadian peacekeeping mission in Sarajevo are revealed by those who were there. And it is formidably bleak viewing.

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Little wonder that so many people want to bury the memory of that time, of what happened in that place. In the brutal chaos following the breakup of the old Yugoslavia, the civil war in Bosnia was particularly barbarous. The Canadians went in as peacekeepers but, as one of them says in the opening minutes of the doc, “there was no peace to keep.” It is admitted here that the Canadians “went beyond the rules of engagement,” but it would be unwise to judge them harshly – they had little choice in a place where “animalistic behaviour,” as it is described to us, was rampant.

We are given a synopsis of the situation in Bosnia and reminded with forceful images that Sarajevo was being bombed constantly from the hills around the city. As you watch, it begins to matter little who the factions represented and who was angry about what. It’s the horror that matters.

It was an assignment that Canada took on willingly and speedily, General Lewis MacKenzie explains, while admitting to the deft manoeuvring he did to ensure that Canadian peacekeepers were going to be there, doing their job. We meet some of the Canadian soldiers who served on that mission. One explains, in a way that seems plaintive now, why he wanted to join the army and work as a peacekeeper: “I wanted to be a sheepdog to make sure the world’s sheep were kept safe from the wolves.”

He and his former colleagues explain the danger of dealing with the local militias that controlled the area around Sarajevo. “These guys were fighting on a mix of cocaine and alcohol,” one soldier said of the militiamen. They were beyond unreasonable and full of hatred. They had no anchor in anything but guns, weapons and death.

Martin Bell of the BBC turns up to tell his own horrific tales of murder and death. He sighs as he talks about the many attempted ceasefire agreements that led to nothing. He recalls the signing of one agreement that lasted such a short time that the fighting began again before the Canadians brokering the agreement had even left the building. So, they had to take cover under the table on which the agreement had been signed.

The Canadians were there, in part, to protect aircraft trying to land in besieged Sarajevo to deliver food and medical supplies. In the chaos, this became an impossible task – the fighting and bombardment never stopped. A woman who was shot by a sniper tells of two Canadians arriving on the scene and, at great risk, taking her to a hospital while being fired at. MacKenzie talks about the backlash from locals who complained that the Canadians hadn’t taken away the dead bodies of others. It was, as becomes clear, an impossible situation in which to try to adhere to the usual rules of peacekeeping.

The doc, finely crafted by filmmakers Barry Stevens and David York, gives us a sense of the carnage and barbarism and what the Canadians had to do in order to survive and to help. Some of the details make your hair stand on end, but this is a must-see, as a reminder of what happened then and of the effect it had on the Canadians who were there, trying so hard to be peacekeepers.

Also airing this weekend

Killing Kennedy

(Sunday, National Geographic Channel, 8 p.m.) is an adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s and Martin Dugard’s bestselling book. It isn’t about complex conspiracy theories. It’s a straightforward, fast-paced drama with Rob Lowe playing John F. Kennedy. There is some emphasis on the social mores and tenor of the time – one has the sense of it being a vague nod to Mad Men. While it’s slick, it doesn’t have much substance. The role of Lee Harvey Oswald falls to Will Rothhaar, and he’s excellent – this is an actor we’ll see in the future in more dramatic and subtle roles. Ginnifer Goodwin (Big Love) plays Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Trachtenberg (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is Oswald’s wife Marina, but this is about two men and their actions on the day in question.

All times ET. Check local listings.

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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