Twenty years ago Monday, the battle group of the Royal 22nd Regiment (Vandoos), including a large company of infantry from the Royal Canadian Regiment, arrived in Sarajevo to secure the airport – thereby permitting the delivery of international humanitarian aid to that beleaguered city.
For the next 30 days, the heroic actions of Canadian soldiers, for the first and last time in history, were the lead international story on every media outlet in the world.
Yugoslavia started to disintegrate in 1991 after the end of the Cold War. Both Slovenia and Macedonia declared their independence with little violence. When Croatia declared its independence on June 25, 1991, fighting broke out with the Serbian minority in Croatia supported by elements of the Yugoslavian National Army. The UN Security Council – its decision-making still stuck in the Cold War, when the prevailing threats to international peace involved conflicts between countries – authorized the initial dispatch of 12,000 “peacekeepers” into the heart of a civil war.
Canada contributed the largest contingent to the international force, consisting of the Vandoos battle group and the 4th Combat Engineer Regiment. They arrived at their designated locations in Croatia in March, 1992. Their tasks were to help create and secure one of the three United Nations’ protection areas (UNPAs) where the Serb minorities were located.
While the UN deployments to Croatia went relatively well, with “only” an average of 200 ceasefire violations per day, the situation in the Yugoslavian Republic to the south, Bosnia-Herzegovina, was disintegrating. Rumours were circulating that Bosnia would declare and receive significant international recognition as an independent country on April 6, 1992. The large Serbian minority (between 33 per cent and 37 per cent) had boycotted the referendum on independence and fighting commenced between elements of the Serbian minority and the fledgling Bosnian militias on “independence day,” April 6.
The UN Security Council, ignoring the recommendations of the military leadership of the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR), directed that our headquarters be established in Sarajevo, more than 200 kilometres from the mission we were to command and support in Croatia. It was naively assumed that the presence of a few hundred staff officers and support personnel ,plus a UN flag flying out front, would somehow maintain peace in Bosnia. Not!
As the fighting intensified in April and May, the population of Sarajevo understandably became more and more frustrated with UNPROFOR personnel in Sarajevo. We had been designated a protection force by the UN and that’s what we were doing within the UNPAs in Croatia; however, in Sarajevo, we had no combat capability to protect anything, including ourselves. In May, the UN recognized the error and ordered us to abandon Sarajevo and move our headquarters to Belgrade, frustrating the Sarajevans even more.
Having been humiliated by bad UN Security Council decision-making, the UNPROFOR leadership set to work on arrival in Belgrade developing a plan for our return to Sarajevo. Negotiations with Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic, breakaway Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and the president of Bosnia, Alija Izetbegovic resulted in an agreement whereby UNPROFOR would take over the operation and security of the Sarajevo airport. As it would take the UN at least a month to source the extra soldiers to carry out the mission, we would have to borrow a unit from our troops operating in Croatia in the interim. None of the other nations in UNPROFOR was keen to take on the task. Knowing that the Canadian battle group was the most heavily armed (the units had been deployed to Croatia by rail from our NATO contingent in Germany), I approached General John de Chastelain, the chief of the defence staff in Ottawa, for permission to borrow the Canadian unit for 30 days. Cabinet approval was obtained in record time and I was appointed the mission commander.
For 30 days, commencing July 2, Canadian soldiers led by Lieutenant-Colonel Michel Jones and operating in an extremely dangerous environment facilitated the delivery of approximately 300 tonnes of food and medical supplies a day to a city that was short of both. Soldiers risked their lives rescuing Sarajevans who were wounded and exposed to sniper fire.
The incoming humanitarian aid, following inspection by UN civil police and humanitarian agencies to ensure it was humanitarian aid, was delivered by the Canadians to distribution points in the city. Unfortunately, the majority of the aid ended up on the black market or in the hands of the Bosnian military. UNHCR, the UN’s lead aid agency, assured me this was not unusual but considering the risk accepted by Canadian soldiers, it was disappointing to say the least.
Thanks to outstanding leadership, training and occasionally Lady Luck, the most serious injury sustained by the battle group over 30 days in the most dangerous city in the world was the loss of a foot to a land mine by Corporal Dennis Reid from Newfoundland. While my reputation with the Sarajevans hit rock bottom due to their refusal to accept my mandate of impartiality and my daily contact with the leadership of both sides in the civil conflict, their genuine appreciation for what the soldiers of the Canadian battle group achieved was clearly evident.
When the battle group first rolled into Sarajevo, the doyen of the international media there, Martin Bell of the BBC, approached me and said, “Lew, what a shame they didn’t arrive yesterday.”
“Why?” I asked. “Because it was Canada Day,” he replied – much to my embarrassment.
Retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie was the first commander of UN peacekeeping forces in Sarajevo.