|Explore Eastern Europe Bosnia and Herzegovina|
A Canadian journalists travel /diary/ during a week-long visit with Canadian Armed Forces/ soldiers in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA Sometime back in mid-March Captain Guy Turpin first offered the Pembroke Daily Observer an opportunity for a media trip to Bosnia. That offer was in the form of a very brief email message that I happened to notice while scouring the Observers incoming email for sports items.
Essentially Capt. Turpin said in his message was that 3RCR had been on the ground in Bosnia for about six weeks and he thought it was about time to arrange a media visit.
I dropped the email message onto the desk of my managing editor Peter Lapinskie and added a verbal message of my own.
*If we decided to send someone on this,* I told him. *I/d be willing to go.*
That very quick conversation was enough to, eventually set into motion my first ever trip overseas.
When I was still in college studying the finer points of how to be a journalist I imagined myself becoming a foreign affairs reporter. I/d read Peter Worthingtons book /Looking For Trouble/ and it had a big impression on me. As the designated /Fireman/ for the Toronto Telegraph Worthington traveled all over the world and to some places that were very far off the beaten track and places no tourist would ever see. Or would ever want to see.
These things kept running through my mind as I went about preparing for my trip to Bosnia. There were very few initial details from the Canadian Armed Forces. In between getting together the necessary paperwork for my renewed passport and scheduling immunization I got to know Capt. Jean Morisette at DND HQ.
With my left shoulder still sore from Typhoid, Polio and Hepatitis A needles I was dialling Capt. Morisette almost daily. Okay. Maybe it was once or twice a week. Id also exchanged numerous emails with Capt. Turpin who was already in the Balkans.
My main focus for the trip was the try to hook up with as many Pembroke-Petawawa soldiers and bring back their stories to their families and friends back in the Valley.
The reaction I got from my wife Maria, daughter Brittany and other family and friends was also interesting. Marias first response to my phone call asking where my passport was, was a cautious *But I dont want you to go*. That lasted about 30 seconds and she quickly changed her mind.
She knew what I knew. This was the chance of a lifetime and not an opportunity to be passed up. My eight-year-old daughter Brittany simply wanted to know *why does Dad gets to go on a trip without us?* After I explained that this was part of my job and we looked up Bosnia on an atlas and located Zagreb she decided it was okay if I went without her. I also had to promise to bring her back a souvenir.
Other friends were certain I/d suffered some kind of breakdown and had lost my mind. Why would I want to go into a war zone, they asked.
The answer to that is really quite simple. In order to report on soldiers performing peacekeeping one has to go to the trouble spots. And although things have certainly settled down a great deal in the Balkans it is still a country with more than 9 million unexploded landmines. A country where, we/ve been told, we won/t be permitted to walk on the grass or leave the camps.
With all that in mind I continued with my pre-trip preparations, which included converting Canadian dollars into German Deutsche Mark and writing my will. I know that must sound over-dramatic but I figured if I filled out a will then I was going to be perfectly safe. After all how more dangerous could Bosnia be after covering the Pembroke Lumber Kings for the last six years? I/ve survived several road games surrounded by hostile fans in Cornwall, Smiths Falls and Lanark.
Check-in at CFB Treton: We arrive more than two hours ahead of our scheduled flight time. I introduced Shawn and myself to Capt. Morissette. He seems glad to see us and we meet a few more of the journalists that will be going along on the trip. Reporter Randy Richmond and photographer Dave Chidley from the London Free Press, Maria Calabrese from the North Bay Nugget, Michel Dongois from L/Actualite in Montreal, Joe McAllister from the Medical Post in Toronto and Don McArthur from the Windsor Star.
The two-hour wait for our flight to be called is boring. Theres very little to do at the CFB Trenton departure terminal expect watch tennis and boxing on TSN, joke with the other members of the media and military and hit the washroom four or five times. We have to check our baggage, tag our carry-on and collect our boarding passes. That kills about a half an hour. Eventually we are called into another departure lounge where we can at least see some aircraft.
It isnt long before we board a small mini-bus that shuttles us out to the Airbus for the nearly nine hours hop across the Atlantic. I watch CFB Trenton slowly fade away below a thin layer of clouds as we spiral tpwards and gain altitude. Im hoping I can get some sleep before we land at Zagreb because I know theres a busy day ahead and even more after that.
35000 feet over the Atlantic: The in-flight movies set a kind of depressing tone; The Green Mile, The Perfect Storm and then I guess to lighten the mood Patch Adams. I/m only partially interested in the films. I spend my time going from trying to sleep, trying to read the book I brought, re-reading the Balkan Conflict background information we received before we left and peering out the window to watch the bright moon rising over the right wing of the plane. Hope I get a glimpse of Italy as we fly over.
Arrival in Zagreb: Off the aircraft and onto a battered looking army drab green Bluebird bus. The area around our bus is ringed with yellow mine tape. It/s a preview of what we are going to see over and over again. It/s a few hours drive to Velika Kladusa or VK.
Good Morning Velika Kladusa: Camp Black Bear. Located at old industrial site steady stream of Operations and Camp Briefings has us all teetering on the brink of exhaustion. Jet lag coupled with the military/s insistence on making the information as dry as possible and delivering in via a PowerPoint presentation has many if us fighting to keep from nodding off at the conference table.
The worst part is that the Mine Awareness Training, which is vitally important in a country with up to 9 million unexploded landmines, is right in the middle of all these dull presentations. After telling me six times where the washrooms are at VK, not to fraternize and how many drink I can have, then theres MAT.
Zgon: Large tents inside even larger buildings. A former carpet factory still some large equipment there. Outside the gate there/s the ever-present pirate CD shop. I think I/ll always hold a special place in my heart for Zgon because I got my best nights sleep of the whole tour while I was there. Normally I only sleep a few hours at a stretch but at Zgon I was gone for more than nine hours.
Walking & Talking with Oscar Company in Drvar: After spending most of the afternoon riding around in a Grizzly AVGP (Armoured Vehicle General Purpose) with M/Cpl Kelvin Swanson and Sgt. John Barnhartd we stroll down the road after dinner for a walking tour of Dravr. Like everything else in Bosnia it/s not exactly what you/d expect. Leading the patrol is M/Cpl Todd Weber and Cpl. Dennis Barrett. Both are visibly well-armed with pistols and assault rifles.
Before the war the town of Drvar was predominantly Serbian but most of the Serbs fled to avoid the fighting and the /ethnic cleasing/ that we hear so much about on our side of the ocean. M/Cpl Weber is telling us that back in the spring of /98 he was with 1RCR in Dravr when many Serbs began to return. Tensions steadily rose until violence exploded in the centre of time. M/Cpl Weber himself and the small group of men under his command where at the centre of the riot. He points out the exact spot where they were pelted with plates, rocks and the occaisonal Molotov Cocktail. The situation escalated to the point where M/Cpl Weber told him men to select targets among the rioters. *One more Molotov Cocktail and we were ready to shoot. Then I got the order to pull back,* he said.
On our way across a large square three children are approaching us from the opposite side. M/Cpl Weber tells us that the soldiers don/t give candy or /bonbons/ to the local kids. *We don/t want them to look at us as a source of candy,* he said. But as members of the media, he explains, we are welcome to offer them candy if we like. When the kids are close enough they hold out their hands and ask *Bonbons ?* When we shake our heads they run off shouting back at us, *F**k You ! F**k You !*
So this is Bihac: The Bihac (pronounced Bee-atch) Platoon House resembles a military frat-house. Two separate building, three stories each surrounded by barbwire and sandbags. But the soldiers from 3RCR who sit inside this former restaurant probably have the most interesting post in the theatre. Theres a public school just across the street, the Bihac Market is only 100 yards away and several young ladies attending Bihac University live next door.
The Bihac Market: When I think of the city of Bihac Ill always think of the Bihac market and the people I met there. The city is almost totally Moslem with a small minority of Croatian-Bosnians. During the war the city changed hands eight times and its considered to be the most heavily mined area in Bosnia. During the war the Moslems and Croats were united against the Serbs inside what has become known as The Bihac Pocket. Faced with a common enemy these two groups have learned to live together in something resembling harmony. Walking through the Bihac Market I see what I first visualized when I imagined coming to Bosnia. Islamic music blaring out of speakers, all kinds of fruit and vegetable vendors sitting behind their wares, elderly men and women sitting drinking coffee outside small café, and scattered throughout the marketplace are veterans of the war crippled, limbs missing, scarred, their faces carrying a gaunt and haunted expression.
The Budimovic School: When we pulled up next to the school there were about four kids playing in the back schoolyard. By the time we had gotten off the bus that number had tripled and before long there were as many as 20 children running all around us, chattering at us, smiling, waving and generally very happy to see us.
Inside one little girl was showing off her arithmetic skills by solving problems on the blackboard for us at light-speed. Along the back wall of one of the classrooms the teacher had posted a wide variety of artwork that that students had done. Just like in almost any classroom back home. I took a closer look and as I was checking out one rather large painting which included several people, a house, trees and a cat I noticed something that I know I/d never see on a painting that my daughter would bring home. On one of the trees the young artist had included something completely Bosnian a /Danger Mine/ sign.
Mine Clearing Outside of Bihac: Before heading into the mine clearing area everyone must fill out a form indicating their blood type. I ask Cpl. Harry LeGrand just how much protection the frag-vest (required attire) will be in the event of a /mine-strike/ *It will protect you somewhat but it/s more to keep everyting (internal organs) in place,* he sayd as he makes sure my helmet and vest are strapped down correctly. I wonder out loud about the importance of giving my blood type. I/ve been in Bosnia for five days now and I still haven/t seen a single hospital. We are several miles for anything. We meet the de-mining team lead Sgt. Nedzed /Gyspy/ Hadzic. He/s telling us that his de-miners who have all volunteers to do this work have just been told that very morning that they will not be getting paid for the previous three months work. I can/t imagine anyone taking those kinds of risks, on a daily basis and accepting nothing in return. Sgt. Hadzic continues telling us that he don/t believe all the landmines in Bosnia will ever be cleared.
One Night in Zagreb: Just to prove that nothing in the Balkans is perfect or unexpected the Intercontinental Hotel in Zagreb gave our rooms out to a trade show. We arrived; eight Canadian journalists and two Armed Forces officers with luggage strapped all over us looking dishevelled and in no mood for any more red tape. After some initial haggling, lots of shuffling of paper and even a sympatric look from the hotel clerk, suddenly a map appeared. We were being directed to another Hotel Dubrovnik right in the heart of Zagreb. After mildly cursing the International under our breath we piled into four taxis and made our way through the winding and narrow streets. The driver of our cab, a Mercedes Benz asked us if wed just arrived in Zagreb and where were from. After telling him we were Canadian journalists flying home tomorrow he immediate made plans to pick us up and take us to the airport. After dropping our luggage and enjoying the view from Room #321 (mine) we headed out into the streets of the city. I/d been told that Zagreb was just like any other European city. Which is fine if you/ve ever been to another city in Europe. But this was my first time in Europe. The architecture was breathtaking. Church spires, old buildings everywhere, archways and big wooden doors. And here and there were signs of western influence. A McDonalds at one corner of Bana Josipa Jelacica Square.
We try to find a restaurant that has room for all ten of us. The first place we try, just down from the hotel is very full. We keep looking until we come across Fulirs down a narrow side street. Across from it is a very popular ice cream shop that always appears to be crowded.
We sit down and check out the menu, which is all in Croatian until the waiter brings us an English version. After our drinks arrive all on one bill I am charged with by Capt. Morrissette to explain to the waiter that we each would like separate bills. For some reason Jean seems to think I have a certain way with waiters. When he comes back and takes our food orders I pick up the bill with the drinks on it and say we all want separate bills, then I wave the drink bill and point to each around my table. It takes a moment for him to comprehend but then he rolls his eyes and gives a disgusted look before abruptly leaving us.
From the back of the restuarant we can hear him complaining loudly in Croatian to a co-worker. We all speculate that despite our request we won/t be getting separate bills and I know that I will be among the last served. I/m not served last but I dont exactly get what I order. I thought I/d chosen a grilled pork dish but instead I receive pasta. Its very good and I enjoy it. Don McArthur from the Windsor Star ordered the exact same thing and like me he didn/t get what he expected. We check the menu and see that there are two dishes with the same Croatian name.
After dinner we wander out en masse into the Zagreb nightlife. One of the political parties is throwing a party of their own inside the square near our hotel. Loud pop music by a succession of live performers and about 3000 young people are enjoying themselves. We stop at a café for more drinks, and then move on to another area to stop again for more. By 11pm the music has finished and then crowd is slowing thinning out. We chat with some of the them as they leave. Many of them speak English to some extent and almost all are more than happy to talk about their city and their country.
We talk with one young man whose English is quite good. Shawn has his video camera rolling and we ask him the proper pronounications of many of the places weve been. We laugh that one our very t night do we finally learn how to say the names properly.
Its close to midnight before I finally make my way up to my room. By 5am Im up again to watch the sunrise over the square. I head back outside and enjoy a few breakfast pastries from a street vendor and a cappuccino at the Café Mocca on the corner.
Before loading up into the taxis theres a bit of gamesmanship amoung the group. Weve all got Croatian Kunas left over and outside the of the country they arent worth anything. So its a use them or loose them sort of deal and everyone is offering to buy drinks, croissants, and even t-shirts for one another in order to unload the Croatian currency. I manage to hand off my last 15 Kunas as a tip to our taxi driver and decide to give the remaining coins to my daughter.
The CC-150 lifts off from the UN Airport and slowly circles and climbs as we say Zbogom (goodbye) and Do skorog videnja (see you later) !!
Bosnia is a truly lovely but still troubled country. They are beginning to rebuild but the ethnic tension is still quite apparent although it is in the background. I/m very grateful to have had this opportunity to see this part of the world. I/d very much like to come back in a few years and see how much farther the Balkans has progressed. The soldiers I met were professional, helpful and very willing to talk about their roles and their experiences in theatre. But most could not see a time in the near future when it would be possible for Canada to pull its/ troops out of Bosnia.
article published 6/4/2001