Arriving in Zagreb, Croatia, in April of 1993 we stampeded down the stairs from the aircraft to the waiting minibus. It was garishly painted with no seats, just strategically placed poles. We crammed in and within milliseconds the air became almost solid with cigarette smoke. The nine-hour flight from Winnipeg hadn’t been aboard a smoke-free plane, but we went without anyway. The government of Canada forbade smoking aboard the charter by military personnel. The stewards could smoke, the pilots could smoke, but not any member of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
The government’s concern for our wellbeing would have been a little easier to take if I wasn’t on my way to drive a 40-year-old armoured personnel carrier (APC) packed with laughably outdated equipment, which other countries had in museums, around the worst European civil war in half a century.
We were the advance guard of troops, not quite 300 men — the rest of the battalion’s thousand troops would arrive later. The former Yugoslavia was rapidly collapsing. The violence was horrific. My unit had been assigned to a UN peacekeeping mission in southern Croatia, which had declared independence two years earlier. Southern Croatia was still populated by many Serbs, and brutal ethnic cleansing had mostly emptied the area of Croatians. It was a nightmare.
We transferred off the bus onto standard army trucks and packed ourselves into the back, unable to move in our brand-new, stiff ballistic vests. Our weapons were still broken down in our kitbags under our feet, our ammunition still in carrying bags. We looked out the open tarp at the back of the truck as we passed picturesque villages with peasants. It was strangely picturesque, like something out of a cartoon.
And we rumbled along, the truck was full of the mindless bravado of young men. We discussed how we would soon put fear into the local ethnic forces and show these clowns what real soldiers looked like. We discussed how accurate our new optic gunsights were, how well they enhanced light and how deadly they made us. We traded “war” stories of our bravery during the intense training in Fort Ord and Winnipeg.
You don’t often actually experience a room or gathering suddenly falling completely silent from a happy clamour. But suddenly the sunny truck bay was absolutely still. We had entered no-mans land and a recently “cleared” village. Some of the houses still smouldered. There was stench of burned metal and plastics, and another, dankly sweet organic stench. Personal belongings were scattered everywhere. People’s memories, their realities, were spread like shrapnel on the ground in this smoking testament to inhumanity.
We rounded a corner and off the left side of the truck the one remaining wall of a ruined farmhouse came into our field of view. And clear and dark along the wall were a series of blood spatters. There where five distinct spatters — five victims. The blood was still fresh. We saw right away that the spatters were all different sizes, and every man on the truck realized why: Dad, Mom, the kids. The lowest impact spray would have made the victim about four feet tall.
Without any order being given, or even a single word being spoken, the silence was broken by the rasp of 20 zippers being ripped back. Our rifles were soon assembled and loaded.
Welcome to the show, I thought.
Months later, in mid September, the situation hadn’t improved. The battalion was being moved 1,400 kilometres south, to the scene of intense fighting between Serbian and Croatian forces. When I saw the Serbs running almost doubled over through the burning, shattered corpse of the village, I got my first real kick of adrenaline. My heart was racing, every sight and sound indescribably vivid. Smells were so strong they were like tangible objects.
We spent the night at an old Yugoslavian Army base. The morning started out at 5 a.m. for me, lining up my armoured personnel carrier with the rest of the company. We began moving toward the smoke and and the nonstop crashing of shells over the horizon in the early dawn light. We passed small knots of civilians fleeing the other way. They looked at us with a silent unreadable intensity as we passed.
Entering the village of Čitluk was surreal. Mortars were crashing down on the street to the west. Serb troops were sprinting, crouched low, ahead of us. Everything was on fire. Sgt. Rod Dearing’s familiar guttural growling through the earphones of our communications system was comforting: “Driver forward, swing right then tuck left between the houses.” As I manoeuvred into the space between the houses we had a full view of the Croatian positions 300 meters away, and they of us. The engineers arrived quickly in a M113 vehicle with a spade and dug a trench for our APC. I drove it in and dismounted.
Sgt. Dearing had always been very insistent on digging in whenever we stopped. He would quote old veterans who fought in Korea: “Always dig.” So we all dug fighting holes. The Croats and Serbs were trading heavy fire just in front of us. I was standing talking with Rob Deans and Guy Simmons when they first opened up on us. We were beside a barn with wood stacked along the side. Suddenly the tone of the firing changed and we heard the electric buzz of rounds going past us. The cords on the woodpile started to explode. We doubled over and ran toward where our APC was dug in. Sitting in the back of the carrier was Andrew Pendelbury, intently reading a Hustler magazine. I’ll never forget the look of shock on his face as he held that glossy magazine and the rounds started coming in.
We were almost to the vehicle. Sgt. Dearing up from somewhere behind us, screaming, “CRAWL!”. I was just scrambling into my little scrape when the Croatians opened up with a 30mm chain gun directly toward us. The first rounds impacted about six feet behind me. They where striking the ground just beside the APC, off for line but bang on for range. As I curled up in the fetal position in my trench there was a pause while the enemy gunner adjusted his aim. The next volley was on for line but just a bit high, missing our carrier by about four feet. Huge branches began dropping down around us as the rounds shredded a nearby oak tree. I occupied myself during all this by curling up in a ball and screaming, “F–K, F–K F–K!” at the top of my lungs.
The Croatian fire kept coming in. I heard the far less impressive pops of one of our C7 rifles returning fire. My section commander was screaming at me to open fire. I aimed my rifle and, for the first time in my life, opened up on a human being with lethal intent.
For just a moment the terror was overcome by an intensely eerie feeling. I was trying to kill men I’d never met.
God is truly in the details. We learned that lesson the hard way the first night. Our section had dug in in a farmyard with several buildings. One of them, a large tractor shed, had burned during the fighting and now smouldered behind our position. We didn’t give it a second thought — fires were everywhere. What was one more?
As darkness fell, a strong breeze came up. We learned the hard way that it mattered, a lot. Every time the wind blew the embers lit up with a bright orange glow, perfectly backlighting our position and silhouetting us to the enemy. The Croatian troops would obligingly open up on us with machine guns. This went on for several hours, with Simmons responding with our own C6 machine gun, limiting himself to short bursts, as he’d been trained, hopefully preventing the Croatians from discovering where he was and taking him out.
The crescendo of growled curses emanating from Sgt. Dearing had been building for a while. He was in the trench where Simmons had the C6. After a particularly well-aimed Croat burst shredded the fence two feet behind them, the sergeant lost it. I heard him erupt in a long stream of curses. He pulled Simmons away from the machine gun by the back of his body armour, growling, “Give me that f–kin’ thing!” He then grabbed it and preceded to empty most of a 200-round belt in one long burst.
When Sgt. Dearing wasn’t hunting humans for the Canadian Army, he was stalking dear and elk in the forests of northern Alberta and B.C. He was big enough to control this weapon well. Even during this manic firing, he was hitting his targets. Whatever he didn’t kill outright with his very well-aimed fire would have died of terror had they been able to behold the look on his face in the light of the six-foot flame coming out of the muzzle of the C6.
It was in that moment that Sgt. Rodger Dearing, of Williams Lake, B.C., announced with authority the Canadian Army’s presence on the field and our clear intent to hold it.
The fighting lasted two days. A reported 27 Croatians were killed. We got off with a few injuries; some French forces operating in the area were also injured. The Croatians eventually withdrew, and we cleared out the villages of any remaining resistance. There wasn’t much left to do. The villages had been completely destroyed, razed to the ground.
Some days after the fighting we were patrolling the mountainous edge of the so-called United Nations Protected Area. It was late fall and the colours were reminiscent of the Maritimes in the ancient forest. There was a grey quality to the light, no golden streamers through the trees. It was absolutely silent, an oppressive stillness over everything. We came across the remains of a Serb defensive position in the gloom. There had been a Croatian offensive in the area a week before. The Serbs must have been overrun then.
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