Medak Pocket: Canada’s forgotten battle

MEDAK, CROATIA—Canadian veteran Rob Deans is still haunted by the shell-scarred ruins and forgotten landmines of Croatia’s Medak Pocket.

It’s been 20 years since he was last here, but not a day goes by when he doesn’t think about this place.

“I can picture the trees, the path, the burning garage, everything,” says Deans, who is returning to Croatia this week. “I want to stand on that ground again and remember the lessons and what we did. It’s my touchstone.”

In September 1993, Deans and nearly 900 of his fellow Canadian soldiers fought a forgotten battle in a brutal war.

The Battle of Medak Pocket should have been celebrated as a story of Canadian heroism. Instead a pivotal moment in the country’s history became one of its lost chapters.

Now, two decades later, combatants and victims alike want the story told.

Taking a stand

In the aftermath of the 1991 breakup of the former Yugoslavia, Croatia’s war of independence was marked by mutual atrocities on its eastern border with the Republic of Serbian Krajina, a breakaway state propped up by Belgrade.

Several thousand Canadians served in the United Nations mission to stabilize the region between 1992 and 1995, part of Canada’s many contributions to UN forces in the Balkans.

For seven days in 1993, faced with the ethnic cleansing of Serb civilians by Croatian forces, the Second Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry took a stand.

As they beat back fierce attacks, the soldiers watched villages burn and heard the screams of tortured victims.

The Battle of Medak Pocket was the most significant fighting for Canada’s forces since the Korean War. As many as 27 Croats were killed and four Canadians wounded.

When it was over, the Canadian soldiers had pushed the Croats back to their original lines and restored the UN mission’s credibility.

The battle would change the face of peacekeeping, and influence how the Canadian military approached post-traumatic stress disorder.

But as the soldiers returned home, the public was learning of the torture and death of a teenager at the hands of Canadian soldiers in Somalia. The violence of Medak raised questions about peacekeeping the government didn’t want to answer.

Abandoned by their military, marriages fell apart, soldiers turned to drugs and alcohol, some became homeless.

Struggling to survive

On Sept. 15, 1993, Deans was huddled in the attic of a beat-up house, watching in dismay as his small unit of eight soldiers lost a firefight. He’d just turned 22 and was second in command.

“Nothing like this had happened to our military in generations. It just wasn’t something we were prepared for,” he says.

Machine-gun rounds, rifle grenades and mortar shells ripped into the Canadian trenches, shattering trees, collapsing walls and filling the air with shrapnel. The rubble of a nearby farmhouse burst into flames as Croat soldiers crawled closer to the Canadian position.

“I was looking and looking but I couldn’t see anything to shoot at,” remembers Deans, now a Vancouver firefighter and warrant officer in the Reserves. Several of the Canadians were pinned down on their backs, “holding their rifles to their chests.”

Worse than the terror of the incoming rounds was the knowledge that civilians were dying, trapped behind Croat lines. At that moment, however, the Canadians were struggling to survive.

Fast and brutal

Days earlier, on Sept. 9, more than 2,500 Croat troops backed by tanks and artillery swept into the Medak Pocket.

The Serb-controlled region of fertile farms and tiny villages, a few kilometres from the sunshine of the Adriatic coast, extended deep into Croatian territory. The Serb forces used it to attack the nearby Croatian town of Gospic, sending shells soaring over the Pocket’s 600 to 650 remaining inhabitants.

The Croat assault was fast and brutal. By Sept. 12, their tanks were just a few minutes’ drive from the Canadian position in the town of Medak. Thousands of shells pounded the area, wounding four Canadian soldiers.

According to Royal Military College history professor Sean Maloney, the UN mission was in crisis as Serbs across the Balkans retaliated with new attacks.

“If fighting in the Medak Pocket had continued, it would have spread across the region,” he says.

But few expected the UN to do anything about it.

In the Croatian town of Bilaj, on the edge of the Pocket, 8-year-old Stipe Zivkovic was walking down an old railway track when the Serb artillery finally replied.

“I dropped my candies between the tracks, and just as I bent down, the shells hit,” he says. Shrapnel fell around him in a metal rain as he dashed into a nearby basement.

Today, Stipe deals cards at a Bilaj cafe, buying half-litre beers for anyone who wants to listen to his stories. The cafe’s pockmarked concrete is still scarred by war.

“My father fought here. All our fathers did,” he says. “He has PTSD. So many of them have that.”

Badly outgunned

Under international pressure, the Croats finally agreed to pull back on Sept. 15. UN commander Lt.-Gen. Jean Cot ordered the Canadians to move in.

His plan called for the Canadians to put themselves between the Croats and Serbs — who were still fighting — and push each side back.

Canadian commander Col. Jim Calvin could have refused. The mission was far beyond the peacekeeping mandate. And without tanks, artillery or air support, they were badly outgunned.

Now retired, tears come to Calvin’s eyes as he remembers his soldiers and their later struggles.

But ask about Medak, and he’s again the hard-driving commander who led his troops into battle.

“What were we going to do,” he says, voice rising as he leans across the kitchen table at his home in Wolfe Island, Ont. “Have a fire drill every time shells start falling?”

Calvin accepted the ambitious plan without hesitation. But there was one more surprise: there was a good chance the Croats hadn’t told their front-line soldiers they had to withdraw, Cot told him.

Which explained why later that day, Deans’ unit was under attack.

As quickly as the fighting started, however, it stopped.

“I don’t know why they pulled back,” says Deans. “They almost could have walked right on top of us.”

The second attack came that night.

“All of a sudden it broke loose again,” says Deans. “But this time it was completely different.”

The Canadians fought back with everything they had, aiming rifle and machine-gun fire at the Croats’ muzzle flashes in the dark.

“There was no need for talk, there was no need for orders, there was no need for anything,” says Deans. The eight soldiers had discovered a confidence in each other that Deans describes as total, overwhelming and unspoken.

“We just hit them as hard and fast as we could. You could feel it when we beat them down.”

As flames cast flickering reflections on their blue UN helmets, the Canadians tried to take turns sleeping between battles.

But as dark smoke poured from the nearby Serb villages and single shots echoed in the night, they were growing increasingly desperate to stop the ethnic cleansing.

Rod Dearing, now a father of three and a captain with B.C.’s Rocky Mountain Rangers, was the unit’s commander.

“It was happening right in front of us,” he says. “When the sun came up in the morning, I’m looking at a bunch of farm buildings at 1,500 metres and all of a sudden they blow up. And I knew they were just doing in the place.”

Pullout begins

On Sept. 16, the Croats finally began to pull out of the Pocket.

They had launched five separate attacks on Dearing’s section. Up and down the line, the battalion dodged artillery and fought smaller skirmishes.

Amazingly, no Canadians were killed or injured in those two days. Later, a Croatian radio station reported that 27 of their soldiers had been killed, but the number has never been confirmed.

As the Croats retreated, Dearing’s exhausted soldiers searched the nearby hedgerows.

They found dried blood and thousands of shell casings in the Croatian positions. Then they found the body of a Serb soldier hidden in the thick brush.

“He’d been severely wounded in his pelvis and I guess abandoned by his unit,” says Dearing.

The soldier was clutching a Bible. His final wound was a gunshot to the head. “We thought he gave up hope and killed himself.”

When Calvin moved the battalion into the Pocket, they would find much worse.

Survivors expected

Expecting survivors to stream out of the woods, the Canadians had prepared a tent with coffee and sandwiches.

“Roofs were caved in and flaming. Smoke was hanging in the air and it was getting dark,” remembers Calvin. “It was surreal.”

They found only destroyed buildings and tortured bodies.

Nikola Pjevac grew up in Licki Citluk, deep in the Pocket. Driving a Serb field ambulance, he’d seen the Canadians fighting and heard them shout orders.

He found his 68-year-old mother’s body three kilometres from her home, crumpled beside a small bag of clothes.

In Belgrade, Nikola’s younger brother Dragan offers homemade brandy and pastries.

“She had been shot many times, her head was caved in, and two fingers were cut off her hand,” he says.

His eyes are red as he holds a tiny photo of his mother, barely larger than a postage stamp.

“The Serb victory sign is three fingers,” says Dragan. “Maybe it was a message.”

Over the next week, the Canadians found 16 bodies. Two women were tied up and burned to death in a chicken coop; another’s attempt to ward off her attackers left bullet holes through her hands.

Ill-equipped, the soldiers snapped photos and gathered evidence, wrapping many of the bodies in burlap that leaked body fluids onto their hands and clothes. Local police told them that up to 200 civilians could be missing, but the total number still isn’t known.

Equipped to observe peace, the Patricias had gone to war, fighting Canada’s most significant battle in 40 years.

Faced with the aftermath of the torture and massacre of civilians, they’d worked with care and professionalism in a horrific landscape.

Filled with pride, they could not have expected the pain and disappointment that waited for them in Canada.

No follow-up

Soldiers returning from Afghanistan today stop in Cyprus for a week of decompression and counselling.

A mental health professional contacts them again in six months, when signs of PTSD often crop up.

The Patricias, many of them part-time reservists, just got on a plane and dispersed across the country. There was no follow up, no official recognition that the battle had even happened.

“These reservists got back to Winnipeg and were gone before the second flight of their buddies came in. They never even got to say bye,” says Calvin. “I don’t know how an army can be so mean-spirited through indifference.”

Professor Maloney notes that the battle came just weeks before a federal election and during the unfolding Airborne scandal, in which Canadian soldiers tortured a Somali teenager to death.

Any report of soldiers and violence was a potential scandal. “The Canadian Forces didn’t want the story of Medak getting out,” he says.

Within a few years of coming home, veterans began to hear stories of their fellow soldiers turning to drugs, leaving families, living on the streets.

“I drank a lot and thought a lot about all those people. It was just a lot of death,” says Rudy Bajema, a sergeant who had heard women screaming as the Canadians fought.

“And over the years it bothered me more and more. Ten years later I was sitting in my basement with glow sticks lighting the walls, trying to relive the moment.”

As it became clear that soldiers were struggling, the military called a board of inquiry in 1999, led by Col. Joe Sharpe. The inquiry interviewed more than 3,000 veterans of the missions to the Balkans.

Medak featured prominently. The soldiers felt abandoned by their leadership.

“Many were self-medicating, were alcoholics, and (the Canadian Forces) threw the book at them, dishonourable discharges and everything,” says Sharpe. “There was absolutely no attempt to understand them.”

Col. Rakesh Jetly, the Canadian military’s lead psychiatrist, argues that PTSD was simply not well understood in the 1990s.

“The perfect storm (was) a society that doesn’t quite understand mental health, a military that was the same way, and health services being cut like crazy,” he says. “It was extremely difficult for someone to raise their hand and say ‘I’m having trouble.’ ”

Through the broadly publicized Sharpe Inquiry, the veterans’ struggle was also helping tackle the stigma surrounding mental health.

“Medak positioned us to deal with Afghanistan,” says Sharpe. “It created a cultural shift in the Canadian Forces.”

Canada finally recognized the veterans with a special unit citation in 2002.

Bajema, who went on to serve an additional tour in the Balkans, eventually came forward to speak publicly about PTSD to soldiers returning from that war.

Now a civilian after 23 years of military service, Bajema says he hated giving those talks. “Because it’s not about ‘Look at the heroic stuff I did.’ But I was happy to try to help some guys.”

‘A forgotten thing’

Twenty years after Medak, the memory of the battle looms large for Canadian veterans, Croat and Serb soldiers, refugees and victims.

According to the Humanitarian Centre for Integration and Tolerance, just 64 Serb families have returned to the area. Bright new homes of red brick stand in the shadow of concrete ruins. Landmine warning signs, punctured by bullet holes, occupy unused fields.

After a burst of public interest in the mid-2000s, Medak has again faded in the Canadian consciousness, eclipsed by Afghanistan’s glare.

“It’s still a forgotten thing,” says Deans.

He’s clicking through Google Maps as he plans his trip to Medak, trying to remember the right road, the right farmhouse, the right town.

“But I’ve never wanted to forget about it.”

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