Canadians have served in European Community, United Nations (UN) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) missions in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, and Macedonia – new countries that have risen out of the ashes of the former country of Yugoslavia. Beginning in 1991, tens of thousands of Canadian Armed Forces members strived over the years to help make the region secure and nurture the fragile peace so recovery can continue after years of fierce fighting.
The Balkan countries which have seen such turmoil are located in southeast Europe, north of Greece and across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. This is a land of beautiful mountains, fertile plains and an island-studded coastline that stretches along the Adriatic Sea.
For much of the 20th century, this area was a single Communist country known as Yugoslavia. However, long-standing ethnic, religious and political differences between the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Muslim populations who have lived there for centuries created an environment of distrust that made for an unstable situation.
Once the authoritarian rule in the country began to crumble, the different ethnic and religious factions erupted into violence. In the early 1990s, the various regions tried to split off and form their own countries, dividing along ethnic and religious lines. There were many cases of ethnic cleansing where entire villages or areas of minorities were persecuted, driven out or killed outright by armies.
As the world saw the violence descend on the region, the international community moved to respond. The first direct Canadian involvement would come in 1991-1992 when some Canadian Armed Forces officers participated in the European Community Monitoring Mission there.
Canada and other countries then deployed a large UN peacekeeping force (known as the United Nations Protection Force, or UNPROFOR) to try to curb the violence in the region, particularly in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. This would be only the first of a series of UN (and later, NATO) peace support efforts in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia.
The situations that Canadian Armed Forces members encountered during their efforts in the Balkans were unique. The skills needed for a peace mission are often quite different from the skills required to fight a conventional conflict. Peacekeepers must be trained for war and for peace. The Canadians who have served in the Balkans over the years have performed many roles. They monitored ever-shifting and fragile cease-fire lines and forced open lines of supply to besieged areas in order to bring in food and humanitarian supplies to the civilians trapped in the middle of the fighting. In the waters of the Adriatic Sea, our country deployed naval and air resources to assist the UN in its naval blockade of arms shipments to the region. Canadians also tried to protect areas of ethnic minorities (so-called “safe areas” which would tragically prove to be not very safe) which were under siege from the majority militias.
Canada and other peacekeeping nations faced huge challenges in the Balkans and there was only so much they could do to curb the worst of the violence brought on by the hatred and viciousness of the combatants there. Many horrible acts were perpetrated that the peacekeepers simply could not prevent.
Today, the active fighting is over. The last sizable Canadian Armed Forces presence left the region in 2004, but a European Union peace support force remains in the region to help keep the peace and support those who live in the region as they move toward a more peaceful future.
Often we think of the dangers of war and heroic acts of bravery as belonging to generations of the past. However, in the 1990s, Canadian Armed Forces members found themselves in a full-fledged war zone where peacekeeping troops had to engage in firefights to try to fulfill their missions.
The wounds of peacekeeping are not always caused by hostile fire, land mines or accidents. They do not always leave physical scars. The mission in the former Yugoslavia was particularly difficult for those deployed there. The human atrocities perpetrated against the civilian population were horrific – witnessing human brutality on this scale has a deep impact on those who see it.
Learning about what the Veterans of these Canadian Armed Forces missions in the Balkan States have done and sacrificed in the course of their duties is important. By understanding their role, we honour their achievements. Knowing about Canada’s values and history helps us understand the Canada we live in today.