Bosnia: Then and Now
Peace is taking hold at last in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Canadians share a great sense of pride knowing vital infrastructure in has been re-built and there is now burgeoning prosperity – evident with busy shops, crowded cafes and bustling streets. “The men and women of the Canadian Forces have left a very positive impression of Canada upon the people of Bihac,” notes Mayor Lipovac˘a during a recent ceremony of a new Canadian Memorial Park.
In the last fifteen years, more than 40,000 Canadians have served in Bosnia-Herzegovina – 23 lost their lives. Operation HARMONY, part of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR), was created to defend non-combatants from the atrocities that followed the disintegration of the former Republic of Yugoslavia.
NATO took over in December 1995, after the signing of the General Framework Agreement for Peace, (commonly known as the Dayton Accords). The first NATO troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina were the 60,000-strong Implementation Force (IFOR) sent to ensure that all parties complied with the terms of the Dayton Accords.
In Operation PALLADIUM, a large Canadian contingent became a major part of IFOR, and in 1996, when the implementation phase ended, IFOR morphed into a Stabilization Force (SFOR). Its goal was to ensure a stable environment in which the peace process could be sustained – without NATO forces.
Canada’s SFOR contingent, Task Force Bosnia-Herzegovina (TFBH), was based at Camp Black Bear in Velika Kladusa. With Dutch and British contingents, it was part of the Multi National Brigade Northwest, headquartered at Banja Luka. The three nations took turns providing the commanding officer, with Brigadier-General Stuart Beare eventually responsible for the downsizing of the Canadian Forces and handing over the mission to the Europeans. Previously, the 2003 Thessaloniki Declaration confirmed that the future of the Western Balkans, of which Bosnia and Herzegovina are a significant part, lay within the European Union, and on 28 June 2004, NATO announced that its operations would be turned over to a European Union Force (EUFOR). In September 2004, BGen Beare told the CBC: “The UN approach in the early 90s didn’t work. The NATO approach in the mid 90s did work, and since then, we’ve been moving with the times... Not a round has been fired in anger between any faction against another since we went there under a NATO Flag.”
Under Operation BRONZE, the Canadian contingent in SFOR was reduced from 650 to less than 85 CF members, and troop deployments ended in November with Rotation 15 – the Mission Close-out Team. The transfer of command authority from SFOR to EUFOR took place two months later and the further-reduced Canadian contingent was now designated Task Force Balkans (TFB). Ten personnel were deployed on Operation BRONZE at NATO HQ in Sarajevo and 11 deployed on Operation BOREAS to support EUFOR Liaison and Observation Teams (LOT) in Bihac on the Croatian border.
Crucial to the success of EUFOR was the setting up of 44 LOT Houses across the country that were manned by 17 contributing nations, each reporting to a Multi National Task Force (MNTF). Headquartered in the MNTF at Banja Luka for example, were British, Dutch, Chilean, New Zealand and Canadian teams. Greek, Austrian, Finnish, Swedish, Portugese, Turkish, Irish and Slovenian support reported to the MNTF at Tuzla. At Mostar MNTF were Spanish, French and Moroccan and at Sarajevo, the Italian International Police Unit (IPU) and the Rajlovac Field Hospital operated by Germans, Italians, French and Albanians.
The Canadian Touch
There were two Canadian groups. The C1 LOT Sector Headquarters (SHQ) for Canton 1 in Bihac, was commanded in its last rotation by Major Joseph Zunic. It coordinated the activities from the teams in the three LOT Houses – in Bihac, in Cazin (manned by the Norwegians) and Sanski Most (by the Chileans). The job of the second group, the Liaison and Observation (or LO) teams, was to work the ‘human touch’ – to befriend the locals and to be seen as impartial observers to whom locals could take their problems.
In Bihac, the Canadian LO team was responsible for 35 communities with a combined population of 275,000 citizens, fortunately it was fairly homogenous with a 95% Muslim population. Different from the infantry units or even the CIMIC (Civil and Military Cooperation) teams of the past, they were tasked with conducting “presence patrols.” This was not lumbering around in a Coyote armoured personnel carrier. It was very low key – just 2 LO officers, a driver and interpreter in a Nissan SUV. “It was the equivalent to taking a Sunday drive,” explains Major Zunic,” and seeing who you bump into and chat with them.”
“We were there as the eyes and ears for EUFOR – our job was to feel the pulse,” he says. “This was a definite shift in the EUFOR mandate as compared to the SFOR mandate wherein the traditional CIMIC jobs that had fallen by the wayside in favour of a more mature mission where in the locals were encouraged to solve their own problems, with advice and mentoring from us, so that there would not be a dependency that continues ad infinitum. We had no funds per se by that point in the EUFOR mandate, nor were we expected to have any money to give them. But we were able to raise the level of various community issues and concerns with local ministries of government – this was essential, as Bosnian bureaucracy works at a painfully slow pace at the best of times. We were able to make small inroads and our reputation was built upon tiny little successes.”
Canadians worked hard to foster close relationships with their communities. The LOT maintained contact with mayors, community leaders and local Bosnian Army units, providing information and maintain situational awareness, and to support the rule of law in general and specifically to prevent smuggling. All LOs were aware that the ultimate goal was to augment a change in Bosnian society from within – “to get Bosnian solutions for Bosnian problems.”
“Speaking the language really helped” said Major Zunic of his posting. “It was helpful from, the cultural point of view, in that you knew some of the nuances of what local expectations were. Our job was very much liaison with the local community. One of the fortunate facts of my deployment was that the crew I had were absolutely outstanding – especially the ‘younger ones’ who were interested in the local culture – one picked up the language quite well, another took Serbo-Croat lessons prior to departure to make his own knowledge better.
As part of the EUFOR transition, the scaling back of the MNTFs, all were consolidated in Sarajevo. The resulting review of various national commitments indicated that it was a good time for Canada to complete its mission. The security issues now seemed less extreme than in some parts of Europe.
After the ceremony for the dedication of the Canadian Memorial Park, Major Zunic paid tribute to those CF who had come before. “We inherited what the local population perceived as a very positive Canadian legacy in that area of operations. What that meant for us in the last rotation, was being the beneficiaries of all of the “thank yous” of all of the work that had come before us. We were welcomed with open arms. The local community had very positive relations with previous rotations – for example, the Canadians of previous rotations had helped rebuild a fire station in Kulen Vakuf, collected illegal weapons for destruction, coordinated meetings of individuals from the three ethnic groups and donated school supplies from schools in Canada to schools here.”
Relationships were tested as troops rotated every six months, but Zunic explains that the locals were getting used to the fact that the system and the attitudes didn’t change with new faces, and the Canadian reputation was renewed with each rotation. “It was an outstanding experience and I made some lasting friendships with some of the locals whom I still correspond with. I would say that our impact was to spread our Canadian values of being tolerant of religion and ethnicities.”
The situation in theatre gradually allowed EUFOR to remove “boots on the ground,” and create the Multi-National Maneuver Battalion (MNBN), the core of the European Union new force structure in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Since March 2007, the MNBN – made up of troops from Spain, Turkey, Hungary and Poland – is based in Camp Butmir, a former air base of the Yugoslavian Army, near Sarajevo. The Integrated Police Unit covers the entire area of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In July 2007, the total number of troops in EUFOR was approximately 2,500 – a total of 32 nations, including 24 EU Member States and 8 non-EU Troop Contributing Nations.
EUFOR’s Primary Mission is to:
- provide a military presence in order to monitor and ensure continues compliance of the military aspects of the GFAP and deny the conditions for a resumption of violence;
- provide support and advice to the EU actors in BiH, including the possible continued provision of support to counter terrorism and the fight against organized crime;
- provide continued support to BiH authorities on defence reform as required;
- provide support to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and relevant authorities, including the search for and detention of Persons Indicted For War Crimes; and
- provide in extremis, evacuation support to IC officials.
While Bosnia and Herzegovina has made much progress – as it proceeds to towards European Union and NATO membership in the near future, 15 years after the civil war – will all foreign armies one day leave completely? As BGen Beare said a few years ago, “the reason we still have international troops in Bosnia, is because Bosnians can’t guarantee their own security. They don’t trust their own leadership to guarantee that a return to civil war is not a possibility. So the bottom line is, there’s still this lingering perception of a potential return to civil war, and that requires international military troops to be on the ground.”
It appears that a sustained global support group is required to assist the BiH in it’s quest for a peace that can last until a new culture of tolerance is strong enough among the younger generations and becomes the ‘norm.’
Healing & Moving Forward
Canada’s last remaining presence in Bosnia are the eight people that make up Operation BRONZE – our contribution as a member of NATO. All are based in Sarajevo, six at NATO HQ downtown and two working administration at Camp Butmir. “Our main mission here is defence reform of the Bosnia and Herzegovina military – combining two armies and ensuring it is democratically controlled by the parliament – with all the features of a Western army,” explains acting Commanding Officer LCol Jean-Claude Gagnon, also the Coordination Officer of the NATO Advisory Team, as he to shows me around.
The EUFOR camp takes its name from the village of Butmir, on the edge of Sarajevo’s Airport. Canada House here might be smaller than the one in Kandahar but shares with it certain undeniably national traits. Canadian accents and the sound of steaks sizzling on the balcony BBQ greet one at the door. The recreation room boasts an extensive DVD library and the walls are festooned with hockey sweaters and team photos. The photos, it is later explained, show teams of Bosnian teenagers that have been orphaned by the war. For years now, successive Canadian contingents have sponsored and run the local city hockey league, mentoring the kids with donated hockey equipment.
The ultimate goal is to help Bosnia become part of NATO. Numerous NATO programs are aimed at accomplishing this, such as the language training that Canada provides for BiH officers. “We fly them back to our language schools in Canada,” explains LCol Gagnon. “From a materiel point of view, we do not need to provide them with any military equipment (they have more than enough – former Yugoslavia had one of the biggest armies in Europe), what they need now are computers, office equipment, and things like that. Later on they will need more specialized equipment as in a year or two they will be operational.
There have been some major difficulties in the area of Police Reform, but other reforms are progressing extremely well. LCol Gagnon explains that “Defense Reform is one of the success stories in BiH. There are people who would like it to go quicker but we are talking here about two opposing armies – Serbs and Bosniaks who, 10 years ago, had been fighting each other – and now we want them to integrate? It’s not going to happen overnight. However, by the end of the year, they are going to have multi- ethnic units and a multi-ethnic command. Everything above battalion is going to become multi-ethnic. We must remember that it is a very complicated country. How is it going to end up? Hopefully they will find a peaceful consensus.”
Lt Joe Gambin, the Coordination Officer who connects all the administration, provides signal support from NATO HQ. A reservist back home, he volunteered to come to Bosnia on the six month posting. A typical day for him involves “….putting people on courses, booking accommodation- making sure that all the nuts and bolts of administration are together.” Here since March, he was leaving in October and hadn’t been back home. But Gambin had used his vacation pass to see Greece. “This is my first trip overseas and it’s been a good experience, but its time to go home. I’m from Winnipeg and Sarajevo is definitely not like Winnipeg – it isn’t flat, for one thing. You walk down the street and it’s the type of place that makes me realize how lucky we have it in Canada. I don’t know what it is – the ruins, the beggars on the street – we have them in Canada but not to that extent. The most common reaction I get when I tell people (even friends in the military) that I’m here is: Do we still have soldiers in the Balkans? After all, this was the war of the 90s.” When asked how Canadians were regarded here, Gambin recalls the Bihac ceremony for the opening of the Memorial Park.
“The locals undertook this effort themselves and of the people who came out the to see the dedication – there was one lady who was just walking around, touching the Canadian soldiers to show her appreciation.” What he missed of Canada was the freedom, specifically the ability to go “off road.”
“In Canada you can go off in a field or walk through a forest and not worry about bringing a map to make sure that you are not in a minefield – here, you can’t leave the road – I miss that. And cold milk, they tend to serve it warm here. And I miss Alexander Keith’s.”
Air Force Major E.V. (Ted) Cosstick, a Logistics HR (Human Resources) officer in the Personnel Administration branch is “pretty much office-bound by trade,” he quips. “But here in BiH, I have two roles. I’m employed as secretary to the General Staff within the inner sanctum of the Commander of the NATO HQ, Sarajevo – a two-star U.S. general. Essentially it’s like being a fly on the wall, witnessing the inner workings of a multi-national military force. My other hat is that I’m military assistant to the NATO Advisor, or POLAD, – he is a civilian but equivalent to a one-star general. I have a foot in both worlds. My background is dealing with people and with files and as a staff officer – that’s the person they need here, right now. It’s no longer the thin edge of the wedge here, of carrying a weapon around. The mission of this HQ is: #1: Defence Reform; #2: PIFWC (Persons Indicted for War Crimes) and CT (Counter Terrorism); and #3: Support for EUFOR.
In the effort to become part of NATO, the armed forces of BiH became members of the Partnership of Peace (POP) and have sent POP teams to Iraq. Bosnians are fiercely proud of that.
Defense Reform is also greasing the skids of full NATO membership, and the CF team downtown is assisting in that. Defense Reform deals with, for example, disposing of surplus arms and ammunition, all of which have to be accounted for and destroyed. “Bosnia is where Tito had his arms factories so there are tons and tons of surplus ammunition around,” comments Maj Cosstick.
It is evident that Canadians have a very good rapport with people in the area. Cosstick agrees, explaining “there are different generations at play here, but as Canadians, it seems we can do no wrong – as Bihac showed.
“Recently our Public Information Office conducted a series of round table discussions in various parts of the country, in Sarajevo, in Mostar and Banja Luka. It was their chance to ask really frank questions and get answers.
The sessions were with university students and we brought in political advisors and ambassadors – I know the Canadian ambassador was involved. The students were so surprised that the ambassadors would take off their coats, roll up their sleeves and say okay what do you think of NATO and what can we do for you? For the most part, the feedback we got was positive. The students, the next generation, are ready to move on. I attended one function where the youth put on a presentation saying to the adults, the older generation of politicians: let us a have a future. It was very, very powerful. That is why we put a lot of money into the next generation – we hold things like Kidsfests. Yes, there is the legacy of the war and some very terrible things happened here on all three sides. Would those things be forgotten over time – not necessarily, you can’t just wipe everyone’s memory – but we were so encouraged by the round tables that we hope to take the show to Belgrade in the fall.”
Since the guns stopped 12 years ago, there has been steady progress towards a lasting peace. However, it’s still going to be a while before EUFOR can leave. “People say that the war was predestined here,” says Major Cosstick, “that the earth is soaked in blood from the past. But most of the causes of that came from the outside, from foreigners who took advantage of the nationalism. There are some models of the locals uniting – in the siege of Sarajevo for instance, you had all three ethnic groups fighting shoulder to shoulder to defend their city. Talking to the people about what they went through in the war, it’s something I hope I will never have to experience. Visiting places like Srebenica or the sports fields where they shot so many, it’s the awe, the silence that you feel, it must be like going to Auchwitz. I take those experiences and marry them to my defense reform work, and realize why we are here. Twelve years is not that long ago and we are definitely championing the cause of those Canadians who came before us.”
FrontLine Correspondent, Peter Pigott, would like to acknowledge the help and hospitality from many in the CF both in Ottawa and at Camp Butmir, Sarajevo and Canada House. He would also like to thank LCdr Neil Matheson RN, and LCdr Jan Stroehmer, German Navy of the EUFOR Press Office.
© FrontLine Defence 2007