Link to Globe and Mail
finder. A cigarette in the left hand when it should be in the right, a prematurely melted ice cube in a half-empty glass of...
Meredith is a continuity girl. Her job is to make sure that the details in every scene on a film shoot are consistent. She is the error catcher. The needle- n-the-haystack
Copyright © 2009 Leah McLaren.
Design and Hosting by: Stolen
The Globe and Mail - Saturday
War and peace Trained for combat, but charged to prevent it, Canada's peacekeepers are a living paradox. Our proudest exports, they remain unknown soldiers, doing jobs utterly unlike the iconic missions of the World Wars. This Remembrance Day, LEAH McLAREN meets the troops at Camp Drvar in Bosnia, mostly boys staving off boredom and hoping to be heroes.


3003 words

11 November 2000

The Globe and Mail




All material copyright Thomson Canada Limited or its licensors. All rights reserved.

VELIKA KLADUSA, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA -- Corporal Matt La Very lives in Winnipeg with a woman and two dogs. He's a wiry chain smoker of Players' Extra Lights, a 32-year-old who obviously chats much more happily with elderly Bosnian peasants about livestock than with journalists from Toronto about himself. This is his fourth tour in the region. Of all the soldiers I meet during my stay at Camp Drvar in Bosnia-Herzegovina, he is the only one who spent time in the region during the war in the early 1990s. He was based in Croatia during the ethnic-cleansing campaigns.

As we jerk down a narrow mountain road, heads and elbows sticking out of an armoured assault vehicle, I ask him what it was like to be there during the conflict. He flicks his smoke into an uncleared mine field and snorts, "What do you think? It was retarded."

We ride in silence for a minute before he picks up the same thread.

"But at least I was doing the job of a soldier," he says. "I want to get away from this humanitarian-aid shit. We're just kind of the middlemen -- we go out, talk to people, see what they need and relay it back to the other organizations. Technically we're really not supposed to be giving these people stuff, but it's tough when you see old people out there hurting and asking for firewood. I'm thinking, 'If I had it, if I could give it to you, I would.' "

The soldiers here in Bosnia say the three things that will kill you are the land mines, the drivers and the boredom -- in no particular order. Of the 2,515 Canadians deployed overseas this Remembrance Day, more than 1,600 live on this blasted Balkan heath. These peacekeepers may be Canada's most successful foreign export. The bearers of the Nobel Prize-winning legacy of Lester B. Pearson, generally respected even in the most unstable, violent theatres they've entered in the last half-century, our troops are memorialized and boasted about for political gain at home. But that does not mean they are understood.

"Peacekeeping is entirely different from what we did," says Wally Smith, a 76-year-old Second World War veteran in Peterborough, Ont. Smith joined the Canadian Light Infantry (part of the same regiment that is now stationed at Drvar) in 1942, at 17. His line fought in the battle of Casino and eventually took Rome, despite suffering many casualties. "Psychologically, it's got to be worse for those young boys. At least we knew who the enemy was. Sometimes I think they should get more medals than we did in World War Two. Other times I think we should stop sending them over there altogether."

Trained for war, but responsible for making peace, these militia men and women are doing every job but the one they know best. Like a boxer told to referee, they are combat troops employed to prevent combat. They are the twilight soldiers, serving their country at a time when uniforms and civic duty have long fallen from fashion. In some ways they are more forgotten than the dead soldiers of battles past. This Remembrance Day, it is time to meet our unknown soldiers abroad.

Here at Camp Drvar, a day in the life of a Canadian soldier is not much different than it would have been 50 years ago. He goes to bed early and gets up before dawn. He sleeps in a tent, on a cot, in shared quarters. Showers are communal and sometimes cold, located in trailers a short jog from the barracks.

His uniform, a relief from the stress of changing fashion, is still khaki green. On patrol he wears a dandyish beret, which he is never quite sure how to tilt and which, frankly, embarrasses him just a little. He is probably white, probably English-speaking, almost certainly male. He is the son of middle-class parents from Calgary, Kelowna, Montreal or Cornerbrook. Every night, without fail, he polishes his own boots. Once in awhile, he feels a gut-wrenching rush of fear -- what is he doing here, anyway? These moments, he decides in retrospect, are the best moments of all, because then he is not bored.

Camp Drvar itself is a gothic, razor-wire-wreathed vision straight out of Wally Smith's time. Headquartered on the grounds of a crumbling Soviet-era brick factory, the low-ranking troops sleep in cramped communal barracks, wallpapered, more often than not, with ripped-out magazine bikini shots. The Brazilian supermodel, Gisele, is their Rita Hayworth.

Evidence of a younger generation is everywhere here. The troops have nicknamed the old bread factory where they sleep "Castle Greyskull," after the villain's lair in the cartoon He-man. Underneath a photograph of the Queen in the officers' mess hall, a perennially switched-on television presides, showing back-to-back taped episodes of The Simpsons,mailed in by some conscientious wife or girlfriend. By the time I leave Drvar, I've caught up on over a dozen episodes; I still don't know who's leading in the U.S. elections.

I brought a carton of Canadian cigarettes to Drvar in hopes of currying favour with the troops. I was sorely disappointed to find out that it is no longer 1945 in the army -- most young soldiers don't smoke. On the contrary, these guys are health nuts. Most jog and work out with weights once or twice a day and watch their weight like a corps of ballerinas. They consume freightloads of yogurt, bananas and mueseli, and fret over the decision to have dessert.

Over the course of a six-month tour of duty, each soldier gets two 96-hour holidays away from camp. These "R&R" periods are an obsessive topic of conversation. For the young soldiers without families to visit, there are basically two options: The Croatian city of Split (where you relax) or Budapest (where you party till you drop). Most choose the latter. At camp, though, since the scandals of the early nineties, Canadian Forces have had a strict two-beverage-per-person-per-day booze policy. Nobody complains.

If they do wish to smoke or eat junk food, there is the canteen, which carries such delicacies as Doritos, DuMaurier regulars and bottles of Mike's Hard Lemonade. There is even a selection of electronics. They tell me the camp got copies of the latest U2 CD two days after its release. Even when everything else seems to be broken, the laws of global capitalism prevail.

The boys here (there are only two women in the 150-member company) are trained for battle. They speak in terms of war, though most have never seen one. Once or twice each day, they set out in groups to patrol their segment of the town and its surrounding region. Travelling in armoured vehicles, these specialized units carry loaded weapons whenever they leave the base. But unlike soldiers in the movies, they don't show any signs of disturbing attachment to their hardware. The closest thing I saw to gun love was one private who wouldn't be photographed without his C7 loaded. "It looks too dorky," he said.

The past decade has seen a public-relations nightmare for the Canadian army. It began in March 1993 when members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment brutally tortured and murdered a Somali teen. Two years later the regiment was disbanded after a leaked videotape depicted its members engaging in violent and disturbing hazing rituals. The following year the Somalia inquiry's final report condemned the entire military structure.

In 1998 Maclean's magazine published an article in which 13 women said they were sexually assaulted by male soldiers during their time in the service. Around the same time, a parliamentary committee examining the living conditions in the Forces heard testimony from dozens of military personnel and their spouses, reporting poor housing, terrible pay and even worse morale.

Not surprisingly, then, the Canadian Forces are faced with a population drain. Last year, the army recruited 2,601 soldiers and released 3,942. This despite the millions spent over the past 24 months on a recruiting drive to lure new members, particularly women, into the ranks. The scarcity of women in Drvar is quite typical. As late as 1998, the number of women in combat companies in the army hovered around 1 per cent of 13,000 positions. The Drvar company's average age is 25.

According to a report, Military Balance for 99-00, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Canada's defence expenditures in 1998 totalled $6,637-million (all U.S. figures) or $229 per capita -- ahead of Sweden and behind Australia in total expenditures. To put these figures in perspective, consider that in the same year, the U.S. spent $265,890-million on defence, while Equatorial Guinea spent $7-million.

"We were around the fourth or fifth largest army in the world at the end of the Second World War," retired Major-General Lewis Mackenzie, leader of the first UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, told me over the phone before I arrived in Drvar. "Now we're around 120. We're still living off our reputation, but people are beginning to see through the facade. We don't have the capability to contribute the way we should be able to."

But most people here in Drvar, right up to the commanding officer, Major Cliff Trollope, agree that there are probably too many, rather than too few, Canadian soldiers in this town. "I know I could do this job with fewer guys," he says. "I'm loking into cutting back, but at the same time I'm being sent another platoon."

Some of the young men I speak to are outright critical of the situation. "I don't know what we're doing here. How long can it go on?" one corporal complains in the canteen line. "In a way it's really a misuse of military funds."

Still, the quality of life for the troops has improved since the mid-nineties. Hazing for new recruits has been all but outlawed (unlike in, say, most junior hockey teams), and according to the soldiers I spoke to, no one gets singled out and verbally abused anymore. The drill sergeants don't even make new privates drop for 40.

Last April, Art Eggleton, the minister of national defence, implemented pay raises of 2-2.5 per cent that brought the minimum salary for a private up to just under $24,000 per year, with bonus pay for field operation. Not a bad-paying job for an unskilled kid right our of high school, so long as you don't mind living in a former war zone. And the guys in Drvar don't seem to mind at all. If anything, they'd like a little more danger.

One night we go out on foot patrol, walking aimlessly through the damp, deserted streets of Drvar. We see more cats than people, and the soldiers crouch down to cuddle the mangy tabbies, despite the threat of ringworm.

In a butcher-shop window there is a poster advertising an upcoming referendum the Croatian hardliners are organizing for today, Remembrance Day, along with today's Bosnian national election. The nationalists want to separate unilaterally, so the vote itself violates the Dayton accords -- the agreement the soldiers are here to help implement. The platoon leader and the local Serbian translator go into the shop and speak to the butcher, a grizzled man in a bloody white coat. He shrugs his shoulders, rolls up the poster and gives it to the officer.

We wind up in a Western-themed roadhouse on the edge of town. The soldiers lay their semi-automatics under the table and order rounds of cappuccinos and colas. Van Halen's Jump plays over and over again on the stereo. Several tables of locals sit around drinking beer; no one looks at the uniformed platoon of Canadian soldiers.

Private Shane Silva is a slight, doe-eyed 20-year-old from Kitchener, Ont. He joined up right out of high school, and was posted in Winnipeg before he volunteered to come to Drvar last September. This is his first tour. Before he went our west, his mother and his girlfriend drove him to the airport. Everything was fine until they got to the departure gate. "Then we all started crying," he says. "My girlfriend, especially -- she really didn't want me to go."

He shows me her name, tattooed in ancient Greek between his shoulder blades. When the topic of marriage comes up, he blushes to his collar. Silva doesn't see himself as a lifer in the army; he wants to be a cop. He says he joined because he thought it might, as high-school guidance counselors like to say, open up some doors later in life. For that reason, and the chance to wear green.

Private Simon Rogers, 22, is a part-time reservist from Victoria, who volunteered for this tour of duty. He says that after the tour he will sign up full-time because he's having such a good time: "I've noticed friends at home all stick together. And now I hang out with people from Newfoundland and Quebec. The guys I graduated with from high school are working at McDonald's."

"My uncle was in the Forces," says Silva, "in the exact same Regiment, and as a kid I'd always see him in uniform and think he looked so cool. It was just something that stuck with me I guess."

Silva's buddy, Taylor Robinson, 21, from Calgary, puts up a tougher front. "I got engaged when I was 19, and we broke up on my last birthday. I'm glad because now I can live in the shacks with the boys and not care about anything else."

After the rigorous exercises of basic training, both privates say they were surprised by the uneventful reality of patrolling the Bosnian countryside day after day. "They say, 'Put you war-fight skills in your pocket,' but to be honest I'd like it if there was more activity. I expected a bit more excitement," Silva says, draining his second bottle of Coke.

"Yeah," says Robinson, "before I came here I definitely thought there would be a lot more violence."

Silva says that since he joined, a number of his hockey buddies from back home have followed suit and entered into basic military training -- confirming General Mackenzie's pet theory on why most civilians throw their lot in with the forces in the first place.

"When I talk to World War Two vets about why they joined up," Mackenzie had told me, "it wasn't for God, the Queen or the country. They joined for their buddies. You'd get to talking at a bar one night and the next day you'd go in and sign up. That's how it happened. And in fact, I don't think the reasons people join today have changed that much.

"One thing's certain, though, the more dangerous the deployment, the greater the recruitment is. When we were in Sarajevo with bombs flying around there was far more interest at the recruiting station."

Because of its out-of-the-way location, media rarely visit Drvar, though it remains one of the regions of Bosnia where interethnic tensions still run high. It was 98 per cent Serb until 1995, when a series of reversals made it a Croatian nationalist stronghold. Many Croats, who in their turn now make up 98 per cent of the population, are determined to prevent Serb refugees from returning to their former homes, by any means necessary. Most people in Bosnia avoid this place. A Sarajevo photographer declined the assignment to come to Drvar to take pictures for this story. He said he was frightened.

Military personnel refer to this area as an example of the "circle" of ethnic cleansing. (The "vicious" is implied.) Since the Dayton agreement was signed in 1995, it has become part of peacekeeping soldiers' stablization mission to help the Serbian "returnees" move back in. This means overseeing the eviction of former Croatian refugees, many of whom have been living in Drvar for half a decade.

Standing in a briefing room in front of a map of the country that is taller than he is and half as wide as the room itself, Major Trollope says the thing North American always say about Bosnia: "There are no good guys here." He pauses for a moment, holding his pointer in mid-air. "And yet, I can sympathize with both sides."

Meanwhile, Corporal La Very's platoon makes a favourite spot at a rural school where they plan to build a jungle gym before the winter comes. Inside, 16 children sit in three orderly rows. When the teacher ushers the soldiers in, the children greet them with familiar giggles. La Very writes something on the blackboard: "Ne Dirajte Bomba" (Don't touch the bomb), which the children recite, knowingly, before he has finished writing it.

The platoon leader leans over to the translator: "Tell them to study hard or they'll end up like us," he says. The translator relates the message, and the children laugh. A little boy shout something in Serbo-Croat from the back of the class.

"He is saying that he wants to grow up to be just like you," the translator says.