Peacekeeping Turns into War in the Balkans


On September 15 and 16, 1993 a battalion of the Canadian Army engaged in battle for the first time since the end of the Korean War 40 years earlier. The Canadian battalion – 2nd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (2PPCLI) – was defending the approaches to Medak, a small town along the border between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Canadians were in the Balkans as part of a United Nations peacekeeping force named UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force) that had been formed in 1992 to guard specially designated United Nations Protected Areas along the northern and western border of Bosnia-Herzegovina. These areas had been set up for the safety of the local populations and for refugees in the three-way civil war that began with the break-up of the Republic of Yugoslavia beginning in 1991. The Canadians at Medak defended the area against a Croat attack, thus saving many civilian lives. No Canadians were killed, but as many as 30 of the Croat force may have died in the day-and-a-half clash.

Yugoslavia was created at the end of the First World War, an uneasy collection of religious, ethnic and linguistic groups in one state. After the Second World War the country was held together by the dictatorship of Josip Broz Tito, a Communist who died in 1980. Yugoslavia then came under the sway of Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic who suppressed break-away sentiment in the country with the Yugoslavian National Army (JNA), dominated by Serbs.

Immediately after the Cold War ended, Slovenia – the westernmost part of Yugoslavia – declared its independence. The JNA barely resisted this breakaway but when Croatia – the part of Yugoslavia just to the east of Slovenia – also broke away, war broke out between Croatia and the remainder of Yugoslavia. Shortly after, Bosnia-Herzevogina, which lies between Croatia and Serbia, also declared independence.

Croatia is predominantly Roman Catholic, Serbia is predominantly Eastern Orthodox (affiliated to the Russian Orthodox Church), while Bosnia-Herzevogina is predominantly Muslim. Historic rivalries had led to hatred and mass killing among these three groups for many centuries. But in some areas, particularly the city of Sarajevo (which was declared to be the capital of Bosnia-Herzevogina) the three peoples had intermingled for several generations.

By the end of 1992 a three-way civil war raged between Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and what was left of Yugoslavia which was really Serbia-Montenegro. The United Nations tried to broker a cease-fire and created UNPROFOR to monitor it. Canada contributed an infantry battalion which was based in the border region between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Later, as the war intensified and Serb forces surrounded and besieged Sarajevo, Canada sent a second battalion to UNPROFOR. This second unit was based at Visoko, about 25 kilometres north of Sarajevo.

The three way civil war was marked by ethnic cleansing – horrific efforts by all three sides to kill or expel the minority groups within their boundaries. Bosnia-Herzegovina itself had large enclaves of Croatians and Serbs who formed guerilla groups to aid the main armies of their ethnic or religious allies. Tens of thousands of innocent civilians were murdered, maimed, tortured, raped or driven out of their homes by the warring armies.

All three sides were convinced that the UN forces, including the Canadians, were sympathetic to the others. Thus UN forces became a favourite target of all three armies. The peacekeepers were hampered by their lack of heavy weapons, shortages of supplies, rules of engagement (rules that told soldiers who and when they could shoot at to defend themselves) and lack of organized and efficient command from UN headquarters in New York. Canadian and other UNPROFOR soldiers were often under fire, usually harassed and sometimes humiliated by all three sides.

One of the best-known Canadian personalities of this period was Brigadier General (later Major General) Lewis MacKenzie who was in command of UN forces in Sarajevo. Saravejo was under constant siege and continuing attack by Serbs from April 1992 to February 1996. MacKenzie took command of Sector Sarajevo in the spring of 1992; his most important accomplishment was to arrange to open the road from the city of Sarajevo to the airport allowing humanitarian flights to bring in food and medical supplies.

NATO forced the civil war to end with the Dayton Peace Accords in December 1995, then poured 60,000 NATO and other troops into Bosnia. NATO aircraft flew overhead to enforce the ceasefire. Canada withdrew its forces from UNPROFOR, which broke up in any case, but contributed to the initial NATO Implementation Force – and after December 1996 to Sustainment Force. Virtually all Canadian troops left the Balkans after NATO decided to hand over its authority to the European Community in 2004.

In all, some 20 Canadian troops were killed and more wounded while serving with UNPROFOR. The Balkan missions persuaded many Canadians that peacekeeping had changed and, perhaps, no longer worked.

Next Installment: Canada in Afghanistan

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at The Canadian Experience is copyright © 2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.

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