CHARLES TWEED/BRANDON SUN
The 2PPCLI Drum Line marches during the Battle of Medak 20th anniversary commemoration at CFB Shilo on Friday. The battle has been described as the most important military operation the UN conducted in the former Yugoslavia.
CFB SHILO — It was supposed to be a standard peacekeeping mission, but the Battle of Medak would forever change the way the Canadian Forces conducts its business, according to retired colonel Jim Calvin.
Lt.-Col. R.T. Ritchie commands troops while the 2PPCLI Drum Line marches during the ceremony at CFB Shilo on Friday. (CHARLES TWEED/BRANDON SUN)
Retired colonel Jim Calvin addresses the crowd at the Battle of Medak 20th anniversary commemoration. Calvin served as the 2PPCLI Battle Group commander at Medak. (CHARLES TWEED/BRANDON SUN)
In March 1993, a Canadian battle group, structured around the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, departed for its first six-month peacekeeping tour in the former Yugoslavia.
"We were told to interpose ourselves between two forces that had been fighting for four days and they were only a couple of hundred yards apart," said Calvin, addressing soldiers from 2PPCLI at the Battle of Medak 20th anniversary commemoration at CFB Shilo on Friday.
While a peace agreement had been struck at an administrative level, Serbian and Croatian troops on the ground were still engaged in war.
Sent to bring stability to an area know as the Medak Pocket, Canadian troops immediately encountered a major Croatian offensive that included machine guns and shelling.
Canadian troops were holed up in a home in Medak, a tiny village near the coast of the Adriatic Sea.
Unlike today, Calvin said there were no attack helicopters or drones overhead to protect them, no satellite imaging and communication was bad. They were essentially men on an island with bitter rivals on either side.
"It was all on us once we started," Calvin said. "We were there for each other, but no one was coming to rescue us."
Making things more challenging were the orders given to the Canadian troops. They were instructed by the UN not to fire unless they had been fired upon, something that put them at a major disadvantage during wartime.
Calvin said decisions were made on the fly knowing that the success or failure of the mission depended on it.
"It was a battalion that had been given broad orders and a bunch of hard-nose sergeants and commanders out there that did the right thing at the right time."
One of the homes filled with Canadian troops counted more than 520 artillery shells falling around them in a 24-hour period. After days of fighting, the Canadian troops were finally able to force the Croatian forces to retreat to their original starting point.
It was then that Calvin came face-to-face with the harsh reality of the war.
"That’s when we found the second bad news, that they had ethnically cleansed most of the area," Calvin said. "There were bodies of animals, burning buildings, over 150 homes were destroyed, and all the cattle and barns were destroyed.
"People (and their families) that had lived there for 300 years, and we started finding their bodies — all had been murdered."
Only two Croatian fighters — Brig. Rahim Ademi and Gen. Mirko Norac — were ever charged under the War Crimes Act. Norac was found guilty and given a seven-year jail sentence for failing to stop his soldiers from killing Serbs, while Ademi was acquitted.
"Not a true representation of justice," Calvin said.
The war changed the area forever; it also had a dramatic impact on the Canadian Forces back home.
"Prior to the early tours in Yugoslavia, we were very much a country that got ourselves in an area where peace had already broke out and we were just going to go around to wave the flag," Calvin said. "There wasn’t much action."
"In Yugoslavia, we were dropped in the middle of a war and we needed to have real war-fighting capabilities, real weapons, people that were trained and people that were willing to take shots and give shots back, not just patrol around in their nice blue berets."
Training regimens across the country changed dramatically after the mission, Calvin said.
"Medak opened our eyes that we may have to use force to enforce peace."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 14, 2013