10 November 2013
Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, was the major flashpoint of the Yugoslav Wars and scene of the longest siege in modern history. The cosmopolitan city, host of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games and a diverse cultural centre of 500,000, suffered terribly during the conflict. The declaration of Bosnia's independence from Yugoslavia on 6 April 1992 set off the fighting. While two of the country's three main ethnic groups, the Croatians and the Muslims, mainly supported independence, it was strongly opposed by the Serb minority. On 2 May, Bosnian Serb forces, supported by the heavy weapons of the Jugoslav National Army and volunteers from Serbia proper, besieged Sarajevo. From this tactically dominant position, the Serb forces used indiscriminate artillery, mortar, and sniper fire to terrorize the civilian population and blunt the embryonic, poorly armed Bosnian Territorial Defence Force. Canadian soldiers were vital to the efforts to help Sarajevo, especially in March to May 1992, when the headquarters of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR), a peacekeeping mission in neighbouring Croatia, was located in Sarajevo, and from July to August 1992, when the Sarajevo Airport - the besieged city's only lifeline - came under UNPROFOR control. Canadian Major-General Lewis MacKenzie commanded the Sarajevo mission, while the airport was defended and the city patrolled by 800 peacekeepers from the Royal 22e Régiment and the Royal Canadian Regiment. There was no peace to keep in the midst of a brutal interstate conflict. As a result, the Canadians adopted aggressive tactics, including deploying anti-armour missiles and counter-snipers, in order to keep the airport open, deliver humanitarian aid, and protect themselves. While the siege of Sarajevo continued for another three years, in the pivotal opening months of the fighting, Canadian peacekeepers opened the airport and established a system of humanitarian aid deliveries that saved the lives of thousands and helped begin the peace process in the embattled Balkans. In the aftermath, many Canadian Sarajevo veterans - along with Bosnian fighters and civilians - experienced severe post-traumatic stress. After twenty years, senior Canadian officers, including John de Chastelain, Lew MacKenzie, Michel Jones, and Peter Devlin, Canadian soldiers who carried out their orders amid the chaos, and Sarajevans from all sides of the conflict discuss the horrific events of that summer in 1992.