Fate is the same for the man who holds back,
the same if he fights hard.
We are all held in one single honour,
the brave with the weaklings.
—The Iliad of Homer
Rudy Bajema got up before dawn on September 9, 1993. He wanted a moment of quiet and solitude before the bustle of the day in order to wish his mother a happy birthday. There was no way to talk to her directly, so he just thought about her, hoping mental telepathy would convey his feelings. Somehow he knew she’d get his message. And so Bajema was already wide awake when the first shell slammed into the ground at six-thirty.
A mortar explosion near their living quarters was nothing new for the soldiers of the Second Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. They had been dodging indirect fire ever since they moved into an area called the Medak Pocket, where they were guarding a ceasefire line between two hostile divisions of seasoned fighting forces: Serbs on one side and Croats on the other. Both of the forces had benefited from the training and expertise of what until recently had been one of the great military machines of Europe: the Yugoslav National Army. Now they were using the considerable skill they had acquired as a unified force in order to kill each other. The Patricias had long ago come to the realization that the ceasefire line they were assigned to guard was a barrier that existed only in the imaginations of international diplomats. The surprise on this particular morning was that the first shell was followed immediately by another one that came in almost on top of the Canadians, and shook the building.
Lieutenant Tyrone Green, a university student from Vancouver, consulted his compass after the first mortar explosion to determine which of the two adversaries was on the offensive this time. The second shell knocked him off his feet. He ran through the barracks that housed his soldiers, sending out the alarm. “Artie, artie artie!” he hollered (incoming artillery shells), while more mortar bombs smashed into the ground around them. As they scrambled out of their sleeping bags and jumped into their boots, grabbing their weapons, the peacekeepers knew, with a mixture of exhilaration and terror, that they were no longer incidental bystanders at someone else’s battle —they had become one of the targets.
Green dashed out to the yard and climbed into his armoured vehicle. His platoon had been in what they called Medak House for just over a week — not long enough to set up a proper communications system. The mobile radio in the vehicle was all he had. Green called Charlie Company headquarters to report this new development; by now the shells were landing all around them with the rhythm and the urgency of a major offensive operation. Charlie Company’s Nine Platoon was suddenly in the middle of a war. To the young Canadians, the rules of engagement, if there were any, were as incomprehensible as the long, complicated Balkan history that had led up to this terrifying moment. Rudy Bajema had got his birthday greetings out just in time.
Eight kilometres south of Medak House and two kilometres straight up a mountain from the Canadian battalion’s base camp in Sveti Rok, Sergeant Rod Dearing and his section of Charlie Company’s Eight Platoon were deep asleep in and around their bunker. It was a standard war-zone shelter, its dirt walls and ceiling shored up by pit props, netting and prayers. The soldiers had dug into the stony ground of the Lika Highlands of Croatia, overlooking the villages and pastures on the Serbian side of Medak. A few metres away, precariously perched on the brow of a hill, they’d scooped out a second bunker to use as an observation post. Twenty-four hours a day, the Canadians peered out from that position into the deep valley below them, watching the comings and goings of soldiers as well as civilians.
Living in an earthen bunker with several other men might not be everyone’s idea of pure joy, but Dearing loved being outdoors, surrounded by the dense oak forests of the Lika Highlands. The moors, valleys and woodlands of central Croatia resonate with dark, bloody history and an even darker mythology. Legends of clan warfare and revenge killing twist and turn through local folklore like the maze of goat trails that criss-cross the empty hills.
To the north and east of the bunker and lookout, long spurs of the Austrian Alps tumble down into the interior of Croatia and merge with the Dinaric Mountains, which roll up from the southeast in a single rocky backbone. The green expanse of the Medak region’s pasturelands flows away to the south and squeezes between foothills. Through a gap in the white rock of the Velebit Mountains to the west, the soldiers of Eight Platoon could sometimes see the blue water of the Adriatic, not more than twenty kilometres away.
It was early September and the woods were just beginning to turn gold and red. The setting reminded Dearing of his boyhood home in Armstrong, British Columbia, where he and his friends had played and explored, and where he’d acquired his love of the outdoors. A steady diet of G.I. Joe comics and a love of the Canadian war stories he learned in school — whenever he could sit still long enough to read — had filled him with the single desire to be a soldier. He’d joined the Rocky Mountain Rangers as soon as he was old enough to be a soldier in the reserves.
At twenty-eight, muscular and fit, Dearing was exactly where he always wanted to be. He was living in nature. He was a soldier. But he was in somebody else’s country, caught in the middle of someone else’s bloody war.
From the Hardcover edition.
Revue de presse
“Carol Off has written a first-class account of Canada’s soldiers in action. Her prose is lively and her tone impassioned. Combining credible secondary sources with a large collection of first-hand accounts, the best evidence of all, she has made a solid argument for a reassessment of Canadians’ attitudes toward peacekeeping.”
—The Globe and Mail
“A mordant and provocative account.”
Praise for The Lion, the Fox and the Eagle:
“Off is a smooth and powerful writer, delivering a mixture of descriptive passages, contextual background and editorial argument which collectively produce a provocative page-turner.”
—The Globe and Mail