‘It took you by the throat’: Remembering Medak Pocket in the Former Yugoslavia

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Article / September 14, 2018 / Project number: 18-0352

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By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs, with files from Second Lieutenant Ryan Bartlette, Shilo Stag

Shilo, Manitoba — Members of 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (2 PPCLI) celebrated the 25th anniversary of an intense but little-known battle in the former Yugoslavia.

The unit hosted an entire weekend of events in its hometown of Shilo, Manitoba, beginning Friday, September 7 and culminating in a commemorative parade on September 9, 2018.

Friday’s events included a feu-de-joie – a rifle salute in which soldiers fire in succession to create a near-continuous sound.

Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) James Calvin, who commanded 2 PPCLI during the battle, took part in the concluding parade along with other veterans of the battle.

The Battle of Medak Pocket took place between September 15 and 16, 1993 during UN peacekeeping operations in the Balkans. In total more than 16,000 Canadians served on the operation from 1992 to 1995.

At the time, Medak Pocket was considered one of the fiercest military engagements Canadians had faced since the Korean War.

For its courage and professional execution of its duty during the battle, the 2nd Battalion was awarded the Commander-in-Chief Unit Commendation in 2002 by then-Governor General Adrienne Clarkson.

The region of the former Yugoslavia, made up of several distinct ethnic republics, was destabilized in 1991 by declarations of independence from two separate republics, Slovenia and Croatia. This set the stage for years of conflict along religious and ethnic lines.

Members of 2 PPCLI, along with a significant Reservist component, were sent to the South Sector of the UN operations area to implement a ceasefire between Croatian and Serbian fighters brokered in part by LCol (Retd) Calvin.

Along with two French mechanized infantry companies, 2 PPCLI entered the region on September 15. Croatian forces had agreed to withdraw as part of the ceasefire agreement but instead opened fire with both small arms and artillery.

Master Bombardier (Retired) William Ray was a member of 2 PPCLI’s C Company who arrived in the battle space at an empty village behind the wheel of an armoured personnel carrier.

He observed evidence that local residents – including children – had been lined up against a wall and executed by the Croatians.

“It really kind of jumped out and took you by the throat,” MBdr (Retd) Ray recalled. “There were personal belongings everywhere. Peoples’ memories, their realities, spread like shrapnel on the ground.”

Soon coming under enemy fire, C-Company dug in. That night, a small shed that had caught fire in the fight presented a serious problem.

“Every time the wind blew, that tractor shed lit up with a bright orange glow perfectly backlighting our position and silhouetting us to the enemy. Obligingly, the Croatian army would open up on us with machine guns. This went on for several hours.”

The Canadians and the French established a defensive position and drove the Croatians back. In talks instigated by Croatian leaders, LCol Calvin negotiated an agreement that would see the Croatians move back at noon on September 16.

As the morning dawned, the Canadian and French advance was halted by a Croatian roadblock consisting of a tank and a minefield. Amidst high tensions, LCol Calvin called in a group of  UN personnel to observe the failure to respect the ceasefire as well as evidence the Croatians were harming the local civilian population.

This prompted the Croatians to back down. In addition to their role in the battle itself, 2 PPCLI members have also been credited with gathering evidence used later by international criminal tribunals investigating war crimes.

MBdr (Retd) Ray reflected on the aftermath, when the tragedy of the conflict came into focus.

“We came across the remains of a Serb defensive position in the gloom. They must have been overrun a week before, during the initial Croatian assault. There were no bodies. The trenches were empty. There were piles of clothing and personal items from the dead soldiers. There were pictures of children and smiling women. Pictures of groups of men sporting or fishing. Given the fratricidal nature of the Yugoslavian war, the men in these pictures were probably on both sides of this battle.”

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