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Canadian peacekeepers at war: untold stories of blue berets in battle.

December 31, 1994 -- Tensions were mounting in southern Croatia and Canadian peacekeepers were hard pressed to enforce the ceasefire. The local Serb militia suspected that the United Nations was turning a blind eye to escalating Croatian military offensives. Serbian hostility towards the blue helmets would erupt in a violent ambush in the town of Kolorina, leaving two young Canadian reservists (48th Highlanders) clinging to life in their bullet-ridden vehicle.

MAJOR JOHN VANCE, a short, slight RCR officer, was midway through his tour in Yugoslavia. He was the duty officer for Lieutenant Colonel Mark Skidmore's 1RCR battle group on New Year's Eve, 1994. Their battalion had replaced LCol. Diakow's Patricias in the Krajina at the end of October. Since arriving in theatre, the RCR contingent had luckily been involved in only a few close calls, but they were witnessing a steady increase in tensions, particularly on the part of the Serbs. With massive U.S. military aid pouring into Croatia, the Krajina Serbs were growing jumpy over the increased might of their foe. At the end of a tortuous and oft-threatened supply route, which ran through the embattled Serb enclaves in Bosnia, the Dalmatian Coast and Krajina were the lowest logistical priority of "greater Serbia."

Assured of their superiority, the Croats were beginning to assert their might. Maj. Vance had led a dangerous, dismounted patrol on December 20, which had led to a weapons cocked Mexican standoff with a Croatian infantry company. For racist reasons, the Croats were vehemently opposed to a Kenyan force establishing an OP in their sector. The RCR battle group was tasked with providing the Kenyans with the necessary fire support to achieve this UN objective. To force the issue, Vance had ordered his men to proceed up the snowy, mine-strewn slope directly onto the defiant Croat trenches. It was a gutsy game of chicken for the tactically disadvantaged Canadian force and the stakes were high. If the Croats opened fire, Vance would take heavy casualties, but the UN would then be forced to take strong retaliatory action against the Croats. If the Croats backed down, they would temporarily cede control in that region to the UN authorities. Luckily for the members of Vance's force, the Croats chose to withdraw and allow the Kenyans to establish the contested OP.

Throughout southern Bosnia, just across the snow-covered Vellabett Mountains, the Croat forces were ignoring all UN intervention and continued pushing their offensive up into the Bihac Pocket. The Serbs in that enclave were having a tough time resisting the U.S.-supported Croats. For the Krajina Serbs, the activity in the Bihac was anxiously followed for two vital reasons. The Bihac Pocket was their last tenuous supply line to Serbia and, if eliminated, the Krajina would undoubtedly be the next target of the Croatian military juggernaut. The Bangladeshi peacekeeping contingent in Bihac had bunkered themselves in, safely out of the fighting, when the Croat attack began. As a result, the Krajina Serbs became resentful of the UN and wary of their resolve to enforce the cease-fire agreement.

Maj. Vance realized just how deep-seated this animosity had become during his New Year's Eve duty shift. Radio calls had come in from a UN vehicle reporting a "drunk driver" heading at high speed toward the Canadian camp in Rastevic. As the Iltis jeep careened through the gates and pulled up in front of the unit medical station, it quickly became obvious that these were not some boozed-up revellers. Private Phillip Badani emerged from the driver's side and hobbled around the vehicle. As he opened the passenger door and began to remove Private John Tescione's limp body, other soldiers and medics raced to assist him. Vance, as duty officer, was called to the scene from the operations centre. When he arrived, Badani was already on a stretcher, his flak jacket had been removed, and there was blood everywhere. Vance yelled, "What the f--happened? Does anyone know what the f--happened?" To Vance's shock, the badly wounded Badani struggled to sit upright on the stretcher in order to salute his officer, before making his report. Tears welled up in Vance's eyes as he watched the young soldier attempt to "pay his respects" despite his injuries.

In a choked voice, Badani explained how he and Tescione had been returning from an escort mission when they got ambushed. In the town of Kolorina, approximately 20 Serb soldiers had blocked their path in an attempt to stop the jeep. The Serbs had left a slight gap in the roadway and Badani had gunned the engine. In response, the angry Serbs had loosed a vicious fusillade of small arms fire into the back of the Iltis. Over 53 rounds had penetrated the little jeep at point-blank range. The two men were each hit over half a dozen times and the radio was shattered. Racing down the road to safety, Badani had looked over at Tescione, "He was leaning over to one side, his eyes were open, he wasn't blinking or moving." Badani called his name to no avail. Tescione had taken rounds in the back, hand and two slugs in the head. One Serb slug had cleanly torn off the 48th Highlander tattoo which had been proudly emblazoned on the young reservist's arm. Tescione came to briefly, looked at Badani and said, "I hurt." Badani had tried with one hand to staunch the flow of blood from his friend's wounds, however, once his two badly shredded right-hand tires had disintegrated, he needed all his strength to control the damaged Iltis.

Shaken by the sight of the wounded soldiers, Maj. Vance headed back to the ops centre to inform NDHQ of the incident. Next of kin notices would also have to be drafted and issued. "A helluva New Year's greeting for their families," thought Vance.
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Author:Taylor, Scott; Nolan, Brian
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:4EXCR
Date:May 1, 2005
Words:967
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