Former peacekeeper remembers Canada’s ‘forgotten battle’ in the former Yugoslavia
A British Columbia veteran looks back on what for many years was one of Canada’s forgotten battles.
Tony Spiess is a retired Canadian peacekeeper who served with the United Nations Protection Force in the fractured former Yugoslavia.
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In 1993, he was at the end of his machine gunner mission when his battalion was deployed to enforce a ceasefire line between Croatian and Serbian forces in an area known as the “Medak Pocket”.
On September 9, this fragile peace dissolved when the Croats launched an offensive, capturing the Serb-populated area around the town of Medak; a new ceasefire was established, which called on the Croats to withdraw.
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A week later, UNPROFOR deployed hundreds of soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, Princes Patricia’s Light Canadian Infantry to enforce the deal, but things fell apart when they tried to get into the pocket.
“The Croats hit us at supper time… and they hit us really hard,” he told Global News.
“All we had was what we had led into battle with us… And I guess, well, you know, business is business.”
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The ensuing battle produced some of the most intense fighting Canadian soldiers faced between the Korean and Afghan wars.
The Canadians fortified their position and withstood waves of machine gun and artillery fire for 15 hours.
“They were actually trying to kill us – 100%,” Speiss said.
Four Canadians were wounded in the battle.
The Croats were eventually forced to withdraw under political and media pressure. Canadian troops then entered the Medak pocket, where they found evidence of horrific violence against Serbian villagers and what appeared to be ethnic cleansing by Croatian soldiers.
The evidence collected by Canadians was then used in international war crimes investigations.
“It was extremely horrible to watch, but… we saved a lot of civilian lives, and that’s something I’m very proud of,” said Spiess.
Although the battle was the most serious action Canadian troops have seen in decades, it was years before many Canadians learned of history.
The Canadian government did not recognize the battle until 2002, when Governor General Adrienne Clarkson awarded the battalion the Unit Commander-in-Chief Commendation.
“That was the hardest part. Back home, it was quite impressive to see how the Liberal government made a whole war like that go away,” he said.
“It damaged the morale of a lot of the soldiers… It’s not that we wanted a parade or anything when we got home – just a ‘job well done’.”
The battle is now officially commemorated, recognized on the Veterans Affairs website as “a forgotten chapter in our country’s military history”.
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