Events from time in Yugoslavia stirs up sad memories for one retired veteran

Arnprior -- Brian Snider was just a typical high school student in 1976 when he went through the doors as a graduate of Arnprior and District High School determined to marry his high school sweetheart before he signed up to join the Canadian Armed Forces.

As a naïve 19-year-old kid who grew up in Fitzroy Harbour, he spent many hours getting bounced around inside a school bus from Fitzroy Harbour to Arnprior and back again. He had no idea his complaints about getting a bad ride to school were nothing compared to what he would encounter when he would be the first soldier to see and respond to a bullet-ridden jeep that barely sputtered its way to safety.

The jeep and the two Canadian soldiers who occupied the seats were lucky to make it behind the Canadian land base’s barbed wire fence in a country formerly known as Yugoslavia.

“When I signed up, I didn’t really know where Yugoslavia was, but once you are called up for an overseas mission, you can read about it on the plane. I would also know from my experience in Cyprus that once you cross a line, there is no coming back and that was what was happening in Yugoslavia soon after we arrived.”

When he disembarked off the plane, he became one of over 860 soldiers who were assigned to the United Nations Peacekeeping Operation between 1991 and 1994. He led a group of 40 RCR Infantrymen that was one of many Canadian battle groups to serve.

The attack on Canadian soldiers in the jeep and his encounter with a local villager had a profound effect on him and impacted his outlook on the role of modern-day peacekeepers.

“It changes you,” he said. “When I was there, I was 100 percent focused on my immediate task at hand and sometimes even in the devastation and destruction of homes and farms, I sometimes forgot about having a home to go to in Canada. Because in my mind, the work was not done and my duty was to complete my assignment and sometimes it just didn’t seem real.”

The shattering of reality for him as a soldier came when one of many civilians who were employed for various tasks such as cooking or clean-up came to him prior to him completing his six-month tour of duty.

“I knew her and her husband as they worked a farm near the base and they had lived in the area a long time raising their only child,” Mr. Snider said as he cleared his throat. “Their son grew to be a young man who worked alongside his father each day on the farm.”

Taking a short pause, he explained while storing the remainder of his luggage on a plane scheduled to bring him home to end his six-month tour, he recognized the woman as the wife of the farmer. She was pointing towards him and it was obvious she had been crying.

“She was grabbing my arm and begging me to bring her back to Canada to be a maid for my family,” he said. “She was sobbing and pleading with me, telling me her husband was taken away in a car and she received a phone call a short time later and was told her husband had something to tell her.

“She recognized his voice and suddenly there was silence for a few seconds then followed by a loud BANG when a shot rang out. She said her husband was killed at that moment and her son was also taken away. The voice on the other end of the phone informed her that her only child was dead.

“I am getting ready to say goodbye to this country and its people, while a widow is on her hands and knees begging me to take her away. She had nothing. The two men she loved were gone and she had nothing to live for.”

He is still saddened by the needless death. Unfortunately, he said these types of incidents had become all too routine by the time he was rotated out of the Bosnia region.

“Today, everyone knows there was no peace to enforce back then,” the former Blue Beret said. “It wasn’t like here when someone says something to a family member and you have families against families but they are carrying out armed assaults on each other. Worse yet, they either know, or know someone involved in those growing violent attacks that were based only on their religion or culture.

“We were all soldiers sent to Europe to get between the lines of groups of people who hated each other and used violence and murder to try and justify it.”

The Blood-Stained Polecat

Mr. Snider also recalls clearly an attack on two Canadian soldiers and seeing their bloodied jeep coming back to safety. The story of the jeep is not very well known even though it has been one of the central collection pieces inside the Canadian War Museum as part of a collection detailing Canadian efforts during the Cold War period of the late 20th century.

The vehicle, four-wheel-drive Bombardier Iltis (a German for polecat), was the standard means of transportation for the Canadian Army for several years when stationed to overseas operations.

Under the command of Major John Vance (who later became Chief of Staff of the Canadian Armed Forces only to resign), two members of the 1RCR Battle Group came under attack by a group of 20 Serbs who tried to block a path to try and stop the jeep.

It was in retaliation for Canadian forces allowing a Kenyan contingent to establish a presence despite objections of the Croats. The refusal of the Croats to allow the Kenyans to be part of the UN presence foreshadowed the ruthlessness put on display by several warring factions when they terrorized millions of innocent civilians with racist campaigns drawn into battle plans.

The term ethnic cleansing was widely used during this time.

On New Year’s Eve of 1994, Private Phillip Badani, despite being shot more than six times, managed to drive the jeep a few more kilometres back to base despite 53 rounds of ammunition piercing every section of the jeep.

Beside him was the body of Private John Tescione. Both men were members of the 48th Highlanders. They managed to flee the Serb force and drove through the dark of night with two tires shot out. Once near the base, then M/Corporal Snider signaled command the jeep was severely damaged and signaled for the jeep to enter the camp.

“It was something I will never forget,” he said. “Once I was able to get over the fact that despite all reasonable arguments as to why that jeep should not have made it inside the camp, it made it. We were under orders to heighten security. We were facing the possibility it was the beginning of something big taking place. We found ourselves maybe being drawn into a war and we had no idea who or what was out beyond our lines waiting for us.

“I saw it coming and that jeep was so beat up the damage could be seen by our lights in the dark,” he recalled. “One thing I will never forget is the blood. It was hard to see the white jeep under the UN symbol. There was so much blood and that blood came from Canadian soldiers and that night, one of them did not come home.”

Both men had been shot over six times each and Private Tescione took two rounds in his back, one in the hand and two shots in the head causing his death. Private Badini barely survived.

“You won’t see the blood on the jeep today in the museum” he said. “The blood took a long time to clean and the base was on high alert. I spent pretty much a whole week at my post because we would hear gunfire and artillery but had no idea who was shooting who. We just made sure at that time our base and our folks were safe.”

By 2006, M/Cpl. Snider retired after almost 30 years of service in 1RCR. He has had tours around the world and loved his time in Germany when his son was born in that country. He is proud of his service and all his fellow servicemen. He resides in Arnprior and is active in the Legion.

“We helped a lot of good, innocent people survive and get a chance at life,” he said. “But some like the one who got killed in the jeep never came back. Neither did that farmer or his son. War does more than just kill soldiers. It destroys families and whole countries. We did what we could to make it safe and I am proud of that.”

Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader