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Canadian UN Missions in the Balkans

1991-2007

By: Patrick-Aurel Fournier

Patrick-Aurel Fournier

Historical Contributor

Patrick-Aurel Fournier holds degrees in both History and Criminal Justice from Nipissing University and is currently working towards his Bachelors of Education and completing his Masters Degree in History with his research titled: “Poppy Ville: The Commemorative Transformation of Welberg, Netherlands, 1945-2021”. Pat has always had a deep passion for history, more specifically in the reasons why and methods behind commemorations. In 2019, Pat was selected as 1 of 7 Canadian guides to work at the Juno Beach Center in Normandy, France; during the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Born and raised in Northern Ontario and currently living in North Bay, ON; he hopes to one day begin teaching in the area and help foster the love and curiosity for history as was sparked in him by past educators. Pat is extremely excited to be able to help DMC in sharing our country’s history and hopes to spark curiosity and passion within his readers.

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In 1991, unrest between the provinces of Yugoslavia came to a boiling point when Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). Following these declarations, Yugoslavia descended into years of violence that resulted in the creation of six independent countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia, as well as the disputed territory of Kosovo. The people of the former Yugoslavia were forced to experience civil fighting, economic instability, and political unrest as their new nations went through the trials of forming themselves. In response to this instability, the European Union (EU), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United Nations (UN) involved themselves in peacekeeping efforts throughout the former Yugoslavia, part of the region of south-eastern Europe known as the Balkans.  

Detailed political map of the Former Yugoslavia, 1993. Image courtesy of Mapsland.

The EU initially responded by establishing The European Community Monitoring Mission in the Former Yugoslavia (ECMMY) with a mandate to protect civilian life by monitoring the ceasefire between Slovenia and the remainder of the FRY. As a member of both NATO and the UN, Canada undertook Operation Bolster to provide aid to this mission by contributing a combined total of 72 officers and support staff over a 4-year period from 1991 to 1994.

In February 1992, due to the ongoing conflict between Croatia & Slovenia, the UN established the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) to ensure three UN Protected Areas (UNPAs) in Croatia were demilitarized. In April, Canada contributed a Canadian Battle Group (CBG) of 860 infantry members to the mission. Canada also provided an engineer regiment, a logistics battalion, and twelve forward air controllers to UNPROFOR. By summer of 1992, the start of the Bosnian War in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina had intensified. In response, UNPROFOR’s mandate was expanded into this territory by the Fall. The CBG was responsible for securing the airport in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and holding it secure for 30 days. In September, an additional Canadian battalion of 800 members was sent to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

By March 1993, aggression in Croatia had peaked. In 1991, Serbian rebels in Croatia had declared a third of Croatia’s territory to be an independent Serbian State and fighting over this territory was constant until 1993. Reports also indicated ethnic cleansing of Croatians and other non-Serbs in the region by Serbian rebels. In response to these reports, a new 875-member CBG arrived to help settle territorial aggression shown by the Croatians and avoid any further retributions by Croatian forces. Near the village of Medak, Croatian forces took the high ground by force in early September, leading to a ceasefire. This ceasefire required the Croatian forces who just recently taken this position to evacuate. Defiantly, the Croatian Forces ignored the demand laid out in the ceasefire. As the Canadians entered the Medak Pocket to enforce the ceasefire agreement and see the Croatian forces leave the area, Croatian forces opened fire on the CBG from their high ground. After heavy fighting throughout the night, the CBG was able to suppress the attack by the Croatians. Canadian commander Lieutenant-Colonel James Calvin held an emergency press conference the next day to pressure the Croatians to relent any future attacks, which ultimately allowed the Canadians to enter the Medak Pocket. During this battle on the 15th and 16th of September 1993, four Canadians were wounded.

A Canadian armoured carrier, in United Nations markings, patrols a road in the former Yugoslavia. Image courtesy of the Canadian Encyclopedia and the Department of National Defence.

By 1995, the situation in the Balkans was just as murky as it had been in the beginning. In response to the continued unrest, the UN was forced to restructure their UNPROFOR mission. On 31 March, 1995, UNPROFOR formed three distinct peacekeeping operations in the area: UNPROFOR for Bosnia and Herzegovina, the UN Preventive Deployment Force (UNPREDEP) in Macedonia and the UN Confidence Restoration Operation (UNCRO) in Croatia. A Canadian infantry battalion group was sent to serve UNCRO in the Krajina region, whose mission was to enforce a ceasefire agreement from March 1994. However, their aid was not needed for long. Croatian forces attacked and overran the Krajina region, which forced UN forces, including the Canadian infantry battalion, to withdraw.

At the end of 1995, a peace treaty was finally signed to end the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, showing a light at the end of the tunnel towards peace in the area. The peace treaty, known as the Dayton Accords, included having NATO create a 60,000-member Implementation Force (IFOR) and launch Operation Joint Endeavour to help implement the treaty. Over a period of two six-month rotations, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) would contribute more than 1,000 troops to the mission, including armoured vehicle troops, engineers, infantry, medical personnel, and military police. Their purpose was to supervise the withdrawal and separation of the forces that had previously been at war, as well as to establish freedom of movement in the area for civilians. 

Aside from the Canadian infantry support throughout the years, the CAF would also make contributions elsewhere. During Operation Sharp Guard (1992-1993), CAF would contribute warships to the naval blockade in the Adriatic Sea organized by the United Nations and Western European Union. In the air, the CAF would also provide Canadian pilots during Operation Decisive Endeavor (1995-1996) who were tasked with helping enforce the NATO “no-fly” zone over Bosnia during Operation Decisive Endeavor (1995-1996), as well as Canadian warships in Operation Sharp Guard (1992-1993).

IFOR was eventually replaced by the NATO Stabilization Force (SFOR) in December 1996. SFOR was tasked with creating a safe environment for both international agencies and local authorities as Bosnia and Herzegovina evolved into a democratic country. Of the 12,000 NATO troops who were involved in this mission, 1,200 were Canadians, who were once again serving on a six-month rotation. Canada additionally contributed six CF-188 Hornets to Operation Determined Force, which took place in October 1998. These Hornets were charged with enforcing another “no-fly” zone over Bosnia. Canadian contributions would grow to 18 Hornets once NATO launched Operation Allied Force in March 1999 to force Serbian forces to stop military action against Kosovo.

Ultimately the humanitarian and safety situation improved over time, leading to NATO reducing the size of its involvement in the Balkans. By the end of 2004, the NATO missions transferred to an EU mission (EUFOR), resulting in even greater reductions in the Canadian contribution. By March 2007, Canada ended its involvement in EUFOR. Since the beginning of the conflicts in the Balkans in 1991, nearly 40,000 Canadian military personnel served in the region on countless peace support missions. Unfortunately, 23 Canadian Forces members made the ultimate sacrifice in the Balkans and lost their lives while attempting to protect the lives of civilians and defend the reconstruction and stabilization of the region.

Residents of Sarajevo take cover from sniper fire behind an UN armoured vehicle in 1993. Image credit: Danilo Krstanovic. Image courtesy of the Legion Magazine.

Lieutenant-Colonel James Calvin

Lieutenant-Colonel James Calvin was an important figure in the success of UN operations during the Battle of the Medak Pocket in 1993. Commanding the 2nd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (2 PPCLI), Lieutenant-Colonel Calvin and his battalion moved into Croatia near the end of March 1993 and were charged with securing the UN Protected Area in Sector West of Croatia. It was here that Lieutenant-Colonel Calvin and his soldiers gained their reputation for combining toughness with fair-mindedness in dealing with armed opposition. 

Lieutenant-Colonel James Calvin while commanding the 2 PPCLI Battlegroup. Image courtesy of Windsor’s “Professionalism Under Fire“.

During this mission, Canadian battalions were equipped with full war-fighting weaponry, which was a stark difference from the traditional lightly armoured UN soldier. After the initial deployment in the Balkans, it quickly became evident that this level of force would be necessary to deal with the conflicts the Canadian military would face. Shortly after their deployment to the UN Protected Area, Lieutenant-Colonel Calvin ordered a major defensive exercise to both bolster unity within his troops and to demonstrate to Croatian forces that an attack on a UN Protected Area could and would be countered by the UN.

Under Lieutenant-Colonel Calvin’s guidance, 2 PPCLI strongly enforced weapons bans in their area and facilitated the seizing of contraband weapons. Additionally, on his own initiative, Lieutenant-Colonel Calvin developed a system that would help deter raiding and patrolling from Croatian and Serbian forces within the UN Protected area. Lieutenant-Colonel Calvin also ensured that captured soldiers from either sides were returned to the opposing forces with UN civilian police monitoring the situation closely, ensuring that these soldiers was not executed while captured. As Lieutenant-Colonel Calvin and the 2 PPCLI continued to be recognized for their effectiveness and  garnered increasing respect among UNPROFOR, the 2 PPCLI was eventually sent to UN Protected Area Sector South, which was described as an active war zone. The area had the most Croatian and Serbian resistance, and it was in this sector that Lieutenant-Colonel Calvin made his mark in Operation Medak Pocket in September 1993.

On September 13 1993, a verbal agreement was added to the “Medak Pocket Agreement” when Croatia President Franjo Tudjman ordered his troops to abandon their attack into the area and retreat to their initial start line. To ensure this was enforced, it was up to Lieutenant-Colonel Calvin and the 2 PPCLI. As UN troops rolled into the area to begin their operation in the evening, the Croatian forces opened fire on them from the high ground they had been holding in the area. After suppressing the nighttime attack, Calvin’s men were then met with a Croatian roadblock manned by Croatian Brigadier General Mezic. After a heated argument between Brigadier General Mezic and Lieutenant-Colonel Calvin, Calvin knew something had to be done before the scene became violent. 20 international journalists had followed Lieutenant-Colonel Calvin and his men into the area, and Calvin decided to use them. He brought the international press to the forefront of the convoy and held a press conference for the world to see. With the cameras on him, Lieutenant-Colonel Calvin exposed what Croatian police were doing on the other side of the barricade and showed to the world how Croatian forces were deliberately impeding UN efforts to make peace. As a result of his move, the Croatian roadblock was swiftly removed and UN forces were able to continue with their operation. 

In recognition of his leadership skills and his determination, Lieutenant-Colonel Calvin was awarded the Meritorious Service Cross for his efforts in the Medak Pocket in September 1993. Lieutenant-Colonel Calvin was also instrumental in the Canadian documentation of the Croatian ethnic cleansing of Serbs in this area, which helped pressure the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to prosecute Croatian Commanders for crimes against humanity. “No soldier should be able to get away with that,” he said.

Lt. Col. James Calvin, who led Canadian forces at the Battle of Medak Pocket in the former Yugoslavia, speaks to news media following his return to Canada and his promotion to full colonel. Image courtesy of the Canadian Encyclopedia and the Department of National Defence.

Sources & Further Readings

Balkans,” Veterans Affairs Canada (February 22, 2023).

Canadian Armed Forces Operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” Department of National Defence – Government of Canada (July 26, 2016).

Canadian Peacekeepers in the Balkans,” The Canadian Encyclopedia (August 9, 2019).

European Community Monitoring Mission in the Former Yugoslavia (ECMMY),” Government of Canada (March 17, 2023).

Forgotten Fights: Battle of Medak Pocket,” Veterans Affairs Canada (May 5, 2022).

Lieutenant-Colonel James Thomas Calvin,” The Governor General of Canada

Operation MARITIME GUARD,” Department of National Defence – Government of Canada (December 11, 2018).

Operation DECISIVE ENDEAVOR,” Department of National Defence – Government of Canada (December 11, 2018).

‘Soldiers’ Courage in Little Known Battle Recognized,” Legion Magazine (March 1, 2003). 

UNMIBH: United Nations Mission in Bosnia Herzegovina – Background,” United Nations (2003).

UNPROFOR,” United Nations (1996).

Windsor, Lee A. “Professionalism Under Fire: Canadian Implementation of the Medak Pocket Agreement, Croatia 1993,” Canadian Military History 9, 3 (2000).