In September, 1999, Les Brauner was 23 years old and had a year of training under his belt in Kingston, Ontario as a radio operator.
Then the call came, and within a matter of days he shipped out with the rest of his unit to an isolated area of Bosnia near the Croatian border. He was part of the NATO peacekeeping corps assigned as part of the stabilization force, whose job it was to maintain a fragile peace established just a few years earlier.
It was the first time he’d been out of Canada. He was excited, but also very nervous; not knowing what to expect.
What he found was a war-torn country that was slowly rebuilding from years of unbelievable violence.
“For most of the 20th Century, Bosnia was part of a communist country called Yugoslavia,” said Brauner in a presentation to students at Valley Manor School in Martensville during a Remembrance Day service on Wednesday, November 8. “Over the years, long-standing ethnic, political and religious differences between the different populations who had lived there for centuries created an environment of distrust and led to an unstable situation.
“In the early 1990s, violent conflict between the groups broke out, as they wanted to split and form their own countries.
“There were many instances of so-called ‘ethnic cleansing’ where entire villages were massacred.
“In 1992, the United Nations responded with peacekeepers to help save lives in the region.”
Brauner said many thousands of Canadians served in the Balkan region between 1991 and 2004, and 23 of them lost their lives during that time while many more were injured.
“By the time my unit was deployed, the fighting had pretty much ended, except for isolated instances,” said Brauner. “But the cease-fire lines were fragile, and it was a huge job to rebuild the shattered country.”
Brauner’s unit worked to rebuild hospitals, schools, playgrounds and other infrastructure. He said he was moved by the families he met there.
“There were children who had seen things that no one should ever have to witness,” he said.
He said one of his most memorable experiences was visiting the city of Sarajevo where the Austrian arch-duke, Ferdinand, was assassinated in June, 1914. This was the spark that ignited the powder keg of World War I just a few weeks later.
Yan Fullwood served seven months in Afghanistan in 2010 as a communications specialist. He told the Valley Manor students that all veterans are deeply appreciative of the Remembrance Day services held annually in Canada.
“Poppies are a visible way of saying ‘thank you’ to those who help keep your country safe,” said Fullwood. “Never forget those who have fought for our freedom.”