Canadians Abroad: What A Ride!
From deployment to enjoyment, Canadian army veterans tour the Balkan countryside and revisit a land in which they once served
Ninety proud Canadians travel to the Balkans to take part in the 2018 Wounded Warriors Canada Battlefield Bike Ride.
This past June, 90 Canadians made the long journey to Bosnia and Croatia to participate in the 2018 Wounded Warriors Canada Battlefield Bike Ride (BBR). We cycled 560 kilometres through both of these beautiful countries and raised funds to support first responders across Canada and army veterans who are struggling with mental health challenges. This was my fourth annual ride with Wounded Warriors and each of these European battlefield tours has been a transcendent experience for me, as we honour our fallen fellow Canadians.
The piercing memory of Canada’s 118,000 war dead, and the experience of seeing their headstones lined across Western Europe on past European battlefield tours has been forever etched into my conscience. Our level of national commitment to worldwide peace is an integral part of what it means to be Canadian.
But this year’s ride would be different. This war, this conflict, this savage ethnic cleansing happened only 25 years ago, and unfortunately it happened on our watch. My role, while serving in Croatia, was as a UN peacekeeper from April to October 1993. A few years later, I was deployed to Bosnia and served as a NATO peacekeeper from March to October of 1997. For 14 months, the war zones of Croatia and Bosnia had been my home.
As our 90 riders, suited in gleaming red-and-white BBR
Canada cycling kits, gathered on the magnificent Latin Bridge built by the Ottomans over the Miljacka River in Sarajevo around the year 1565, I was simply awestruck by the panoramic vista. Canada was returning to the Balkans. We stood a mere five yards from the assassination site of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, in June of 1914. This event triggered the catastrophe of the First World War, and yet today, the area is surrounded by the stunning lush mountains that hosted the 1984 Olympic Games, rich smells of Bosnian coffee, bakeries turning out a wide array of fabulously authentic pastries, beautiful people and happy tourists. Sarajevo seemed wonderfully at peace. Still, I was always one to look a little deeper into things. I noticed battle- scarred buildings that stood between glimmering new towers, the nearby memorial for the fallen children of Sarajevo, the legendary “Sniper Alley” and amputee civilians. The raw undercurrent of a savage war is still palpable.
In 1993, the Balkan nations were in a full-scale war following the break up of Yugoslavia. Cities were under siege and civilians were being brutally murdered. The UN and Canada sent peacekeeping forces to help manage this burgeoning crisis and protect the civilian population from any further harm. From these experiences, we all gained a real sense of how important it is for nations to stand united in a time of crisis.
Over the next seven days of cycling, we would be inundated with geographical wonder, historical perspective and a deep and abiding sense of gratitude.
Each of our riders would be physically tested over the course of the week as we encountered 44°C weather, severe headwinds, difficult mountain terrain and cold, hard rain on the final days. But far more importantly, we all would be emotionally tested during our visits to the magnificent cities of Mostar and Sarajevo, places that still so tragically bear the scars of war. The memorial for the children in Sarajevo hauntingly commemorates over 500 children who lost their lives during the horrific siege of that city in the early 1990s. In Mostar, the bullet-scarred walls and the prominent “Sniper Tower” still mark this beautiful city; however, they have now been joined by the
stunningly rebuilt Stari Most Bridge, which was completely destroyed during the war.
The rugged mountain terrain, often framed by the glimmering Adriatic alongside the Dalmatian Coast, made this ride one of the most beautiful we’d ever done. The spectacular scenery we encountered would change dramatically after we’d crossed the Croatian border and descended a remarkable ten-kilometre hill, with the stunning Biokovo Mountains to our right and the beautiful Adriatic to our left.
After cycling through the majestic landscape on the route downhill, we arrived in the magnificent port town of Makarska. Dating back to the 2nd century BC, Makarska is highlighted by a palmfringed promenade featuring modern cafés and bars interspersed with historical buildings overlooking a beautiful small harbour. The Adriatic Coast provided us with the most visually stunning ride of our lives.
Despite its magnificence and beauty, as we unfortunately had to leave the Croatian Coast and climb inland, we would soon again be reminded of the devastating carnage of war. We rode to Medak, scene of a battle between two Canadian Light Infantry Battle Groups and Croatian Forces in 1993. It was Canada’s worst conflict since the Korean War, as our soldiers fought with determination to stop ethnic cleansing and assist the civilian population who had been caught in the crossfire of this horrific event. The villages have since been abandoned and the region felt extremely dark and unpleasant.
I was incredibly fortunate to have my 77-yearold father and older brother accompany me on this trip. For both of them, and many of our other riders, long-distance cycling was an enormous step outside their comfort zone. And because my mental health had been severely compromised during these and many other deployments outside of Canada during my career, the opportunity to share positive outcomes and the surreal beauty of these visually stunning countries was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for which I shall be eternally grateful.
For every cyclist, our amazing support staff from Magic Places Cycling in Victoria, the Wounded Warriors Canada team, our key partners at Cervélo, and the many Bosnians and Croatians we shared the experience with, this journey will forever be etched into our hearts. Canada and the Balkan nations will always share a beautiful bond of friendship, peace, mutual respect and love. n
Todd Mcgowan (right), his father Kim (middle) and brother Kirk (left) all geared up for their ride.
Left to right: Nearing the end of the ride day, the team descends into the Cikola Canyon in Croatia; the sign as you enter Medak is really the only way of knowing you’re entering the town, as everything else is derelict, bombed out and overgrown; Todd Mcgowan, Wade Smith and Mike Spellen share a toast with Croatians outside of Medak Village.
Left: BBR riders handed out 200 “Izzy” dolls to children they passed on their journey; the dolls commemorate Mcpl. Mark “Izzy” Izfeld, who died in a landmine explosion. Far left: bullet-ridden buildings have been given new context through the use of graffiti.