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

Our Canada - - Contents - By Todd Mcgowan, Vic­to­ria

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.

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