'You were our heroes': A survivor of the Balkan wars helps ex-peacekeepers move past their pain
'When life was hopeless, seeing those blue helmets gave me hope, courage and strength.'
More than 25 years have passed since Scott Casey served as a peacekeeper in the former Yugoslavia. It was, he said, a "horrific" experience — seven months of terrible memories he's lived with every day since.
"It's not normal for women and children to be murdered in the streets," he said. "You never get over that."
Casey was a corporal in the Royal Canadian Regiment, a platoon commander's driver and a TOW missile gunner — "a regular infantry soldier" in an irregular theatre of war. He and his fellow Canadian soldiers were a part of the United Nations Protection Force approved for the Balkan conflict by the UN Security Council in 1992. They were peacekeepers with no peace to keep — blue helmets in a combat zone.
Because the mission operated under the UN's strict rules of engagement — no firing unless fired upon — Casey and his comrades frequently had to sit on their hands and watch awful things happen. Casey saw a mother and her two children gunned down in front of him.
"All three of them were shot just for carrying water. There was no tactical importance to what they were doing. They were just surviving," Casey recounted.
"I was completely helpless. You never get over that and you work through it but that's definitely the disturbing portion of this ... Innocent civilians that were being butchered on a daily basis.
"I felt hopeless."
That feeling of hopelessness — of having been responsible for people they couldn't protect — still afflicts many of the thousands of Canadian peacekeepers who served in the Balkans.
"I think it is safe to say," Casey said, "that there's a good percentage of people who served in the Balkans war [who] didn't feel that we had done any good there."
What Casey didn't know 25 years ago was that one of the children who narrowly survived that war remembered the soldiers in blue helmets with gratitude — and would someday reach out to offer comfort to the Canadians who brought the horrors home with them.
Running for their lives
Maria Cioffi, née Maria Didic, was only 11 years old when her city, Doboj — a couple of hours from Sarajevo — came under siege in 1992. Residents were told to flee. Maria, her mother and brother escaped just minutes before violence erupted.
"My mom's telling us to duck down in the back car in case they start shooting. And we just booted it out of the city," she said.
"We were the last people to leave. And within minutes of that, we could hear shelling, bombs and everything."
The only mementos Cioffi has of her childhood now are a few loose pages from old photo albums, the images tattered and faded by time. Her family left with only the clothes on their backs; the treasured photos were scrounged up by family members after Cioffi's escape.
She doesn't even realize [that] by just writing this letter ... she is already saving lives.- Scott Casey, veteran
"Good memories. I try not to think of the sad memories anymore because, what's the point?" Cioffi said, tears filling her eyes.
Maria's family escaped to their cottage in Matuzici just outside of Doboj, where her father was already hiding. It was safe there for a while, even without electricity and with the war still raging away on their doorstep — an illusion of peace, convincing for a while.
"At that time it's a beautiful May day. You could hear the birds chirping, but you can't go outside cause there's snipers," she said.
"My dad had a makeshift bomb shelter in the basement of our house, so at night we would stay there when the shelling was so heavy and you could hear the bombs falling really close. In the morning we'd get up and look through the windows at the back of our house and I would see all these homes just destroyed and burning."
Cioffi was angry and wanted to fight, but couldn't. Then the peacekeepers arrived. They couldn't fight either, for reasons of policy. But their presence changed the conditions on the ground, making the bubble of peace around Cioffi and her family slightly more solid.
"At the time I remember the adults saying, 'Why aren't they fighting for us? Why aren't they doing this, why aren't they doing that?'" Cioffi said.
"But them just being there, the Serbs couldn't invade anymore. It's kind of like the wolves don't come around if they see a sheepdog. And if they weren't there, it would have been a lot worse."
Cioffi's family survived, escaping over back roads to the Adriatic coast of Croatia and eventually making their way to Canada.
The years passed. Days before before Remembrance Day, 2017, Cioffi stumbled upon the documentary Sector Sarajevo and watched Scott Casey talk about the memories that still haunted him from the war.
"I could see it in his eyes. It affected him so much and you could tell that he was still suffering twenty years later," she said.
"I had to find him. I had to let him know, 'Don't suffer.'"
She wrote Casey a letter: "I want to thank you and tell you, it is because of brave men like you, that me and my family are alive today …
"At a time when life was hopeless, seeing those blue helmets gave me hope, courage and strength ... You were our heroes."
Many soldiers from the Bosnia mission continue to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Out of his regiment of 250 troops, Casey said, 14 have committed suicide.
Reading Cioffi's letter, Casey could feel wounds that had been bleeding for two decades slowly begin to close.
"She doesn't even realize [that] by just writing this letter she's made that step," he said. "There are going to be people who benefit from this. She is already saving lives."
Casey immediately posted Cioffi's letter online to a Facebook group for soldiers who served in the former Yugoslavia. One of the men who saw it was Todd Wiwczor, a corporal who served two tours during the conflict.
"Her words just took away ... or dulled, so many bad memories of our time over there," Wiwczor told CBC News from his Halifax home.
Many former peacekeepers who served in the Balkan conflict wanted to thank Cioffi in person. More than a dozen veterans of the conflict gathered at a Legion Hall in Brampton, Ontario in early March to meet her. Master Warrant Officer Troy Cleveland was one of them. Overcome with emotion, he embraced Cioffi.
"When I read the letter, what meant the most to me was that now ... now I can see the fruits of our labour, that here's a young woman who escaped the war with her family," he said. "And she's living in a free democratic society, raising her own family right here in front of us."
Cioffi wept as veteran John Parkinson told her how her letter had given him and his comrades something they'd almost given up on finding in the two and a half decades since coming home: a sense of having done something good in an evil time.
"Nothing but positive can come from this because it really is the first time — and I know that sounds stupid — but it's the first time we've realized ... that we helped someone," Parkinson said.
"You didn't know us back then," said Dave Walker, who served in the Balkan mission from 1994 to 1995. "We couldn't do anything, we weren't allowed.
"I wish I met Maria 20 years ago. I wouldn't be such a mess.
"But it's all good. It's good."