The Current

25 years after the Bosnian War, a survivor brings solace to the peacekeepers haunted by helplessness

Maria Cioffi was 11 when war broke out in the Balkans, a bloody conflict in which U.N. rules forced Canadian peacekeepers to stand by and watch the slaughter. Now, 25 years later, a letter written by Cioffi is bringing solace to the soldiers who have been haunted by helpless.
Maria Cioffi escaped the war in Bosnia when she was a child. She recently met with some of the Canadian peacekeepers who were stationed there. (Paul MacInnis/CBC)

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In 1992, more than 1,500 Canadian troops were sent to act as peacekeepers in the Bosnian War. 

At the time Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina were both fighting wars of independence — sometimes against each other, other times against the Serbians.

Canadian troops, because of their peacekeeping status, were not allowed to intervene, and found themselves forced to watch as civilians became victims.

Feelings of helplessness and failure still linger for many soldiers involved in that mission — but an unexpected letter from a woman who fled the war as a child has given those soldiers an unexpected chance to heal.

CBC News's Hannah Thibedeau joined The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti to tell the story.

HANNAH THIBEDEAU: I want to introduce you to two people who experienced the conflict from very different perspectives. First Maria Cioffi. She grew up in a city a couple of hours from Sarajevo. It's called Doboj. And she recounts a regular childhood until the war broke out. She was just 11-years-old when the city came under siege and the residents were told to leave.

The Didic children in 1989, before they were forced to flee for their lives. Maria Cioffi is on the left, with her brother Damir. (Maria Cioffi)
MARIA CIOFFI: My mom grabbed a few things, and I'll never forget this: we're sitting in the car outside, and she looks at the window and sees the curtains are closed. And she's saying: 'All my flowers are going to die, the curtains are closed. Should I go in and open them?' And we're like 'Mom, let's just go.' At this point it was about 11 o'clock and that was the deadline for everybody to leave. So we got in the car, we drove, but by the time we got the outskirts of the city, it has already passed 11 o'clock.

And there were Serbian soldiers there with guns, there were barricades and they were turning everybody back...

We tried to take a side road. There were land mines so you couldn't drive over, so my mom turned back to the bridge again. At this point it's way past 11 o'clock, we're starting to get nervous. My dad is now outside at the cottage, we're in the city and we're separated. We know what's going to happen, because we're seeing it happen in the other cities and Bosnia.

So my mom gets a barricade and there's this young Serbian soldier there who recognizes my mom, because my dad used to teach him. He was a music teacher at his high school. So this young man recognized my mom and he just kind of waved my mom through. And my mom [was] telling us to duck down in the back of the car in case they start shooting. And we just booted out of the city.

We were the last people to leave. And then within minutes of that we could hear shelling and bombs and everything.

HT: So they escaped to their cottage which was just outside of Doboj, in a town called Matuzići, and that was the last they saw of their family home.

A building that was destroyed during the conflict. (Submitted by lloyd Hubbard)

Maria Cioffi meets former Bosnia peacekeepers

6 years ago
Duration 2:24
Featured VideoMaria Cioffi meets with Bosnia peacekeepers John Parkinson and Dave Walker at a Legion in Brampton.

ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: It's hard to imagine what it would be like as a child to watch that kind of destruction going on around you.

HT: I know. 11 years old, but she says she didn't feel scared. I was shocked when she told me that. She said she was more angry and wanted to do something about it. She wanted to stay and fight, but she couldn't.

A UN peacekeeper with local children. Canadian troops were not allowed to intervene during the conflict, due to UN-mandated rules of engagement. (Submitted by Lloyd Hubbard)

HT: They ended up in the Adriatic coast of Croatia. She describes it actually as being smuggled out. That's because they had to take the back roads. It was a 12-hour journey and it typically takes only a few hours, and it was there that her family had a life-changing encounter with a Canadian soldier. Her mom was hoping to move the family to Canada and went to a city called Split. That's where there was a makeshift embassy and it was shared between the U.S. and Canada.

MARIA CIOFFI:  She arrived at the gate and there was a soldier… he wouldn't let her through. She said: 'I just want an application, I don't want to cause any trouble, I just want to get this.'

And she said there was a Canadian peacekeeper there who heard my mom and he came over and he said: 'What do you need?' And he went inside actually, and got the application for my Mom and brought it down to her, and she'll never forget that.

He went in got the papers, and gave them to my mom. And look, now I'm here, 25 years later.

HT: Now she's here. So obviously those papers got filed successfully and Maria moved to Canada with her family in 1995.

AMT: That's extraordinary, because it was so hard for people — where do they go? So many refugees, we're seeing that play out again today. You said there was another person involved in this story.

HT: Yes. This is a soldier who spent seven months in the former Yugoslavia when Canadian troops were deployed as peacekeepers.

Scott Casey, a Canadian peacekeeper, in eastern Europe in 1995. (Submitted by Scott Casey)

SCOTT CASEY: My name is Scott Casey. I was a corporal in the Royal Canadian Regiment. I was a platoon commander's driver and I was also also a tow-missile gunner and just a regular infantry soldier.

HT: He recalls his time there as horrific. Some of the memories still make him grimace.

SCOTT CASEY: It's not normal for women and children to be murdered in the streets. And you know, there was the mother, a daughter, and a son. And all three of them were shot, just for carrying water. There was no tactical importance to what they were doing; they were just surviving.

I mean to witness that, I was enraged, number one. Mortified that somebody could even do this sort of thing to children and non-combatants. And I was struggling to try and find some way to rectify that issue. And there was nothing there. I was completely helpless. ... there were innocent civilians that were being butchered on a daily basis, and for no other reason other than their religion or their ethnicity.

AMT: [It's] the reality of what they call the rules of engagement in peacekeeping.

HT: Yeah, they were supposed to be keeping the peace and as we said, there wasn't any peace to keep. So many of the soldiers left wondering what have they accomplished.

AMT: How has that affected soldiers like Scott Casey?

HT: Well for Casey, he says he worked through his own PTSD, but he adds there are still many who are haunted by what they saw there. And he's been willing to talk about his own experience. He was featured in a documentary called Sector Sarajevo, about Canadian troops' involvement in Bosnia. That's where Maria comes back into the story.

MARIA CIOFFI: You could tell that he was still suffering 20 years later, and I had to find him. I had to let him know. Don't suffer, you should be happy and look you helped me. Look how much my life has changed. And I just felt I had to reach out to him and make him feel better...

I know it was bad and we can't control that. But you've helped so many thousands of other people like me. And I thought that maybe if I could find him and just write him a letter, that maybe would help him feel better.

UN peacekeepers in an armoured vehicle, circa 1994/1995. (Submitted by John Parkinson)

AMT: Wow. What an extraordinary letter to receive all those years later.

HT: It gives you chills almost, listening to that. And for Scott, he wanted to share that letter and he did. Then other soldiers shared that letter and it spread really quickly through the veterans' community, and the people who read it, they wanted to meet Maria. So last month there was a face-to-face meeting at the Legion Hall in Brampton, Ontario — and more than a dozen veterans showed up to meet Maria.

VETERAN: We were all very frustrated when we came home, still to this day. Guys always never knew, right? It's just, like, we wish we could have done more.

So your letter just... even to have confirmed it from one person — if you felt that way. And then when we shared it, it was amazing, we had people far and wide, coast to coast. Guys were saying they were in tears, and they haven't felt this good in 25 years.

MARIA CIOFFI: It's so unbelievable to me. I thought it would have been just one of thousands of letters that you guys would receive. And I know how my family feels, they feel the same, they are grateful. To me it was just the normal thing, and I thought OK he's going to kind of read the letter and think 'Oh, thanks' and add it to the pile.

VETERAN: No, it was a real account. We did help. We did make a difference. And it's the first one I've ever heard in all these years — 24 years — since we've been home. And I know myself I look at it that, hey if I made if I helped one person and we did our job.

MARIA CIOFFI: You helped more than one. You helped a lot of us.

VETERAN: You made a lot of old soldiers extremely happy, and maybe even proud.

AMT: Hannah, it's just a reminder — we talk about sending soldiers somewhere from Canada and we don't think about all the years later what stays with them and wow, what an emotional meeting.

HT: It really was emotional. You can hear it in their voices there. I was there; when you look into their eyes you can see that these veterans are still struggling. And this just made it feel a little bit better for them. Now Scott Casey says from his tour alone on the English side there have been 14 suicides, and that's out of his regiment of 250 soldiers.

AMT: So what do Scott and Maria take away from this? What does it mean to them?

HT: Well for Scott, he doesn't like the word closure. He made that clear. But for both him and Maria, living through a war isn't something that just simply goes away. And they both describe the journey using the same metaphor.
Maria Cioffi meets former peacekeepers at the Legion Hall in Brampton, Ont. ( Paul MacInnis/CBC)

SCOTT CASEY: The letter for me definitely assists with another chapter in my life. It definitely finishes a sentence that's been left open for quite some time.

MARIA CIOFFI: I always felt like there was this empty void, something within me that felt like there's something that needs to be done about what I lived through and I kind of felt like I needed to do something. So doing this kind of helps that a little bit, and it closes that one chapter.

SCOTT CASEY: For us, that book never ends, right? We carry every page of that book of the Balkans with us for the rest of our lives. So it ends a sentence, rather than, you know, closure.

HT: I should mention for Scott and Maria — they still haven't met. Scott wasn't at that meeting at the Legion Hall. However Scott does live on the West Coast but he's doing a motorcycle trip across the country this summer. And he says the highlight for him will be actually meeting Maria.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Liz Hoath.