BY: GIGI DE FORT-MENARES
“It became very messy. They had the higher ground and they had heavy artillery. They were shelling the city. There were snipers everywhere; they would shoot at ambulances. People couldn’t walk in the street without fear of being shot in the head.” My dad was very calm when he said this. I, however, was not. Internally I couldn’t help the twinge of fear and regret I felt for my dad as he recounted all the horrors he experienced as a Canadian UN peacekeeper is Bosnia Herzegovina.
It was October 10th when I finally conducted the interview. My dad suggested that we do it after dinner. I quickly agreed. He’s usually rather talkative after dinner, perhaps because he has usually consumed a glass or two of wine by then. Night had fallen when my dad finally walked into my room after dinner. He sat in my leather chair that tends to squeak if moved the wrong way, that I have in front of my glass desk. I sat on my double sized bed and faced him. I had wrapped myself in my duvet and set my laptop on my lap. I couldn’t help but wonder how this was going to play out. I knew that this was a difficult subject and that I needed to conduct an in-depth interview, but I was concerned because of my dad’s tendency to keep a lot of things to himself.
When the interview project was first introduced to us, I immediately knew who I was going to interview. I was going to interview Sidney de Fort-Menares the man who had been in both the Canadian and the Chilean army. That was the extent of my knowledge when it came to my dad’s history as a soldier. The only thing I knew was that he had been in two different armies. I saw the interview project as an opportunity to learn more about my dad’s past. My dad is a rugged looking man, a couple inches shorter than six feet tall. He has a beard that connects with a trimmed moustache. He has blackish brown hair that is littered with white. He has an interesting personality as he is very closed off and likes to be in control. He also has this tough-guy persona and is very set in his views, but he is a good dad, even though he and I are very different. I wanted to use the interview as a way of seeing and understanding another side of my dad. He never talks about his time in the army. The fact that he never talks about it, along with his sometimes difficult personality, made me wonder if he would take this seriously. I had my doubts, but those faded as soon as I asked my first question.
“Overall, is this a difficult subject to talk about for you?” I asked.
“It’s always a difficult subject to talk about, because you see a lot of terrible things. People die. That’s what combat is all about. People die, people that you know die … That’s a very sad looking plant.” As he said all this he hadn’t looked me in the eye once. He was looking at the orchid on my desk. The flowers were brown and crinkled, and he seemed to use it as an opportunity to steer away from the topic. I could already see that my dad isn’t as unaffected by his time as a soldier as I originally thought.
“Yeah, it died last week; it was really sad,” I responded. He quickly asked me to continue, perhaps not wanting to dwell on this for too long.
“Why did you join the military?”
He sighed as he responded, “Because my father was in the military, and my grandfather, and my great-grandfather, and my great-great-grandfather, we’ve always been in the military.”
“But did you want to join the military?” This is a question I asked for myself, because my dad had always seemed so tough and strong and was always so gung-ho about being in the military. I couldn’t help but question if that’s what he really wanted.
“I… when I was a young lad, I did not think I had a choice. I mean, it was expected of me.” I was shocked. I truly thought that he had joined the military out of complete desire. Perhaps I should have known; my dad was always a very bookish guy.
I continued by asking a very open-ended question, “What was your war experience?”
“In 1992 in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina, I was in the Canadian army with the United Nations. I was a captain, Queen’s York Rangers, 1st American Regiment. It was raised to fight the rebels to God, king, and to country back during what the Americans call the American Revolution. We call it the American Rebellion.” I couldn’t help but smile and roll my eyes a little. There’s the dad I knew. Strong and very upfront about his beliefs, these are the kind of responses I was expecting when asking these serious questions.
He continued on giving me background on the conflict, “At one time there were around 30,000 people there. They were from many different countries. I was sent to a town called Sarajevo, which was the capital of Bosnia. I don’t know if you know this, but there was a country called Yugoslavia, the socialist republic of Yugoslavia which fell apart in the early 1990s. It was basically made up of several different small countries. It was a federation. There was the Croats and the Slovenians who were mainly Roman Catholic, there was the Serbs who were Orthodox, and there was the Bosnians that was divided into like three different groups: Catholics, Orthodox, and Muslims. There was Montenegro which was also mainly Muslim, but not completely; there was also Christians. And Macedonia which was mainly Orthodox.
“It was a mess. It became almost like a tribal war. The people were all mixed in. All of them were so mixed and they all had their own histories. The reason why they kind of got all mixed up was because they were invaded by the Turks in the 1450s, and it was part of the Ottoman empire for a long time. So when things fell apart and the government started to fall apart, all these people wanted to have as much land as possible, in what they considered to be their ancient lands. And they started killing each other and that’s why the United Nations eventually had to go in.
“At one time there were more than 1,200 Canadians. But we were split up all over the place. Most of us were in Croatia; some were in Bosnia. My job was coordinating. I had very few men under me. And the old part of the city was mainly held by Muslims, while the newer suburbs, across the river, were held by Serbian Orthodox. And it became very messy. They had the higher ground and they had heavy artillery. They were shelling the city. There was snipers everywhere; they would shoot at ambulances. People could not walk in the street without fear of being shot in the head…it was a mess.”
A shadowy look seemed to come over his face as he thought hard about what had happened. He continued recounting, “There were terrible things that happened there. You know, there was very little food, most of the things weren’t running, the hospitals were totally destroyed and overwhelmed. And, you know I remember one time, one of the few places that people could get food was an open-air market in the old part of town. I think it was a Sunday or something, you know, the Serbs shot a 120 mm mortar shell into it, a high explosive, and about 80 people died in the market. All women and children, pieces of bodies all over the place, you know, it was…a lot of civilians were being killed. This was not just two armies fighting against each other.”
I didn’t even have to ask my question regarding a vivid memory. I could tell that this for him was very vivid and very hard to talk about. He wouldn’t meet my eyes. He seemed to grasp is hands a little tighter. And I couldn’t help but widen my eyes in shock as he recounted the things that he saw. I wonder what he felt in those very moments when he saw the aftermath of that explosion. Even though I could tell this was hard for him to talk about, he still remained very calm as he continued narrating his experiences. I guess I didn’t really expect any less.
“They were burning down houses. If you were a Croat in a Serb area, they would burn down your house. If you were a Serb in a Croat area they would butcher your cattle and burn down your barn. You know, they were trying to move people by forcing them out of different areas.”
He impatiently asked, “What else?”
“Regarding the marketplace, were you there?”
“No, I got there afterwards. I probably wouldn’t be here if I had been there, Gigi,” he responded smartly. “I had to investigate what kind of weapon was used, how many people were killed, many, many, many of them were just families. They were all women that had been lining up for hours to get bread, bread and vegetables. We were also under constant fire. It was very difficult getting around the city. And the Frenchies got into real trouble, and we had to go and help them, at a bridge that crossed that river. The Serbs tried to sneak in using United Nations uniforms.”
“So, you said that you were coordinating? As in you were coordinating attacks?”
“No, we were trying to coordinate flights into the airport for food and stuff like that. Getting people out and trying to keep the peace basically. But, there really was no peace, because the Serbs were really intent on taking over Sarajevo. It was the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And basically what I did was I counted battery fire, making sure they didn’t cross the river.”
“Do you feel like this experience left a lasting emotional effect on you?”
“Not, not really. I think that it taught me how ineffectual the United Nations can be. But then again I had served before with the United Nations, at the border between Israel and Lebanon, but I was there for a very short time.”
I couldn’t help but be surprised and admittedly unsatisfied by his response. Obviously, I don’t want my dad to feel emotional pain or grief. And I certainly wish he hadn’t seen the things he had seen. But I just didn’t want him to hold back for my sake, so I pressed on.
“So when you came back do you think that your life changed at all after seeing all that?”
“No, I’ve seen worse.” I quickly asked if he could elaborate. “I’ve seen worse in Africa. I’ve seen people hacked to death. Burned alive.”
He still seemed to avoid the deep emotional content that I was searching for. I was searching for a more emotional response after he revealed the more gruesome details of his experience. I don’t want to say that I was frustrated. But I couldn’t help but wonder if he would reveal more if someone else was interviewing him.
“Did that leave an emotional impact on you?”
“Never turn your back on people you don’t know,” he said almost hauntingly.
“Can you elaborate?”
“Uh, it teaches you not to trust humanity, Gigi. War either makes you stronger, or it breaks you, or kills you, one or the other. Do I worry about it? No. Do I wake up sometimes dreaming about it? Yes. I never suffered from anything like PTSD. I get nightmares about it.”
“Do you have —”
He interrupted me as he seemed to realize what I was searching for, “Well you know, there are things that I do that most people probably don’t, right? Well, when I walk outside, I always look at the rooflines.”
“Is that why you always sit facing the windows in restaurants?” I asked quietly.
“Yes, I like to have my back against the wall.” He finally started talking about how witnessing these experiences affected his life. This is what I was searching for. I wanted him to share with me his emotional experience. Because it is those experiences that are the ones that witnesses do not want to forget.
“Do you have any regrets, or did you ever feel like giving up?”
“I never felt like giving up! We’re de Fort-Menares, for God’s sake, we don’t give up.” I smiled at that, as he said it with so much pride and his typical bravado.
“Do I have any regrets? Uh, I regret things that could have been done better. We had…I don’t know how many Canadians died over there. But I think we lost around 24 people. I knew a couple of them, yes. It was a land mine. They weren’t shot or anything, just their vehicle was blown up…I was attached to the Canadian unit, because my regiment was not there.”
“Is there anything that was really motivating you to keep going?”
“ The idea that I was getting paid, both by the Royal Bank and the Canadian government,” he said with a smirk on his face.
I groaned and laughed a little. I was hoping he was going to say my mom or the idea that he might start a family someday… .
“I was making extra money,” he said defensively.
“Anything else that may have been motivating you?” This was my final question, so I was searching for something final. Something that would really encompass my dad’s experience.
“No, they told me where to go and I went. No soldier has ever tried to save the world, Gigi. Most soldiers just want to save themselves,” he laughed bitterly. “It’s not something that we’re, you know, I don’t think that most people that come from the middle of Alberta would know where the hell Bosnia Herzegovina was. But that’s where they ended up.”
Our interview ended with that. I feel like during that whole process I was searching for something. I was searching for more emotion. I didn’t want him to hold back. I knew that he did, because he’s still trying to protect me. Because that’s what dads do. Honestly, I was beginning to think that he wasn’t affected at all by the experiences he was recounting. He talked about everything in a very calm voice. There were times when he paused or didn’t look at me, and those were the only signs that gave him away.
Perhaps it was bit naive of me. But my dad has always seemed so unfazed and proud of his work as a solider. My dad’s my hero, so I’ve always seen him as somewhat invincible. But the little signs that he gave me throughout the interview revealed to me that he isn’t unfazed by what he has seen. For the majority of the interview, he wouldn’t look me in the eye. He never looked down though. He is a man of pride after all. He would also tighten his hands ever so slightly, and there was the tiniest difference in his voice that indicated stoicism and pain. But I think that overall, he’s just trying to not show weakness. This is very characteristic of him. It’s a part of who he is. This is why he was reluctant to talk about his time as a solider in the first place. And even though he didn’t burst out into tears, through little signs, I became aware of his true feelings. My invincible father wasn’t as invincible as I originally thought. And I see him as all the more stronger now that he’s shared what he’s been through with me.
Learning about my father’s experience in Bosnia Herzegovina was very interesting and emotional. This interview allowed me to hear my father’s story. It allowed me to hear a deep and personal account of a witness firsthand. And because this witness happened to be my father, I think it left a greater impact on me. The witness wasn’t just a faceless name in a book. The witness was my father. He bore witness to the atrocities of war and will forever carry that burden. And because my dad is who he is, he will insist on always carrying that burden alone. I am thankful that he opened up to me, and by doing so he has made me a witness; I hope that making me a witness alleviated some of the burden that he carries.