'What Am I Doing Here?'

Canadian Army Medics on a good-will mission had just picked up an X-ray machine from a hospital on the Serb side of the line to take back to their headquarters for repair. Minutes later, Serb artillery fired seven shells into the Canadian camp at the shattered Sarajevo suburb of Visoko. A hut was fiddled with shrapnel, and two Grizzly armored cars were damaged. Meanwhile, on the Serb side, Capt. Serge Harvey, commander of the Canadians' Company A, was sharing a congenial drink of slivovitz with the Serb commander. The telephone rang, and Harvey's host apologetically announced that the Serbs were taking 53 Canadians hostage. On the Bosnian government side of the line, things weren't much better. At a checkpoint, the crew of a Canadian light tank was asked to show ID cards. When the Canadians opened the hatches, the Bosnians put guns in their faces and stole their grenades--and their personal cameras.

It was a bad week, but not an unusual one for the much-abused U.N. troops of Canada's Royal 22d Regiment, charged with keeping the peace in a swath of Central Bosnia. The lightly armed, poorly equipped Canadians have seen worse. Last New Year's, a group of drunken Serb soldiers rounded up 10 of them, beat them with their fists -and then lined them up against a wall for execution. The Serbs opened fire with live ammunition--but deliberately missed their victims, who were later released.

Twice in the past year, Canadians have been taken hostage by the Serbs in retaliation for NATO airstrikes. After last week's strikes, Harvey knew what was coming. He rushed to join his men on the Serb side, to be with them when they were taken. The regiment's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Danny Redburn, also knew his troops would be hostages if they stayed on Serb ground. But he decided not to order a withdrawal, worried that the Serbs might shoot at his men as they left. There was also the matter of what would happen to their observation posts, fitted out with TVs and refrigerators. "You leave an OP out here and it's like leaving a car in the middle of the night in New York," says Redburn. "You come back, there's nothing left."

The 22d calls Camp Visoko a little island of Canada, but they must be thinking of Quonset huts in the Arctic. Up to 840 troops share a huge warehouse filled with tattered tents. A small video hall, jammed night and day, provides entertainment. There's a complete field hospital, staffed by 53 medics, one for every 16 troops. Often enough, they need it. In two years, the Canadians have suffered 10 dead and 75 wounded.

It isn't every soldier who can stand this kind of abuse. Like most countries contributing to the U.N. force, Canada sends only its best troops, usually volunteers. Many of the men at Visoko are now on their third tour. At least they are well paid. A Canadian corporal normally gets $30,000 a year; here there is an extra $1,100 a month in hazardous-duty pay. The Canadians are famous for adhering more strictly than most to the U.N. policy of returning fire only in self-defense. (The British and French are quick to return fire, and in Tuzla, Nordic tank gunners--perhaps the most aggressive of the U.N. forces--have blasted away whenever the Serbs fired on them.) The Canadians won't even cock their weapons unless an enemy weapon is pointing at them. Says Redburn: "We're not here to bully anyone."

Take off: In Bosnia, there are bullies on both sides. The colonel saves most of his indignation for the Bosnian army. When the Canadians tried to move some of their troops out of Visoko, to safer Croatian territory last fall, Bosnian army armored personnel carriers blocked their way. Fearing that their flights home for once-in-six-months leave would take off without them, some of the Canadian soldiers rolled out their own APCs and blocked the highway to Bosnian traffic--until the Muslims gave in.

Equally galling is the Bosnians' refusal to let the peacekeepers help. "Sometimes you wonder, 'What am I doing here if I can't do my job?'" says the colonel. The Bosnian army has forbidden him to take his armored vehicles anywhere near the confrontation line, which they're supposed to monitor. He needs to make written requests to move an APC out of his own gates. Bosnian civilian clinics that the underworked U.N. medics used to visit are now declared off-limits. "They want us to be here, but they don't want us to do anything," says Redburn. "We don't want to just be a target."

These targets are nonetheless fiercely proud of their mission impossible. Says Capt. Chris Bergeron, "We are the most respected U.N. troops in Bosnia now, because we are the only ones who have troops on all sides." The belligerents have a funny way of showing respect. "It's difficult, but only a soldier could do it," says Bergeron. "It's a crazy war. I'm sure they all lost their minds a long time ago." Trying to be a peace-keeper when there's no peace to keep may be a recipe for that, too.