In early 2001, Rick Anthony was midway through his career as a young officer with the Victoria Police Department. He was feeling a little bored and was itching to travel.
The RCMP had been organizing United Nations peacekeeping missions, and armed with a desire to “be part of the bigger picture,” Anthony promptly applied. By that spring, he found himself driving down goat paths, among a sea of burned out tanks and shot-up homes, in villages in war-torn Kosovo in Eastern Europe.
Along for the adventure was Victoria police Insp. Jamie Pearce, a third-generation officer who’d served on the force for 13 years at that time.
“I had seen a lot in Victoria, but wanted the exposure and experience in a different area,” Pearce says of his decision to go. “I went for the same reason I became a police officer – I wanted to make a difference.”
When Canadian officers got to Kosovo, Anthony says, it was the first armed UN peacekeeping mission. Prior to that they’d been in places of conflict only as observers. Arriving on the heels of a war waged for thousands of years, Anthony and Pearce say they were struck by the level of hatred and bitterness still fresh in the minds of the Serbians and Albanians.
The conflict in Kosovo was predominantly an air war and left the former Yugoslavian province devoid of any military, with a corrupt police force and widespread genocide. Anthony says he initially volunteered for the murder squad, and found himself digging up mass graves to identify bodies, before being reassigned to the UN police helicopter unit. Pearce chose the High Protection Unit, guarding war criminals and high-ranking judges and politicians, many of whom were at risk of assassination.
“The first night we heard tons of gunfire,” Anthony says, thinking back to falling asleep to the sound of landmines going off, more often as winter loomed. “When the ground contracts or freezes, it explodes.”
He remembers asking himself, ‘what have we done, where are we?’
It turned out they were in a region surrounded by terrorist training camps and when they woke up on Sept. 11, 2001, Anthony says, their role was shifted entirely. “We had been vacationing in Italy and when we got back, all the tanks were unravelled, there was lots more firepower, the alert status was way higher,” he says.
With roving periods of power due to an exploded power grid, meals and showers became strategic and connectivity was a luxury afforded only by short calls made on an official UN phone.
“There were no iPads, no Facebook then,” Anthony remembers.
Encouraged to make a trip home during time off, Anthony and Pearce say the transition back to Victoria was tough. Pearce described it as being a gear just slightly out of step, with a family and community whose lives went on while you were on the other side of the world.
“You’ve got to wrap your brain around the idea that you might not be coming back,” Anthony adds. He doesn’t consider himself a veteran, but says the pride of wearing that blue beret and being involved in such an honourable undertaking is “indescribable.”
Both he and Pearce quickly learned how highly regarded Canadian officers were. They shared equipment with African police officers who weren’t prepared for -40 C weather and though the people of Kosovo had little trust left in police, they were able to re-train their officers.
“We worked in very specialized units, and when you leave it’s bittersweet, ‘cause you don’t know if you’re leaving [having done] enough of what you went to do,” Anthony says. But it was a remarkable experience, he says calling it the high point of his policing career.
Now 16 years since the pair undertook their respective missions, Pearce says it’s hard to swallow the fact we still have world leaders leading us down the path of war.
“We’ve been through so much as humans that we should all know this is not the way we want be a human, and war is not the answer,” he says. “It scares me that people are so ego-ridden. The human toll of war; [when] you actually see and experience it, [it gives you] a whole different perspective.”