(Editor’s note: in 1995 Major Patrick Rechner, 32, of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, was among United Nations peacekeepers taken hostage in the former Yugoslavia. Rechner’s Serb captors threatened to execute him on camera, then used him as a human shield during a NATO air raid on an ammunition dump outside Sarajevo. Rechner spent 24 days in captivity and remained a model of “extraordinary control and composure,” said his commander Major General Lewis Mackenzie. On November 17, 2011 Rechner, now retired from the military, spoke with Blacklock’s publisher Holly Doan. Following is a transcription of his remarks)
It was a very surprising episode, to be taken as hostages. United Nations military observers were protected under international law, under the Vienna Convention. We were not to be harmed in any way.
They used us as human shields. It wasn’t just for a photo opp. There was bombing in progress. Nobody knew if the situation would escalate. This was a war zone.
They had driven us to the top of a mountain, an ammunition dump. They removed my blindfold. I thought there was a good possibility I would be executed. I remember one person waving a revolver with notches cut into the handle, to count the number of people he had killed, he said.
They were clearly angry. It was a very unpredictable situation. I remember, faced with the prospect of being killed in a few moments, I quickly reflected: What have you done with your life? Was it worth it? Would you change anything? There’s a lot that goes through your mind.
I think like a lot of boys growing up, you do get interested in military things, and that was certainly the case with me. At 13 I joined army cadets in Toronto. That gave me motivation to pursue a military career.
I came to help these people. I needed to show a personal example that I forgave them. People caught up in war really suffer. War destroys families, communities. In wars of the past century 90 percent of casualties were civilians.
We spent weeks in captivity. The guards tried to manipulate us into making statements in front of the cameras that were critical of governments, things like that. We tried to maintain our group cohesion as tightly as possible.
To this day when I see images of what my colleagues endured, it brings back a lot of strong feelings. One of my Polish colleagues was handcuffed to a radar dome. He was under a tremendous amount of stress. He suffered a lot.
Later in captivity we had to find ways of passing the time. One observer team had a board game, Risk. The guards allowed us to play, so we used to play Risk religiously, every day.
Being in the military, you are entrusted to use a high degree of violence when necessary. But at a personal level this experience made me a more sensitive and caring person. People may be surprised; a military officer is expected to be tough and uncompromising. I learned to exercise restraint and be highly compassionate in order to be trusted.
When I arrived back in Vancouver there was a huge crowd at the airport. At my parents’ home all the neighbours had put up big banners, “Welcome Home Patrick.” It was one of those life-changing moments. I am very proud of my service.