Peacekeeper’s Coffee

Peacekeeper’s Coffee

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

Peacekeeper’s Coffee

It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life, that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

It was a long drive to Okachani. Over two-and-a-half hours in a convoy of the Canadian M113 APCs (armoured personnel carriers), which rattled and shook as they kicked up clouds of dust along the dirt roads of the former Yugoslavia.

The 4:30 A.M. start was no big deal. Neither was the long drive and diet of road dust. Those came with the job. No, it was the attitude of the locals that was starting to wear on our sense of humour.

When we got to Okachani, we passed by the usual war-torn, roofless brick houses with their weed-infested yards. Some of the intact houses had Serbian villagers still living in them, determined to stay. As our carriers rumbled past, they would either give us a curious look, a scowl, or simply ignore us altogether while they tended their gardens and eked out their existence. We would wave or just act like they weren’t there, both sides engaging in mutual tolerance.

Today our job was maintenance patrol—a nice name for cleaning up after someone else. It was a never-ending routine of repairing damages or replacing materials stolen by the desperate local population. The men kept grumbling about the constant cleanup. I kept hearing, “Just let the two sides go at it and sort it out. Isn’t that what they want?”

I was a sergeant in charge of an eight-man section responsible for a defensive area in the corner of the village. This defensive area was a couple of houses that we had previously cleared of glass and other debris born of conflict. We had then fortified the buildings with sandbags, chicken wire and lumber. We would routinely check on its sturdiness, then grudgingly clean up more debris and replace stolen corrugated iron, wire, plywood and sandbags.

“Look at the bloody mess,” someone cursed. “Let’s just . . .”

I cut him off.

“Let’s just get the job done,” I snapped. “The day’s not getting any cooler.”

I had left Canada months ago, full of high ideals about helping Second- or Third-World countries, protecting the downtrodden and saving all the homeless children. We were going to set everything right and make the world a better place. Now, I was not so sure. I was no longer the noble liberator I had first envisioned myself. Every report I heard of torture, infanticide or execution was starting to wear on me. Every time some drunken villager pointed an assault rifle or pistol at us, or told us to “Get out of my country,” I thought how pointless this was getting to be. To top it off, our own Canadian media back home was relentlessly criticising us every step of the way. I wondered if there was anyone benefiting from this misery.

I was numb to the loud griping I was hearing today as the soldiers hauled the sheets of corrugated iron. Other days I would tell them to keep it down. But today, between the constant cleanups, restacking sandbags and make-work projects from headquarters (such as making flowerbeds), I really no longer cared.

I turned my attention back to the unloading of the APC. The men were starting to get careless and were flinging off the supplies. There was so much flying metal, dust, spit and swearing, I was about to shout something. Then suddenly this young woman appeared. I had never seen her before, and I had no clue from which shell-ridden house she had come. But there she was, carrying a tray of small ceramic cups.

Right here, amongst the crumbling buildings, bullet-holed walls and broken glass, was this young Serbian villager with a tray of what smelled like coffee. She approached us just like she was serving up some friends at a tea party.

She was a slim woman with well-kept dark hair, but the lines on her worry-etched face, along with her missing teeth, made her look older than her probable late twenties. Despite the sadness in her dark eyes, she spoke cheerfully, in Serbo-Croatian, as she offered the tray to me, hostess-style. It was a curious sight. Well, my mother had always taught me that it was rude to refuse hospitality. The “show no favouritism” rule could bend some.

“Over here,” I hollered at my section. “C’mon for a coffee break.”

Hvallah (thank you),” I said, gratefully accepting one of the small cups full of floating coffee grounds. I sipped it carefully as, one by one, the soldiers in my section each grabbed a cup, like kids after candy. The stuff was warm and bitter, and I don’t even like coffee, but I drank it just the same.

I replaced my cup on the tray with another hvallah, followed by some theatrics to describe “delicious.” Some of the guys gave a humourous performance of “mmmmmm, coffeeeee” that rivalled Homer Simpson with a doughnut.

She cheerfully said something, flashing that sweet, missing-tooth grin, and then she walked away, amongst the rubble. Her head was held high and her walk was proud. I wondered how she could be like that when she had likely lost everything.

For all we knew, that might have been the last of her coffee—something that she normally reserved for her own family’s meagre meals. And there we were, six healthy, fit Canadian soldiers, with food in our bellies, money in the bank and a few thousand dollars of dentistry in our mouths. Back home in Canada we had our homes and our families—safe and waiting for our return.

We all must have been thinking the same thing. For the next few hours, sweat poured off us like running water as we worked hard into the late afternoon. Only now, there wasn’t a single gripe coming from anyone.

Doug Setter
Winnipeg, Manitoba

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