Canadians build legacy of goodwill in Afghanistan

Guns, bombs, deaths and ambushes: these are the familiar terms associated with war. But as two Canadian soldiers told an audience on Nov. 5, 2008, sometimes war has positive effects.

Major Zane Piekenbrock and Captain Mark Bossi spoke during a presentation at the Canadian Textile Museum in Toronto last week. They discussed how the Canadian army has assisted the people of Afghanistan.

“I think that one important thing to know about Afghanistan is that it’s not all about shooting guns,” Piekenbrock said. “It’s about liaising with the civilian population of Afghanistan to help make the country a safer place.”

“We went over there as soldiers, but we were building things,” Bossi said. “And they knew we were there to help.”

Both Piekenbrock and Bossi served in Kabul from July 2003 to Feb. 2004 as part of the Kabul Multi-National Brigade, a group of soldiers from more than 24 countries.

But it was the Canadians that the Afghan people trusted and respected, Bossi said. Children would wave at them as they drove by and the elders of the community would invite them for tea. The other soldiers followed their lead.

Bossi presented a powerpoint series of images and talked about the Afghan mission. In one photograph Bossi sits cross-legged talking with a line-up of elders from a small village just outside of Kabul.

“We got a great deal of respect because we respected their elders. We were viewed as neutral and honest,” Bossi said, motioning to a picture on his Powerpoint slide. “We were not invaders and they understood that. Countries like the U.S. – that were perceived as invaders – were not as well received and had to use us to communicate with them.”

The elders would not let Bossi and his team leave without a cup of chai. It was a sign of respect.

“For us it was such a simple thing to do and yet for them it meant so much,” he said.

These Canadian soldiers went to Afghanistan to rebuild schools and repair devastated communities. And for most of the Canadian soldiers, seeing the birth of a nation satisfied their reasons for being there.

“Afghanistan has been at war since 1979; that’s over 20 years of war,” Bossi said. “If you think of how long it took us to get back to normal after the world wars that only lasted a few years, it’s peanuts in comparison to what Afghanistan is going through.”

In 2003 Afghanistan assembled a parliament for the first time and began to establish a constitution.

“While you’re there you’re seeing the birth of a democracy, the birth of a country,” Piekenbrock said. “The struggles we went through they’re going through now. It’s amazing to see the leaps and bounds that are coming through this country.”

Bossi noticed the changes in other ways.

“In the short six months we were there we saw fruit stands opening up, we saw some gradual improvement,” Bossi said.

The Canadians who come out of Afghanistan have so many memories. Bossi wanted to share his experiences with people and explain to them what really happens on the battlefields of Afghanistan. Most people perceive war as something terrible and useless, but sometimes it is the only way these suffering countries get help.

“People always ask me why I went. And it’s very simple – we don’t have land mines in Canada,” he said.