Sunday, May 2, 2010


“So what the fuck are we doing here, Sir?” was Moses’ question to me, while we were standing there on that balcony, watching and listening to the “fireworks” two valleys away. “Why aren’t we as the United Nations doing anything to stop the slaughter?”
“That my young man, is not something that I can answer. It’s out of our control.” I said totally discouraged and also trying to make sense of that eerie reddish glow in the dark that we were looking at. “Right now, there’s not much else we can do other than sit back and observe.”
“Bull Shit!!!” he exploded as he threw and shattered the almost empty brandy bottle that we had been sharing, against the concrete wall. “It’s fucking Bull Shit!”
Afraid that in his drunken stupor, he might be well on his way to getting himself into trouble, I yelled at him, “Moses, get back here! Get back here and that’s an order!”
I guess the tone of my voice sent the message to this young Kenyan Military Policeman that he wasn’t dealing with Gino his buddy but rather with Warrant Officer Roussel, the boss.
“Moses, I’m warning you, get back here!” I said emphasizing that I meant business, “Get back here, now!” Reluctantly, he obeyed but when he turned around, that mad look behind those even whiter eyeballs of his, said it all. The alcohol was working its evil magic and the rage was boiling over.

You couldn’t blame him for that type of reaction. For where us Canadians were on our fourth month of a six month tour, the Kenyan contingent was on its eight month of a twelve month tour. Where our country provided us with vacation time, the Kenyans were not allowed to go back home and this for an extended period of over a year. For young soldiers like Moses who missed their families back in continental Africa, this “sitting on your hands and do nothing” attitude was hard to accept and there wasn’t much that I could say to console him. To say that these poor souls had been put through the “meat grinder” was the understatement of the week. During their tour of duty, they had been involved in trying to contain the massacres and had witnessed first hand, the atrocities of “Medak Pocket”. Later, after all was said and done, they had been called upon to help clean up the streets littered with bodies. To make matters worse, because of their skin color and the context of the conflict, they had been deliberately preyed upon by both warring parties, the Serbs and the Croats. While some would advocate that the artillery shells that were lobbed on their positions, were dropped accidentally and it was because “They were at the wrong place at the wrong time”, later research would reveal otherwise. For the purpose of being blunt, they had been racially discriminated. Somebody eventually needed to brag about their exploits and it is now public knowledge ( that amongst the other specialist groups, “Skin Heads and Neo-Nazi types coming from Germany and Austria were used as specialty squads. These mercenaries were hired by the Croatian Government for the purpose of ethnic cleansing.

However, on that fateful evening of 05 Feb 94, nobody in Sector South HQ, in the town of “Knin”, could determine what was going on in “Drnis”, a small village, some 24 kms south of our position. Although the battle had been raging for a few days now, nobody knew what exactly was happening. On the one hand, the intelligence reports provided by the Russians, indicated that Croatian units were killing innocent refugees while on the other one, it was said that it was associated with a pocket of resistance of the Serbian kind. It was a big unknown as to what was transpiring and everybody was being held at bay, not allowed to proceed and observe the activities. Here we were, the mighty UNPROFOR being held hostage and not allowed to intervene. As a professional soldier, you do what you’re told and follow orders. But as an individual person with certain values and morals, knowing that something drastically wrong is happening right under your nose and you’re doing nothing about it, is a most bitter pill to swallow.

No, I couldn’t blame young Moses for being in that state of frenzy. Hell I felt the same way. Though it is true that there wasn’t much we could do about the “Big Picture”, I knew one thing for sure. Here stood before me a young man who needed some sort of fatherly love thus chose a more tender approach to comfort him. Opening my arms wide, I said,
“Come here, son!”
I guess that’s all the invitation he needed to hear. He rushed to me where huge hugs were exchanged. There we were two grown men embracing each other in ones arms, balling their eyes out. From the ever growing wet spot in the shoulder area of my combat shirt, I knew that it had been a long time coming and that my young friend had plenty to ventilate. The tears just kept on pouring and pouring. After what was thought to be an eternity, he finally pushed me away. He brushed off his uniform, put his blue beret on “straight”, then said almost embarrassed, “Sorry Sir”.
“Don’t worry about it Moses,” I replied, “we all have our breaking points and in your case, you’re one tough cookie…”

Two weeks had gone by when the same young man and myself were on our way, delivering supplies to the UNMP Split detachment. At his request, we had brought our interpreter, Peter along with us. Like me, he wanted to know what had happened in his home town of Drnis. Besides, he knew exactly how to get there so I didn’t mind him tagging along. The slight detour was a bit out of our way and in “no man’s” land but I needed to see with my own eyes what had transpired there.

We had seen devastation all throughout the “Republic of Krajina” but this particular region felt even creepier. It was as if you were being watched by ghostly figures lurking in dark corners. If you let your mind wander, you could almost hear them screaming in pain. The screaming part might have been a figment of my imagination but the stench of rotting flesh was more than real. It filled the air. That was the first thing that hit you when we entered the village. The second thing we noticed was that most of the buildings had been destroyed. Where once stood somebody’s home, now lay a bunch of burnt roof timbers, collapsed within four cement walls. Obviously, fire had been the weapon of choice of the belligerents as it seemed that everywhere you looked there were scorch marks. Also weird was the fact that every house that had been torched had been marked with this large cross like symbol painted with a spray can. What was even stranger, were the series of letters and numbers surrounding the emblem. The best we could make of this then was that it was associated with some sort of method to identify who had gone through and done the “house clearing”. Even spookier, was the fact that in 2005, the same cross symbol would again appear and get this, in New-Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina. Somebody was painting the exact emblem on the flooded houses after they were evacuated. Was there a connection between the two events or was it a coincidence? Who knows? The only thing for sure was that these so called Croatian “ghost fighters” were a most barbaric and sadistic bunch who were “freelancing” throughout the war zone. The tactics used were part of a well orchestrated system, something that would resemble the methods employed by “white supremacists” to clear the “ghettos” of Johannesburg, South Africa, during the Apartheid years. Were these “ghost fighters” in Ex-Yugoslavia part of an experiment that had gone wrong? One would hope to think so. Nobody in their right mind would hire such a group, knowing that they would go on a rampage, killing innocent civilians indiscriminately and this with extreme prejudice. But the evidence was here before us. The town was empty of its citizens and nothing had been spared. You name it. Houses, vehicles, bicycles and even animals, everything had been torched. Dealing with this and being so close and personal to such an incident was hard to stomach and made me almost giving up on the human race.
“How can this type of shit happen in this day and age and this in civilized Europe?” I questioned myself, “It’s mind boggling! It’s impossible!”
No it wasn’t impossible as we were standing there right smack in the middle of it. Boy, could man be evil when he wanted to.

Stopped in front of this one particular residence, there was dead silence in the jeep that afternoon and the mood was very somber. The two UN soldiers felt guilty for not doing anything while the interpreter was shedding some not so discreet tears.
“Are you all right, Peter?” I asked the Yugoslavian man. He didn’t answer and just kept on looking out the window and shaking his head in the negative way. He couldn’t believe his eyes. His house was gone, his village had been demolished and his entire family was missing.
“Drive!” he eventually said, pointing me towards the exit of town, “Drive!”
I could sense that this was not a request but an order that he was giving me. Whatever it was, he had my vote. I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.

We had reached the outskirt of town when he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Stop, stop right here.” He had guided us to a cemetery where by pure hazard some folks were burying their dead. He got out of the vehicle, slammed its door and walked to the sight where six old ladies and an even older white bearded Orthodox priest were praying after digging some graves to bury five female bodies only draped in blankets. I wanted to get a closer look but was stopped from doing so when I was intercepted by Peter and one of the elderly ladies who were walking towards me.
“I’m sorry Gino,” the interpreter said, “You better stay at the vehicle. You’re not welcomed here.”
He was holding on to the old lady’s arm who was glaring at me with such hate in her eyes that I can’t even start describing it. She shouted “UN” then spat on the ground. The message was short but loud and clear. They did not want us there and best we cooperate. I turned around, walking back to the “Land Cruiser” when I noticed a young boy, maybe ten years old, sitting on the curbside and talking to Moses who was sitting next to him. There was a definite language barrier but for some reason he was smiling at what the young soldier was telling him. I let them have their moment because I was enjoying seeing that paternal side of Moses. He had quite the way of breaking the ice with the child, making funny clown faces and sticking his tongue out at him. Whatever they were saying to each other, it was working. The kid started laughing wholeheartedly and for just that instance, he had forgotten where he was. Yeah, now I had a better understanding of some of the sacrifices these Kenyans were making by being here. If this was the way he acted around his own children back in Nairobi, then he needed to feel the presence of a child and its affection to compliment his daily life. I guess that’s what made him happy.
“Oh Sir,” Moses said, “What do you think is going to happen to him?” he continued. “Do you think he’s all alone?” I couldn’t answer that but Peter did when he eventually returned. It turns out that one of the bodies was the one of his dead mother. As for his father, nobody knew where he was. So for now he would live with his grandmother, the spitting contest “champion”. There was more to this story but Peter would not share that part with us.
“Sir,” Moses paused…
“Yeah, I know Moses,” I replied knowing quite well what he was referring to, “Give him some.”
Without any hesitation whatsoever, he grabbed the child by the hand and directed him to the back of the vehicle where he opened the hatchback door. He showed the food to him and made it understood that he could have anything he wanted. The first thing the hungry boy chose was a ten pound brick of cheese. This was stuffed in the school bag he was carrying on his back. Then it was the turn of the “Twinkies” to disappear. This box was also shoved in the same backpack. We were running out of room in there so we decided to put other stuff in a now empty box. This was also filled with other goodies. As it turns out, once we were finished, there wasn’t much left for the supply run so we decided to give all the food away and just come back home. As far as the war efforts were concerned, we hadn’t accomplished much that day but to see that smile on that child’s face when we left was worth a million bucks. When later Moses broke the silence and said “Thank You, Sir!” I knew that just like me, he had enjoyed doing the “good thing” and was sharing that same warm “Good Samaritan” feeling. At least now, he might be able to go home satisfied that during his UN tour, however small it was, his contribution had made a significant difference in someone else’s life. As for Peter, well that was a totally different story. He had become and would remain even more silent and remote. Later, I tried talking to him about it but the only response I got from him was, “Well, the difference between you and me is that you get to leave this hell hole eventually. I, on the other hand must live here for the rest of my life and deal with the hatred.” If you recall, his name was earlier mentioned in the blog entry called “The Lucky Man” and I guess there isn’t much more that can be said other than,
“Rest in Peace, my friend.”

By now, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with this story and to tell you the truth, the question is a most valid one. Well, it all stems from the fact that I had the occasion to correspond with the St-Pamphile “Hero” and all I’ll say about it was that it was an interesting and heated exchange. Some valid points were retained by either sides but for me, to be called a liar diplomatically or straight out, is something that I will take offence to. Whether he learns something from that testimonial or he continues “blackballing” me, this is totally irrelevant to me. The way I see things, if the word gets out that I won’t stand any longer for the mistreatment of sleddogs then I do believe that certain people will feel uncomfortable around me. If my presence in a parking lot somewhere or on the trail makes it that an animal avoids a “beating” then my “hanging around” the circuit will have served a purpose. To those that might think that I’m a “push over”, don’t kid yourselves, I am most serious and not one to be intimidated easily.

The reason I brought to light the “Bosnian” incident was to answer St-Pamphile’s question, “Who the hell do you think you are?” Well to put in simple terms, I am a person who vowed way back then to never again stand around while certain injustices were being done. The events that unfolded in front of me during that ill-fated tour would mark me for the rest of my life and I would decide there and then to take up the cause of protecting the weak and innocent. In today’s society, we see it too many times and this on a very regular daily basis. People will turn their backs on a situation because they don’t want to get involved and/or because it doesn’t affect them directly. Sorry but that just doesn’t cut the pickle with me.

Where how this all translates to the sport of sleddog racing, well this is quite simple actually. Correct me if I’m wrong but collectively, we’ve all seen stuff out there but for some reason or another, we choose to close our eyes and pretend it didn’t happen. That’s fine and dandy but at the end of the day, what have we accomplished. Nothing that makes you feel good, I assure you. So, time goes by and we let things deteriorate and this to the point where the “guys with the white hats” are having real issues with those wearing the “black hats”. I was going to let it ride but when I read what was being said on “Sled Dog Central” and the “Village des Mushers” about the big “food controversy” in Fort-Kent this year, I decided that enough was enough and that the “dark side” of the sport should be visited if not exposed.

To start off, we’ll use the “CAN-AM International Sled Dog Races” and “L’Odyssée Appalachienne” as benchmarks to debate some of the controversies.

First, let’s examine the rules and regulations governing the two events. Both, Fort-Kent and St-Pamphile are quite concise when it comes to what is expected of the mushers. As a matter of fact, the French version of the rules of the “Odyssée” is almost a carbon copy of the “CAN-AM” rules. I guess someone said to himself, “Why re-invent the wheel? The Americans have got an excellent product, let’s try to match their “standards ”.

Now this is where it gets a bit interesting. Where the CAN-AM enforces the rules and expects the “sledders” to abide by them, their Quebec counterparts are a bit more sheepish and would rather cater to the whims of just about every musher. The first thing that comes to mind is the big “Bootie” debate at the briefing in St-Pamphile. Some of the audience was arguing about the regulations governing such items. I couldn’t really catch the reasoning behind all this till I eventually inquired about it. A friend of mine who’s been around the Quebec Circuit for more than a couple of weeks, confided in me and said, “Well it’s like this. This sport is getting to the point where it’s getting so competitive that some of these guys will go to extremes so not to carry extra weight. They figured that each booty, weighs approximately “one ounce” and if an eight dog team leaves the chute all wearing them, then the weight of the “32 ounces / 2 pounds” can be distributed and carried evenly by the animals. Eventually, these guys will stop along the trail and just take them off and throw them away. I was a bit skeptic about this information even after seeing a whole bunch of these booties out there in the Quebec woods but when I saw a musher do it right in front of me in the Allagash mountains, I was disgusted.

Add to that some of the other things they throw away along the trail, items like empty “pop” bottles, chip bags and yes even frozen “T-bones”, well you know what? If the mushing community doesn’t consider itself a bunch of slobs then the other ones using the same trails, IE: snowmobilers and cross-country skiers might just have a different opinion. Not only does this set a bad example, it sets the stage for where maybe we might end up being denied access to public/private lands because we’ve all been put in the same basket and earn the reputation of being “litter bugs”.

Another fine example of not wanting to follow simple rules is when I crossed the Finish Line in St-Pamphile. I asked “JF” who was checking the gear in the sled, only to be told that a lot of people were missing their equipment and had complained about not knowing what was needed so they had decided to do away with the gear requirement. “Nice to know now.” I said. “And to think that I was carrying all this junk. Oh well,” I consoled myself. “It was a good practice run for Fort-Kent.”

Those are really trivial examples and some of you might be saying to yourselves, “Get over it Gino, it’s no big deal.” Although I will agree that in the scheme of things, we shouldn’t lose any sleep over it, I’ll ask you this. “Where do we draw the line? How much are we willing to tolerate? Is it fair that while some of us want to play by the rules, others will bend them so to win at all costs?” I don’t see any problems with the guy not wearing his bib through out the race. However, I do have issues with the individual who after going through the “vet check” goes back to his trailer, opens a drawer and pulls out a “prescription pill” bottle. I wasn’t the only one to witness this and those who did all agreed that they weren’t vitamins he was feeding his dogs. So what were they, anti-inflammatory pills, horse steroids or amphetamines? Yes folks, welcome to the racing world, 21st Century style. Yup, according to a veterinarian friend of mine, it’s out there. We’re feeding our dogs “uppers” just to keep that competitive edge. Another “bending of the rules” that I saw, was when a musher passed me on the trail. His yearlings got scared and got all tangled up. He stopped in front of me so I did the same. There was no sense in me passing him just have the same situation repeat itself. He planted his snow hook and yelled at me, “I’ve got a tangle!” “No problem,” I shouted back, “I’m not in a rush.” What happened next was something that I didn’t expect at all from him. He rushed to the dogs and while trying to untangle them, he put a real serious beating on two of the animals. Pounding at them, he had totally lost it. Holding my own team back, the only thing that I could do was yell, “Tabarnach, arrête, calice, (in French) they’ve had enough.” He looked at me and I guess he saw that I wasn’t impressed. He managed to straighten out the mess and was on his way. Now here’s a guy that I should have reported. This type of behavior is by far not acceptable. I really regret not doing anything about this and today will only say this to this person, “I’ve totally lost respect for you my friend and you should park your sled!”

Although the next incident didn’t happen during the racing season, it did soon after and demonstrates how some might consider these canines lesser than commodities and don’t care about their welfare. After all was said and done and the snow had melted, this individual got rid of almost half his “dog yard”. Where he could not sell or give them away, he simply loaded them up, took them to the woods and shot them where they were left as “coyote” food…

So coming back to that Friday, when John Pelletier, stood up there at the CAN-AM musher’s briefing with that hockey puck sized water bowl, although people thought it was funny, I’m sure that he did not. Let’s face it. This year, it was the bowl, the year before that the size of the axe and before that, the size of the snowshoes. It seems that every season, someone always comes up with another way to try and “screw the system”. Maybe I’m wrong but wasn’t he trying to put the point across that the CAN-AM organizers wanted and do put on a professional and well organized product? I think so. But they can’t do it all by themselves and must be getting tired of all this reluctance to follow the rules. As for the “dog food”, we were all told quite clearly that it would be checked. So why did some of us not heed to this “friendly” advice and make sure that we were in compliance? Discrepancies found in the weight of the food and being penalized for it, can be hard to swallow but all of us were subjected to the same procedures. These shortages can most likely be attributed to many causes that can vary from having the food scattered at the bottom of one’s sled bag because of the rough ride to just another shrewd if not devious way of bending the rules. I’m sure that good folks like Scott and Corina Alexander did not try to cheat and that there’s a logical explanation to their missing food. In their case, I hope they’ll reconsider their decision and come back out next year. We need honest mushers like them on the circuit.

Listen Folks; regardless of who puts on these racing events for us, I am positive that they do their best to provide the racers with a level playing field and an atmosphere of camaraderie. Unfortunately and let’s not kid ourselves, there are and will always be these few “dick heads” out there that will try to undermine their efforts. If this had been the plot to an old “Spaghetti Western”, I would have loved seeing it at the end of the show where the good town folks would have gotten together and would have ridded their streets of the “Bad Guys”. Unfortunately, this is not a movie and I really don’t know where a lot of you guys stand on this entire situation. There are only a few things I know for sure. We all have to do some serious soul searching and decide where we stand on this. If collectively we do something to promote the “good cause” then this sport will continue going in a positive direction. However, we can’t expect the “officials” to do it on their own. They need our assistance and contribution so to make this work. As for me, I will return next year just to make sure that some of those “outlaws” that I meet, do feel awkward in my presence. And if I happen to see someone tip his white cowboy hat at me somewhere out there in a parking lot, then I’ll know that I made a difference helping our friends, the sleddogs. Remember, Moses and that child at the beginning of this story…

On that note, have a great summer and remember. “Be kind to animals. You’ll live longer.” = -)


P.S. If you agree with the above, give it the widest distribution.


... said...

Maybe the rules need to be looked at, and decisions made about what mushers should have to carry in their sleds on these shorter 3-6hr races.

What about a strict rule that no musher can drop anything on the trail, pack it in, pack it out...?

On longer races it's a matter of survival to have essential gear in case of a storm, but not so much on a 30 or 60 mile, with snow machines able to get an injured musher or dog to a road within minutes...

So the question becomes about whether people are there to race dog teams or there to worry about what becomes essentially a scavenger hunt for what amounts to non-essential gear. Having a sled bag to carry an injured dog makes sense, but snow shoes and dog food don't, not essential on a short race.

As far as the CanAm mgmt serving up all those fifteen minute penalties for mushers being a half pound of dog food light, the competitive advantage gained there, or by carrying miniature dog food bowls, or tiny children's snow shoes, or mini axes, it all just points to the fact that many mushers don't take it seriously and so maybe instead of cracking down on them.

none of that adds up to what a team can gain by running a 90lb fifteen year old instead of a 200lb adult...

the rules themselves should be looked at and some decisions made in a more democratic fashion, instead of random enforcement and penalties.

Anonymous said...

Well said.
The rules are posted clearly on the website(s) so why not follow them and if you don't like the rules of a particular race maybe you should not race there! If you choose to compete in a race please take those rules seriously.

Anonymous said...

Rules seem to have come about for a reason. I have no problem with rules or following them. A lot of the controversy could have been avoided if during the item check BEFORE the race, the bags of dog food had been weighed. Just as they were at the end. It's hard to suggest that a musher dumped dog food --especially 1/2 pound--if the food wasn't weighed before the race. If they are going to have such a rule, then weigh before and weigh after.