Racism, Brutality Charges Hit Canada Military Unit
The Canadian military’s elite Airborne Regiment appeared headed for extinction Friday after a series of revelations--some on home video--of racism, lack of discipline and savagery in the ranks.
The 600-member unit has been under scrutiny since mid-1993, when it was disclosed that soldiers assigned to the U.N. humanitarian mission to Somalia had tortured to death a Somali teen-ager who was caught sneaking into their camp and suspected of theft.
But more disclosures have followed, including suggestions that other Somalis might have been abused. Then, this week, a stomach-turning home videotape of a 1992 hazing ritual at the regiment’s home base at Petawawa, Ontario, was shown on national television.
It showed the only black soldier being led around on all fours on a leash, with “I (heart symbol) the KKK” written on his back. Other recruits were forced to eat vomit, excrement and urine-contaminated bread.
The tape produced a nationwide wave of revulsion and calls to disband the regiment.
“If we have to dismantle it, we’ll dismantle it. I have no problem with that,” Prime Minister Jean Chretien told reporters.
Defense Minister David Collenette denounced the behavior and added: “These people denigrate our proud Canadian military heritage.”
Any move by Collenette to dissolve the unit is likely to wait until the conclusion of a Defense Ministry probe under way. But a consensus appeared to be growing that the regiment has to go.
“I think the Airborne Regiment is toast,” retired Col. Brian MacDonald, a leading military analyst, told a television interviewer.
The hazing incident, broadcast by the privately owned CTV network Wednesday night, was the second damaging videotape on the regiment to surface in a week.
Earlier, a tape shot by one of the soldiers in Somalia showed members of the regiment making racist and belittling remarks about the Somalis they had been sent to help.
On Friday, the CBC public television network broke another story, detailing reports by military police in Somalia quoting other Canadian soldiers as saying they sometimes heard screams they attributed to Somalis held prisoner by the Airborne commandos.
The Airborne Regiment traces its roots to the Canadian parachute battalion that was dropped behind German lines on D-day in 1944, but was formed in its current alignment in 1968. Members are infantry volunteers who serve two years before returning to their units.
The unit is one of the pinnacles of the Canadian forces and was conceived as a quick-deployment defensive force against a possible Soviet thrust into the Far North.
Its experience on U.N. peacekeeping duty extends to 1974 on Cyprus.
The death of the Somali teen-ager took place in March, 1993, and eight soldiers were charged.
Most of the courts-martial completed so far have resulted in acquittal, although one soldier was sentenced to five years for manslaughter. The soldier directly responsible for torturing the teen-ager escaped court-martial when he tried to hang himself and suffered such severe brain damage that he was judged unfit for trial.
Other allegations have piled up since. An army doctor charged that officers covered up evidence of abuse of other Somalis, leading to the Defense Ministry inquiry.
In November, gruesome photographs taken by Airborne soldiers of the torture of the Somali teen-ager were published in newspapers across the country.
The Airborne Regiment continues to have its defenders, including some who have characterized the hazing incident as an overzealous, macho bonding ritual.
“I think (the regiment) is being lynched in the media right now,” said Bob Lockhart, a retired lieutenant colonel and president of the Canadian Airborne Forces Assn.