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Play examines atrocities of Croatian war through the eyes of Canadians

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Maple Route was the mocking name the Croatian army attached to the section of road in the former Yugoslavia where, in 1993, Canadian peacekeeping troops guarded but proved powerless to protect Serbian civilians from ethnic cleansing.

Maple Route is also the name of a new play by emerging Winnipeg playwright Jeremy Scarth Bowkett about two Canadian soldiers, members of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, who returned home from Medak Pocket, Croatia, haunted by the atrocities they came upon in the Serbian villages they were charged to safeguard by the United Nations.

"I wanted to write something about these troops and their breakdown," says Bowkett, who is debuting his first full-length play beginning Sept. 19 at PTE's Colin Jackson Studio in Portage Place. "They came back from Yugoslavia messed up. No one knew what happened to these guys because of what they witnessed, the sheer madness and genocidal rage."

A lot of these men were based in Winnipeg. Bowkett, 46, says in the mid-'90s, a substantial number of the homeless males in Winnipeg and Ottawa were former reservists. These victims of combat-induced stress couldn't integrate themselves back into Canadian society.

Bowkett came upon the battalion's engagement in Medak Pocket while researching the war in Afghanistan and reading a book by journalist Chris Wattie called Contact Charlie, which focused on Charlie Company of the PPCLI and its battle with the Taliban in the Panjwaii district in 2006. Also mentioned was a previous little-known 1993 clash the soldiers had in the Balkans, which amounted to the most significant fighting Canada had seen since the Korean War.

That lead him to Ghost of Medak Pocket: Untold Story of Croatia's War Crimes, by CBC journalist Carol Off, which became Bowkett's primary source for his 150-minute drama.

"This was good, meaty stuff for a writer, so much story and depth," says Bowkett in a telephone interview this week. "Drama is about conflict, and when you are in a war situation, humanity is stripped down to its bare essentials. I think what these men went through is worth telling because we in civilian life don't get it."

Maple Route, presented by Theatre Incarnate, introduces Master Cpl. Cameron Venninger (actor Karl Thordarson), just back in Winnipeg after a stint with the UN force in Croatia. A gulf is growing in his relationship with his worried wife, Alexa (Theresa Thompson), that breaks out into violence. He leaves home and meets up with a trench buddy, Dean (Toby Hughes), and the pair go on a drunken, brawling tear. Alexa attempts to reclaim the real man she married by getting him to open up about the horrors he encountered in Croatia.

"Within the boundaries of artistic licence, I've tried to be as true to the events as possible," says Bowkett, who penned the 2008 fringe festival comedy Queens of Rome. "It's not a history lesson."

An early version of Maple Route was given a staged reading at the Carol Shields Festival of New Works in 2012 and was well received.

"People really seemed to like it, although 'like' is an inadequate word," he says. "I guess they were engrossed by it. I hope that translates into some good house and good word of mouth."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 19, 2013 C3

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