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Comment: Srebrenica Report 'Lets West Off the Hook'

The Srebrenica massacre report reveals that neither the Dutch nor their Western allies are willing to shoulder any responsibility for the killings.
By Senad Pecanin

The Bosnian public, especially family members of the Srebrenica victims killed by the Bosnian Serbs under Ratko Mladic, awaited the Dutch inquiry into the Srebrenica massacre with impatience.


But the conclusion of the report on the atrocity by the The Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, NIOD, makes it clear that the Dutch and international officials have not acknowledged their responsibility for the death of 7,500 civilians in this former UN "safe haven".


Even the resignation of the Dutch cabinet following the release of the report tends to confirm this. As the Dutch writer Chris Culemans told the Bosnian weekly Dani, "The government resigned...but they did not accept responsibility for the Srebrenica massacre. They resigned when it became apparent that the military had concealed its mistakes from the defence ministry."


He added, "This is the only reason for their resignation... because of the internal reasons and not because it was ready to accept responsibility for Srebrenica."


Four women from the town were present at the report's official presentation in The Hague, alongside political and military officials. The women - whose loved ones did not survive the slaughter despite Dutchbat's "protection" - walked out, making it clear that their own family's experience did not correspond to the version in the report.


Although the complete report has not yet been translated into English or Bosnian, parts of the epilogue gave the women of Srebrenica plenty to be incensed about.


The references to Dutchbat's responsibility in the report's epilogue admit opportunities to gather useful intelligence information were missed, especially when its movement was blocked by the UN command in Bosnia.


It says there was confusion over the procedure to summon air support for the enclave. The orders given to maintain blockades in order to stop the advance of Bosnian Serb forces were not clear.


This is all it says about Dutch responsibility. It deals with what many see as a stain on the conscience of the Dutch officials and commanders who volunteered to implement the UN's mandate in Srebrenica. Yet no one would conclude from this paragraph that unbelievable mistakes were made, enabling Mladic's criminals to kill more than 7,000 people over a few days and erasing a town that had been proclaimed a safe area from the map.


The epilogue does not mention that the Dutch soldiers in Srebrenica enjoyed better relations with the Serbs attacking the enclave than with local Muslim population whom they were cynically protecting.


It does not mention the fact that Dutchbat command refused to evacuate the sick and wounded from Srebrenica hospital, despite appeals from the medical staff.


The report highlights in detail the element of surprise in the Serbian attack on Srebrenica. Yet the Dutch government several times rejected an American offer to install listening devices that would have helped Dutchbat to listen in to radio-communication in the area. It was their disregard for the local population that prevented them from establishing the close ties that could have provided them with useful information.


Local Bosnians working as Dutchbat interpreters have testified that they knew of considerable movement by the Serbian forces surrounding the enclave back in the spring of 1995. These manoeuvres, it became clear, coincided with an order from Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic to cut off Srebrenica from Zepa, another UN "safe area" and shrink the security zones. Bosnian army officers from the 28th division pointed out these movements. Dutchbat ignored them, with tragic consequences.


On the evening of July 10, 1995 the enclave almost fell. But as the enclave's forces prepared a final counter-attack, Dutchbat's commander Lieutenant Tom Karremans showed up at Srebrenica's post office, which was the meeting point for Bosnian army officers. Karremans told them to withdraw the next morning from the south of the "safe area" as NATO was about to mount a major air attack. On Karremans' insistence Ramiz Becirevic, commander of the 28th division, gave in. Alliance airplanes never appeared. Instead the road was left open for Mladic.


The epilogue barely mentions this. It claims the Bosnian army decision to withdraw was carried out without consultation with the UN and that this was one of the reasons for the massacre.


"The Bosnian Serbs reckoned on the immediate surrender of the Bosnian army troops and the deportation ('evacuation' would no doubt have been the term used) of the entire population after 'screening for war criminals'. The military personnel would then be transported to prisoner of war camps," it said.


"The decision to go ahead with mass executions, for which no written order has been found, was probably taken after 11 July, once it became clear that the escape led by the 28th Division had rendered the original plan impossible. There were other motives, such as the strong desire to reserve the area for the Bosnian Serbs.


"The 28th Division's organised breakout on 12 and 13 July... was a complete surprise to the VRS, which came at a highly inconvenient moment and caused considerable annoyance."


If this section of the report's epilogue was based on fact, at least 2,000 of the men who surrendered at the Dutch base in Potocari would have been spared. However, they were not. Boys not even 16 and men over 60 were executed.


The epilogue fails to mention something that has been clear since the trial for genocide of the Bosnian Serb general, Radoslav Krstic. This proved the Serbs knew from the first what they were doing in Srebrenica and that the mass execution of Muslim males formed part of the plan.


All in all, although it sheds no new light on the shameful role of the Dutch and the international community in Srebrenica, the report remains important.


It is important because it highlights the inability of those who were most responsible for the tragedy to face the truth. Three groups share responsibility. The first is the Serbian political and military leadership in charge of their butchers. The second is Dutchbat and the others in the international community. The third is the Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic and his clique, who used Srebrenica as a bargaining tool in their territorial negotiations with the Serbs.


The author and commentator Tim Judah in his opinion piece in last week's BCR ( BCR No 330, 12-Apr-02) has no right to admonish the local protagonists for not publishing their own reports on Srebrenica. It may often be true that the peoples of former Yugoslavia tend to blame foreigners for all their ills, but the charge in this case is inappropriate and tasteless, given the horror of what happen in Srebrenica.


Besides not being nearly critical enough of the pathetic Dutch report, Judah displays the old malady of Western analysts - an attitude that the Balkans is one of those regions where massacres such as the one in Srebrenica are par for the course. Such views made Srebrenica possible.


The 6 million US dollars money shelled out on compiling this report could have gone on better purposes. It might have helped the women of Srebrenica who have spent yet another winter in collective accommodation, far from their destroyed houses. It also might have helped the children who still attend makeshift schools, inadequately clothed and lacking textbooks, notebooks and pencils.


Senad Pecanin is an editor of the Sarajevo weekly Dani.


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