Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Dutch Peacekeepers to Return to Srebrenica

Organisers hope the visit will promote reconciliation, but it’s unclear whether the former soldiers will be welcomed.
By Katherine Boyle
For over 11 years, the Dutch peacekeeping troops who failed to stop the massacre of more than 8,000 men and boys at Srebrenica have faced public reaction ranging from sympathy to scorn and outrage.

Now, a small group of veterans is planning to return to an area many have not seen since the corpses of the Serb army’s victims littered the execution sites surrounding the town.

The trip, organised by the Dutch Veterans’ Institute, the Memorial Centre Camp Westerbork in the Netherlands and the Potocari Memorial Centre in Bosnia, is to take place next autumn.

But it is unclear whether the former soldiers will be welcomed by the area’s residents.

Many Bosnian Muslims still blame Dutchbat III for allowing Serbs to kill thousands of Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995.

The Dutch troops were in the Balkans as part of the UN Protection Force, UNPROFOR, to shield civilians during the bloody wars that pitted Bosnian Serbs against Bosnian Croats and Muslims.

The peacekeeping force at Srebrenica, which was composed of nearly 400 men, was meant to protect the refugees and residents of that Bosnian town, designated a safe haven by the UN in 1993.

However, they offered little or no resistance to the Serb attack.

The resulting massacre was the largest case of genocide to have occurred in Europe since the Second World War.

Wiebe Arts, an historian at the Dutch Veterans’ Institute who served at Srebrenica, is the main organiser for the trip along with Anne Bitterberg of the Memorial Centre Camp Westerbork. He believes both the Dutch soldiers and the victims were “helpless” against Serb forces.

Arts said the veterans’ institute decided to plan the trip after a number of former peacekeepers expressed an interest in returning to Srebrenica.

“It will help [the soldiers] to talk to the survivors of the genocide,” he said. “Some of the soldiers have already been talking to the survivors, and it helps the survivors as well. Last year, some veterans were there on their own and they told us that it’s a good thing to do.”

He was 28 when he served at Srebrenica between January and April 1995, the conflict-ridden months before the massacre. He has not been back since.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “I’m curious about how things have changed, if the houses were rebuilt, if the roads were reconstructed. In that period, time was frozen. Every day was the same, nothing really changed, and I think I would like to see the changes.”

As many as 25 per cent of the soldiers who were at Srebrenica have experienced psychological trauma as a result of their time in the Balkan enclave and the negative media coverage and public opinion after the events, according to Dutch ministry of defence spokesman Roger Vande Wetering. This number is significantly higher than the up to ten per cent of peacekeeping mission veterans who normally suffer from such disorders.

Although Arts hopes the visit will be a healing one for both the soldiers and the local population, he emphasised that the trip is for every soldier who was in Srebrenica before, during or after the massacre, not only those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD.

“[The veterans] have a certain image of the area, of the people, of the suffering, of the pain,” he said. “They will see in Srebrenica that progress has been made…It will help them to be there without any threat. They can go where they want to go. They can see what they were not able to see on the other side of the command post.”

Bitterberg acknowledges that there may be some tension between the veterans and members of the local community but hopes the trip will foster greater understanding between survivors and the soldiers.

She believes most will be very welcoming and wants to organise meetings between current residents and the veterans. She has already contacted a psychiatrist who works with both Muslim and Serb women from the area to help smooth the way for those encounters.

“She will ask them if they would like to meet the veterans and will prepare for what might happen if they meet,” said Bitterberg. She explained that veterans will also meet with a specialist before leaving the Netherlands so they are ready for what could be an emotional encounter.

But some survivors of the massacre are still struggling with their horrific memories of Srebrenica. They believe Dutchbat were far from helpless, and hope the visit will help them come to terms with their own complicity.

“[The Dutch soldiers] need to face the truth, because they were also involved in the crime at Srebrenica,” said Zumra Sehomerovic of Women from Srebrenica, an NGO whose mission is to find residents who are still missing.

Sehomerovic, 54, lost her husband and around 40 relatives. The events that occurred that July – and the UN’s impotence – still haunt her.

“I was in the UN camp in Potocari near Srebrenica on July 11, 1995,” said Sehomerovic. “Bosnian Serb soldiers came and started to rape and kill people just because they had a different religion, because they were Muslims. You could smell the stench of human blood.”

Sehomerovic claimed a UN soldier was present when she saw a Serb military man kill a newborn baby. Over 11 years later, she is still looking for her husband’s bones so that he can be buried with dignity.

“As victims, we feel that the Dutch soldiers are participants and perpetrators in crime together with Bosnian Serb soldiers and the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA,” she said.

Sehomerovic, along with others who lost family members during the massacre, is suing the UN and the Dutch government, alleging that the Dutch troops failed to protect Muslim civilians and were slow to report atrocities to the UN and ask for additional help.

About 7,930 of the victims and their families are represented in the case, which is currently underway at the Hague District Court.

The mayor of Srebrenica, Abduraham Malkic, has said he will welcome Dutchbat to Srebrenica provided they express regret for their lack of action at the time of the massacre. Whether they’ll do so remains unclear at this stage as their plans for the moment centre on seeing how the area has changed and meeting with survivors.

He expressed his disapproval of a citation recently given to Dutchbat veterans by the Dutch government, which said it wanted to recognise the work the soldiers had done under difficult circumstance.

“The government of Holland gave them a medal,” he said. “[The soldiers] were involved in a crime and they know what happened.”

Vande Wetering, however, was keen to point out that the award was not a medal but an insignia. “It’s not a reward for special service or for bravery. That’s a very important distinction,” he said.

He said that several investigations by the Dutch parliament and the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation have revealed that the mistakes made at Srebrenica were more the fault of the UN and some Dutch politicians than the individual soldiers.

“The UN [and the Dutch government] made some important mistakes in judging what was happening over there,” he said. “The UN could have done better and some Dutch ministers could have done better in equipping military personnel in the safe area and giving them a mandate to use violence against people who, according to the rules, should not have been there.”

He also noted that there is a huge difference between those responsible for errors in judgement and those responsible for mass murder.

“During those ten years after the fall of Srebrenica, [the veterans] were blamed by the international media, the Dutch media, the Dutch people, the Dutch politicians,” he added. “As investigations have shown, that’s not right, and they deserve some sort of appreciation to show that they were not judged rightfully during the long period after the fall of the safe area.”

Arts agreed, noting that the press was “very rude” to the soldiers after the fall of the enclave.

“The soldiers did what they could, but the main problem was the chain of command,” he said. “All the damage and bad reporting by the press had a great impact [on the Dutch veterans when it was] the Serbs that did all of the killing.”

Bitterberg said that a number of the veterans who received the insignia have contacted the Memorial Centre Camp Westerbork to ask for advice on what to do with the acknowledgement. Many are hoping to present their insignias to an organisation that benefits survivors of the Srebrenica massacre.

She believes the presentation of the insignias by the Dutch government is a reflection of changing public opinion in the Netherlands regarding Srebrenica. The publication of governmental investigations and a book of personal essays, Memories of Srebrenica, that chronicles the experience of 171 Dutch soldiers who served there, have shed new light on the challenges that they faced, she said.

The memorial centre already has a long waiting list of people who would like to go on the trip, but plans to keep the group small, allowing a maximum of 20 participants. But as veterans will be allowed to bring family or close friends, only about eight soldiers will be able to attend.

If the visit is successful, however, Bitterberg says others will be planned - allowing the veterans to place their own problems and regrets in the context of history.

Katherine Boyle and Aleksandar Roknic are IWPR reporters in The Hague.

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