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

Fury as Dutch Soldiers Return to Srebrenica

Relatives of Srebrenica victims still hold Dutch soldiers largely responsible for the 1995 massacre.
By Denis Dzidic
Dutch soldiers revisiting the scene of the Srebrenica massacre last week received an angry reception from local women who accused them of failing to prevent Europe’s worst atrocity since the Second World War.

The trip had been intended to help both soldiers and victims come to terms with what happened in 1995 when Bosnian Serb troops overran Srebrenica, which was supposedly a safe zone guarded by the guns of the Dutch battalion.

Kirk Mulder, the director of the Memorial Centre at Camp Westerbork , who organised this trip which took place between October 17-19, explained that a number of Dutch soldiers had wanted to go to the place where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by the Serbs.

“We are here to pay our respects to the victims and take part in the pain of the Srebrenica mothers. We have come to show that this tragedy is hurting us as well,” Mulder told reporters upon his arrival in Srebrenica.

But when the soldiers went to the Potocari centre, which commemorates the tragedy, they found a group of Srebrenica mothers protesting outside. The mothers blamed the soldiers for “taking part in genocide by failing to prevent it”.

The Dutch soldiers were stationed in Srebrenica as part of the UN Protection Force dispatched to protect civilians during the 1992-1995 war that raged in Bosnia.

Srebrenica, as one of the largest towns in eastern Bosnia, was designated a safe haven by the UN in 1993. Its population was swollen to more than 30,000 by refugees from the surrounding countryside.

On July 11, 1995, 1,500 Bosnian Serb soldiers overran the enclave and bussed Muslim men and boys away to be summarily executed.

Some 450 Dutchbat troops were present when Srebrenica fell and some - ignorant of what was to come - are reported to have helped the Bosnian Serb army separate the men and boys from their families before they were led off and killed.

One of the protesters and a member of the Srebrenica Mothers NGO, Hatidza Mehmedovic, told IWPR she was furious that the soldiers entered the memorial centre without permission.

“We were told that they would come and meet victim family members, but they came a day early and entered the centre without our permission,” she said.

“[This has] ended up as many similar visits of international officials to the memorial centre, who come here to have their picture taken and then use it for their self-promotion.”

The 12 soldiers then met a group of mothers who asked them why they had abandoned their posts and allowed an act of genocide to happen. One of the soldiers, Paloudi Vankoh, said that the mistake was made somewhere up the chain of command.

“We could not do anything,” he said.

After this emotional encounter, the women wanted to know if it was true that the soldiers received a medal for courage from the Dutch defence ministry. They also asked the soldiers whether they would be willing to testify against the Dutch government in a lawsuit they have filed in the Netherlands.

The Dutch veterans explained that what was offered to them was not a medal but an insignia, and that these veterans refused to accept it. However, only two of them promised to testify against their defence ministry in the Srebrenica lawsuit.

A series of reports has exonerated the individual soldiers of blame for the tragedy, saying that the Dutch government was at fault for sending lightly armed men without clear orders to withstand a larger force. But many of the women refused to accept the soldiers’ words.

“The Dutch soldiers are to be blamed too for what happened,” said Hatidza Mehmedovic.

Dion Van den Berg, a senior political advisor to the Dutch NGO IKV Pax Christii, who helped organise the trip, has been working for years with victims’ associations in Srebrenica.

“The Netherlands is trying to close the book on Srebrenica. However, the time is not right to finish the discussions, as the personal stories of the victims’ families and the Dutch soldiers have not surfaced yet,” he told the Bosnian daily newspaper Oslobodenje last week.

Denis Dzidic is an IWPR reporter in Sarajevo.

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