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

Karremans Recalls Srebrenica Fall

Dutchbat chief says he had told Bosnian Muslims fighters to expect NATO air strikes.
By Rachel S.

Colonel Thom Karremans, the former commander of the United Nations Dutch battalion in Srebrenica, made a much-anticipated appearance before the tribunal this week, testifying as a defence witness in the case of Vidoje Blagojevic.

Blagojevic, the former head of the Bosnian Serb army’s Bratunac brigade, is standing trial for his role in the Srebrenica massacre.

Although it was Blagojevic’s lawyer who had called Karremans to The Hague, it was clear that the defence did not see the former Dutchbat commander as a friendly witness. Instead, the proceedings - as is often the case in this trial - were frequently contentious and chaotic.

Prosecution attorney Peter McClosky suggested that defence lawyer Michael Karnavas was questioning the witness in a way that put him “in the gutter”. Presiding judge Liu Daqun repeatedly begged Karnavas to focus his argument, to stick to relevant topics, and - to use the judge’s metaphor - to move his questions from the appetizer phase to that of the main course.

Karremans, a tall, distinguished-looking figure with shocking-white hair and moustache, had been tasked with protecting the UN-designated safe area of Srebrenica in the summer of 1995. As he described it, his mission was to protect the local population, assist humanitarian organisations and demilitarise the enclave.

The latter, he said, was “nigh impossible”. Dutchbat troops were not permitted to search houses, he said, and “there were so many possibilities for hiding arms”.

The other two responsibilities were no easier. Under Dutchbat’s watch, the enclave fell on July 11, 1995. The population was herded onto buses and removed from the area while more than 7,000 military-aged men and boys were separated and summarily killed.

Karremans is reviled by many in the Netherlands for what is seen as his failure to do more to stop the Srebrenica massacre. In one much-cited photograph, he is seen drinking with Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic — who has been indicted by the tribunal but remains at large — just after the enclave fell.

The former Dutchbat commander left Holland for Spain earlier this year, telling a Dutch television programme that he did so after receiving a number of threats on his life.

Defence counsel Karnavas told the court that through his questioning of Karremans, he aimed to poke holes in the prosecution’s assertion that the Bosnian Serb army tried to ethnically cleanse the area. He said that he hoped the witness’s testimony would show that the situation was more complex than that.

In furtherance of this goal, Karnavas asked Karremans whether Muslim residents of the enclave had left the area, committed atrocities against Serbs, and retreated to the safe cover of the UN. Karremans replied that although Muslim soldiers did leave at times, he did not know whether they were responsible for any attacks on Serbs.

The attack on Srebrenica began on July 6 and Karremans painted a dire picture of the days before the enclave’s fall.

During his account, Karremans occasionally referred to his personal records from that time, kept in six notebooks — which he has refused to share with the tribunal, the Dutch parliament, or the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, NIOD. The notes formed much of the basis of his book on the subject, he told the court.

Karremans recalled that on the evening of July 10, several days into the conflict, he met with one of the enclave’s commanders and told him that there would be no need to launch a counter-attack against the Bosnian Serbs because NATO would be launching air strikes the following day.

But the next day was chaotic. As the situation worsened, he made repeated pleas for air support – but it never materialised. Srebrenica fell that day.

The defence team played a video clip for the court, which showed a meeting between Karramans and Mladic on that same day. In it, Karremans is heard discussing possibilities for evacuating civilians from the enclave.

The situation was dire, Karramans insisted, “There was an emergency situation with a capital ‘E’. Something had to be done as soon as possible.”

Karremans told the court that in the days following the enclave’s fall, he walked around “more than you want to know” and spoke to many people. He reported that he did not see any human rights violations personally, but that two of his subordinates reported atrocities. One had found some corpses; the other had seen people being killed.

Although Karremans said he immediately reported this to his superiors, he admitted he did not mention either incident to Mladic directly. Asked why, he said Mladic did not give him a chance. When two men met on July 13, Karremans told the tribunal, he told the Bosnian Serb commander that he was surprised at the speed with which vehicles had arrived to remove civilians from the enclave — and upset that the injured were not being taken out first.

Karremans said Mladic provided a curt answer. “I’ll take care of all that myself,” the Bosnian Serb general said, and walked away.

As IWPR went to press, Karreman's testimony was continuing.

In other developments in the case this week, Svetlana Radovanovic, a university professor and expert in demography, appeared as a defence witness before the tribunal on June 21 and 22.

Asked to provide her opinion of the report conducted by prosecution witness and fellow demographer Helge Brunborg — in which Brunborg concluded that 7,475 Muslim men and boys had been killed after Srebrenica fell — Radovanovic said bluntly, “It is unacceptable as a piece of scholarly research.”

While refusing to dispute Brunborg’s final figures, Radovanovic took issue with the report’s methodology.

She complained, in particular, about the existence of “clear duplicates” — where the same person’s name was listed more than once. “This is not demography,” Radovanovic told the judges. “This is statistical exhibitionism.”

Also this week, the tribunal heard from Nikola Popovic, a former member of the Bratunac brigade’s military police.

Like Blagojevic, Popovic was implicated by Momir Nikolic in the statement of facts attached to Nikolic’s plea agreement.

Nikolic pled guilty to one count of crimes against humanity stemming from his role in the Srebrenica massacre, and has been sentenced to 27 years imprisonment. He has appealed this sentence.

In his sworn testimonial, Nikolic asserted that Popovic participated in executions at the Kravica warehouse. In the same document, Nikolic asserted that he told Blagojevic, his commander, about the Kravica crimes, among others.

Popovic told the court that he did not participate in any killings at the warehouse — or anywhere else. He hypothesised that Nikolic had implicated him in the crimes simply because he had lost family members - including his father, his grandfather, his wife’s mother, and her pregnant sister in law - in the conflict.

He also testified about his activities in the days surrounding the fall of Srebrenica.

On July 13 — the day of the Kravica attack — Popovic said he was deployed to Potocari, where he saw soldiers from a “special unit” separating military-aged men from their families.

He described these soldiers as wearing “black overalls” and “caps” and said he didn’t speak to them.

“We didn’t dare walk up to them, let alone talk to them,” he told the tribunal. He insisted they were not from the Bratunac brigade.

The trial continues.

Rachel S. Taylor is an IWPR editor in The Hague.