Mixed Reaction To Srebrenica Report

The soldiers of DutchBat III have escaped serious criticism from UN investigators studying the Srebrenica massacre. It is news welcomed with much relief in Dutch official circles - but by great anger among the survivors.

Mixed Reaction To Srebrenica Report

The soldiers of DutchBat III have escaped serious criticism from UN investigators studying the Srebrenica massacre. It is news welcomed with much relief in Dutch official circles - but by great anger among the survivors.

Thursday, 10 November, 2005

This month's United Nations report into the Srebrenica massacre has been met with relief in the Netherlands. Dutch officials interpret it as putting most of the blame for the fall of the UN 'safe haven' on the world body itself, rather than the hapless Dutch 'peacekeepers' based there at the time.


In fact the report makes very few critcisms of the Netherlands UN troops in 'DutchBat III' (Dutch Battalion III) which was stationed in Srebrenica before the massacre. And the fact that it did virtually nothing to prevent the fall of the 'safe haven' and subsequently failed to report the possible mass murders - are barely mentioned.


Publication of the report on November 15 coincided with the screening on Dutch television of excerpts from the documentary, 'A Cry from the Grave'.


The film includes footage of DutchBat III commander, lieutenant-colonel Ton Karremans and the then senior Dutch officer in Bosnia, Brigadier General Kees Nicolai (Dutch UNPROFOR Chief of Staff in Sarajevo), meeting Bosnian Serb Army commander, General Ratko Mladic on July 21, 1995.


The two officers receive gifts from Mladic and then salute the last group of Dutch soldiers as they leave the enclave. In the period immediately prior to this meeting BSA (Bosnian Serb Army) forces in and around Srebrenica were in the process of murdering thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys.


When asked about this chilling meeting, Nicolai insisted he knew nothing of the atrocities. He said he wanted his troops out of the area because he expected the British government to shortly call for harsh measures against the Bosnian Serbs.


"Danger was looming," he said. "And by standing there the Dutch soldiers could salute me, instead of Mladic".


Yet even before Nicolai and Karremans' meeting with Mladic, when - by their account - they were unaware of the massacres conducted around them, US authorities had begun to voice suspicions that Mladic's forces were mass murdering Muslim men and boys in and around Srebrenica.


Among the US sources were some of the 55 Dutch soldiers held hostage by the Serbs around that time in Brutanac. Concern for the safety of these hostages - one group was released on July 21, the day of Karremans meeting with Mladic - must have influenced the Dutch commander's attitude.


It also certainly influenced the Dutch authorities; on their return to the Netherlands, members of DutchBat III were banned from making public statements on what had happened there.


Only the then Dutch Minister for Development and Ambassador to the UN, Jan Pronk, in conversation in Tuzla in late July, was willing to use the word 'genocide' in connection with what had happened on the Dutch watch in Srebrenica.


His comments, made as DutchBat III were celebrating their safe arrival in Zagreb, drew severe criticism in the Dutch Parliament. The Christian Democrat Party called his comments 'irresponsible', the Liberals 'very unwise'.


Yet even the Dutch Minister of Defence, Joris Voorhoeve, soon began to talk of 'genocide' once their men were safe. Pronk started a series of programmes for the survivors of Srebrenica. Most of these programmes were set up in and around Tuzla and financed without publicity. 'We are partly to blame. It's shame,' he conceded in 1996.


This concealed sense of shame may have driven the Netherlands to be particularly generous in Sarajevo this year. The Dutch government decided to donate 250 million U.S. dollars a year for the period 2000-2004 to the Stability Pact for the Balkans, starting with 125 million in 1999. These figures make the Dutch the biggest contributors.


But it has not driven the Dutch to be open about what really happened in Srebrenica. Dutch government policy concentrates on revealing as little as possible. Evidence relating to Bosnian Serb atrocities has disappeared, was destroyed or not presented to official investigators.


UN envoy Tadeusz Mazowiecki complained he could not speak to Dutch witnesses - people were often 'unavailable' or 'on leave' and Karremans was promoted and left for a new post in the United States. Another key figure, Colonel Charley Brandts, the Dutch commander in Tuzla, was assigned to Brussels.


The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs even refused to meet a delegation of Bosnian Muslims from Srebrenica when they visited the Netherlands in February 1996. Mayor Osman Suljic, doctor Ilijaz Pilav and city-counselor Zulfo Salihovic were made most unwelcome.


The delegation says the men of Dutchbat III did indeed witness mass executions of Muslims near Potocari, that they stood idly by while Serb forces separated Muslim men and women from Srebrenica, and refused to help 25 badly wounded citizens in the town. It is even alleged that they allowed wounded Muslims to be removed by Serb troops from the UN hospital.


Voorhoeve, Dutch Minister of Defence at the time, refuses to comment on these allegations.


A fourth investigation, conducted by the National Institute for War Documentation (NIOD), is currently underway in Holland. This institute, originally founded to research World War II, will report at the end of 2000.


While Dutch military and government circles may be happy with the conclusions of the UN report, some political parties are still calling for a full parliamentary inquiry, which would allow investigators to require witnesses to testify under oath. Even the Dutch armed forces trade union and Karremans himself - seeking to have their name cleared - have backed an inquiry.


Bosnia's UN ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey stops short of describing the report as a rehabilitation of the Dutch role in the incident, but he does not want to blame them for it either. "They were mainly puppets," he said. "They were manipulated - by UN envoy Yasushi Akashi and UNPROFOR comander Bernard Janvier.''


The victims' campaign group 'Mothers of Srebrenica' want Karremans, Akashi, Janvier and former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali indicted by the Hague war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.


Spokeswoman Fadila Memisevic, speaking in Sarajevo, said, "The Dutch did virtually nothing. They allowed the separation of Muslim in Srebrenica from the women and children. They must have suspected that this would end in a tragedy."


There may be precious little justice for the people of Srebrenica but there is a tiny glimmer of hope. On Saturday, November 20, a busload of Bosnian Muslim children, refugees from Srebrenica now living in Sarajevo, returned to their home town for a soccer tournament against local Bosnian Serb children. Sceptics said it wouldn't work, divisions ran too deep.


But as the bus drew into the playground, the 160 Serb children greeted their guests with frantic applause and within minutes football games were underway on the seven little pitches. Safija Sultanovic, 30, accompanied her 10 year old son, Halid. Sultanovic survived the 1995 ordeal, which claimed the lives of her brother and other members of her family. "I'm here for the first time since, well... what happened," she said.


"I'm very excited and something was pulling me here today. There should be more of this in the future because we want to return. What I feel now is sadness but, at the same time, happiness because I was able to come. The children made the first step", she acknowledged.


Othon Zimmermann is a journalist for the Rotterdam based Algemeen Dagblad.


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