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

Srebrenica Survivors Begin Dutch Fight

First steps taken in legal bid to hold the Netherlands to account over 1995 massacre.
By Stephanie van

In an important step towards a possible civil action against the Dutch state, lawyers representing survivors of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims this week started questioning witnesses to assess whether enough evidence exists to build a case.


A battalion of Dutch UN peacekeepers was assigned to protect the so-called safe area of Srebrenica when it was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995.


In the days after the fall of the enclave, Bosnian Serb troops summarily executed almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys from the area. Some were separated from their families, who were then bussed out of the enclave. Others attempted to walk through the woods to the nearest safe territory, but were apprehended, taken prisoner and later executed.


Berend Oosterveen, a former Dutchbat soldier in charge of personnel matters, spoke under oath this week of how he told the electrician Rizo Mustafic, employed by the Dutch UN battalion, to leave the relative safety of the UN compound and board the bus operated by the Serb army to take him out of the enclave.


Mustafic never made it to the bus – he was separated from his family by the Serb soldiers and has not been seen since.


On May 12, Mustafic’s family was listening to Oosterveen’s testimony in a city court in The Hague, hoping it would bring them closer to opening a proper legal case against the Dutch state. The family claims the Hague government did not provide Mustafic with the protection that he was entitled to – both as an employee of the Dutch troops and as a representative of the Bosnian Muslim refugees in the enclave.


The other case is that of Hasan Nuhanovic, a former translator for the UN, who also claims that his family members were led to their deaths when Dutch soldiers refused to allow them to stay in the Dutchbat compound.


No formal lawsuit has yet been filed. The hearings that opened this week were called at the request of the lawyers of the survivors, to hear testimony from key witnesses to assess whether or not grounds exist for a civil action.


The benefit of these preliminary hearings is that the witnesses are under oath, when answering the questions by the lawyers of the parties, and that their testimonies can later be used as evidence in further proceedings.


Liesbeth Zegveld, a lawyer for the survivors, told IWPR that the preliminary hearings could pave the way for a civil action against the Dutch state, in which they would try to prove that “the Netherlands acted unlawfully” against their kin.


Zegveld stressed that financial compensation was not their sole aim, although she said the families would consider it if the case led to a conviction. “My clients want to know the truth about what happened,” she said.


Rizo Mustafic’s family were part of the thousands of frightened refugees who scrambled to the Dutch base in nearby Potocari on the day the enclave fell, begging for protection and assistance. The Bosnian Serbs claimed they would bus the refugees to safety but separated the men and boys of fighting age – claiming it was done in order to question them and find the “war criminals” among them. Instead the men were summarily executed and buried in mass graves.


Witness Oosterveen was the one who told the electrical engineer Rizo Mustafic that he should leave the compound because the Dutch army could do nothing for him.


“I told Mustafic that everybody who was not a UN employee should leave,” said Oosterveen. “I told him, ‘It will be okay’. I assumed that the people being bussed out were being brought to a safe area.”


Later Oosterveen heard that there was actually a list being drawn up of local personnel that Dutchbat would insist on taking with them. Mustafic did not stay long enough to see the list being drawn up. Instead, he followed Oosterveen’s advice, went to the busses and was separated from his family. He has not been heard of since, nor have his remains been found.


According to Mient Jan Faber, a Dutch peace activist working with the lawyers for the families, it was clear that Mustafic - who had worked for Dutchbat for several years - would have been on that list and would have been given safe passage had Oosterveen not told him to that he should leave.


In court, Oosterveen seemed oblivious to the fact that his advice might have contributed in some way to Mustafic’s death at the hands of the Serbs.


Although he had seen evidence of executions outside the Dutchbat compound on July 12, he told the court that, at the time, he did not think that the Muslim men of Srebrenica were in danger of being killed.


“There were rumours that the Serb soldiers were coming with lists to search for people. The rumour was these people were possible war criminals,” said Oosterveen.


Asked what he thought at the time would happen to the people on the lists, Oosterveen said he believed they would be brought before a military tribunal.


“The doctrine of the laws and customs of war was so ingrained in us [Dutch soldiers] that I assumed the men would be brought before a military court,” he explained.


In retrospect, he admitted that the Dutch troops were naïve but also blamed the Dutch army for briefing them soldiers poorly. “We did not know what had happened before. I did not know who had massacred who, and who had started the war,” he said.


All that the witness could recall was that he had told the electrician to board the bus, but not much more.


Mustafic’s wife Mehida and his two children were with him in the Dutchbat compound when Oosterveen told them they should leave. They were present in court this week but would not comment.


“They had very high hopes for this hearing. The family is very disappointed [that the witness] remembers so little,” their lawyer said after the hearing.


There are six more preliminary hearings set in the coming months, featuring key witnesses in the case such as former Dutch defence minister Joris Voorhoeve, former Dutchbat deputy commander Robert Franken and Dutchbat commander Ton Karremans.


Franken has appeared as a Hague tribunal witness in the trial of Bosnian Serb general Radislav Krstic, who was the first person to be sentenced for aiding and abetting Srebrenica genocide.


At the time, Franken acknowledged that it was clear to him that the Serb troops might massacre the Muslim refugees. “The Bosnian Serbs had already demonstrated that they did not draw any distinction between fighters and civilians,” he told the tribunal in April 2000.


The preliminary hearings are expected to continue on May 26.


Stephanie van den Berg is a senior reporter with the Agence France Press in The Hague.