Srebrenica: Dutch history still in the writing

Edition 8 March, by by Johannes Visser

One name hangs like a dark cloud over Dutch contemporary history, still being written: Srebrenica. It epitomizes national shame in the collective psyche, even as the Netherlands are not to blame – although that depends on whom you ask. It is a chapter that refuses to be closed; in fact, it is constantly being rewritten.

One of the two latest additions to the Netherlands’ story in Bosnia’s Srebrenica came last month, when the advocate-general of the Supreme Court of the Netherlands, Paul Vlas, concluded his team’s judicial inquiry by stating that the Dutch State is not to blame for the death of 350 Bosnian Muslim men at the hands of the Serb military in 1995. This advice, which will not be binding for the Supreme Court’s ruling in this case in April, disputes an earlier lower court ruling that the State was indeed at least partially responsible.

Dutchbat

It all began in 1990, when former Yugoslavia as a country began to disintegrate. Various ethnic groups became more nationalist and calls for separation grew louder. Following the examples of Slovenia and Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence. In an area where Muslims, Croatians and Bosnians had for centuries peacefully lived together, they became enemies overnight, supported by different armed militias. When war broke out, accompanied by ethnic cleansing across the Balkans, the United Nations intervened and sent blue helmets to the area to restore peace and order.

Participating in this mission was a battalion from the Netherlands, Dutchbat, which was sent to defend the population in the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica, surrounded by Serbs in the east of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was expected that the presence of international troops alone would be enough to deter outside aggression. But as Serbian tanks under the command of General Ratko Mladic entered Srebrenica on 11 July 1995, four Dutch requests for air cover were ignored, denied or prematurely ended. Serbian troops then overpowered the lightly armed Dutch, who together with thousands of inhabitants fled to the city of Potočari. The Serb army then rounded up and deported thousands of Muslim men and boys, as Dutchbat stood by powerless.

Serbian genocide, Dutch complicity?

As it turned out, more than 7000 male citizens from Srebrenica were murdered by Serbian troops during those eventful weeks. In the years that followed, most of the military high command responsible for ordering ethnic cleansing across the Balkans was arrested and tried at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. Amongst them was General Mladic. Still, a group of 6000 victims’ relatives, united in a group called ‘Mothers of Srebrenica’, took the Dutch State to court for having allowed the genocide to happen without halting Serbian aggression.

The local Court of Justice in The Hague ruled in 2011 that the Dutch State was to blame for the death of at least three men, who had been sent away from a military compound, straight into the invaders’ hands. Six years later, that same court ruled that the Dutch State had been ‘partially responsible’ for the death of 350 Bosnian men, when Dutchbat aided their deportation, only for them to be murdered later. The court ruled that the State had to pay 30 percent of the damages sought by the Mothers of Srebrenica, a ruling that the government appealed. Next month the Dutch Supreme Court will decide if this ruling will stand. If it does, expectations are that other relatives of 7000 murdered men and boys will also be eligible for (partial) compensation.

Asbestos and radiation

In a related but different case, a group of Dutchbat soldiers are now suing the State for maltreatment. As they were stationed next to an old battery factory, they may have come into contact with piles of asbestos, chemicals and a barrel with a ‘nuclear’ warning sign on it. According to the acting commander of Dutchbat, Thom Karremans, his men should have never been accommodated in a ‘heavily damaged and contaminated battery factory’, of which photos and videos have been taken. Karremans said that he reported the dangerous environment many times to the Ministry of Defense, but was ignored on every occasion.

In response to the pending lawsuit, the Ministry of Defense released a statement on 4 February, stating that it had researched safety risks in the area prior to the mission, but that its personnel ‘never ran unjustifiable health risks’ as long as they didn’t enter the factory next door. The Ministry did acknowledge not having communicated the test results, for which it apologized.

The Bosnians as well as the Dutch soldiers that suffered during those horrible weeks two and a half decades ago will not let this matter go anytime soon. And so, the Netherlands is still not ready to close the chapter on Srebrenica.