A Dutch court has begun hearing a case brought by surviving relatives of the 8,000 Bosnian Muslim civilians, supposedly under UN military protection, who were murdered by Serb forces at Srebrenica in 1995. The survivors are claiming four billion dollars in damages from the Dutch state and the United Nations, which had created the “safe haven” at Srebrenica and sent the Dutch troops there to protect it. It’s about time.
Everybody knows that the survivors are not going to end up with four billion dollars from the UN, the Dutch or anybody else, nor would it bring their fathers, husbands and sons back to life if they did. But at the least it may force the Dutch to come to terms with the behavior of their troops at Srebrenica, and it would be nice if the victims got an apology and some compensation.
Good people make mistakes, and innocent people die; it happens all the time, especially in war. But Srebrenica was the worst mass killing in Europe since the Second World War, and it probably could have been avoided if the Dutch troops had shown a little more courage. If not, then they could have died fighting to stop it, because that was their duty.
Soldiers talk with understandable pride about the “unlimited liability” of their profession: the same phrase appears in many armies in many languages. Few other callings require that on some occasions you must die in order to do your duty, and the military profession is quite right in claiming that this sets soldiers apart. But you can’t just talk the talk. You have to walk the walk, and the Dutch didn’t.
The Dutch soldiers were sent to Srebrenica in 1995 to relieve the Canadian battalion that had been holding the UN-protected enclave. I happened to be in Canada at the time, so a Dutch television crew came looking for me for advice on what their soldiers could expect in Srebrenica. I told them that the Canadians were very glad to be getting out, because it was potentially a death trap.
I didn’t mean a death trap for the tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslim civilians who were trapped there; that was obvious. I meant a death trap for the few hundred lightly armed Canadian soldiers who were protecting the Muslim civilians from the thousands of Serbs with artillery and tanks who surrounded the enclave.
If the Serbs attacked, the Canadians would have to fight despite the odds — anything else would be a shameful betrayal of their duty — and they might lose dozens of people. They would probably save the enclave in the process, because even the Serbian commander, General Ratko Mladic, would stop short of killing hundreds of UN troops. But it was a dreadful situation, and the Canadians were greatly relieved to be going home. Good luck to the Dutch.
The Dutch were unlucky. In July, 1995 the Serbs began to make probing attacks on the enclave’s perimeter, which was much too long to defend with only 400 Dutch troops.
The Dutch commander, Colonel Ton Karremans, was in a difficult position, but his course was clear: protest loudly to Mladic and to the world, and call in NATO air strikes if the Serbian attacks continued. Meanwhile, give the Muslim men within the enclave back the weapons they had surrendered to the UN, and prepare to fall back to the town of Srebrenica, which could probably be held for a day or so — time enough for help to arrive, perhaps. But if the Serbs kept coming, some Dutch soldiers would die.
So Karremans went to see Mladic, drank a toast with him, and agreed to hand over the Muslims in return for thirty Dutch soldiers who had been taken hostage. The Dutch commander didn’t know that the Serbs were planning to exterminate all the men and boys in Srebrenica; the Serbs themselves only decided on that after meeting with Karremans and realizing that they faced no opposition. But this was three years into the war, and he must have known that at the very least many hundreds of Muslims would be tortured, raped and murdered.
So the Dutch troops came home safely. In 1999 the UN admitted that it had failed to protect the Muslims of Srebrenica from mass murder, but said that none of its officials could be held responsible and invoked its legal immunity. In 2002 an official Dutch report blamed the Dutch government and senior military officials for the massacre, and Prime Minister Wim Kok’s entire cabinet (which had been in office in 1995) resigned.
But in 2006 the Dutch government awarded those who had served in Srebrenica with a special insignia “in recognition for their behavior in difficult circumstances”. They still don’t get it. Even if all the higher authorities had failed them, the soldiers’ duty was clear, and they didn’t do it.
I have talked to Canadian soldiers who served in Srebrenica before them, and they wonder if they would have behaved any better when the Serbs attacked. But at least they know that they should have. Real soldiers are old-fashioned people who still believe in honor, and that is the most attractive thing about them.
Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, After Iraq, was recently published in London by Yale University Press.