Dutch blue helmets remember Srebrenica's dreadful days

GMT 11:41 2015 Friday ,10 July

Arab Today, arab today Dutch blue helmets remember Srebrenica's dreadful days

A post of Dutch UN troops near safehaven of Srebrenica
Gorinchem - AFP

One remembers the excruciating pain of a wounded child, the other the suicides of those who had abandoned all hope. Two decades on, memories of Srebrenica remain imprinted on the minds of two Dutch UN soldiers who witnessed Europe's worst atrocity since World War II.

Ronald Wentink, and Edo van den Berg were both fresh-faced 21-year-olds in mid-July 1995, taking part in their first UN mission.

Little did they realise how quickly their Bosnian military adventure would turn into their darkest nightmare.

A few months after arriving in the supposedly "safe haven" area of Srebrenica in January 1995, their light resistance would be brushed aside by battle-hardened Bosnian Serb troops fighting in the Balkan country's bloody civil war that was sparked by Yugoslavia's break-up in 1991.

In the days after Srebrenica fell, almost 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were rounded up, murdered and their bodies dumped in mass graves in one of the darkest episodes of the conflict in which 100,000 people died.

Even today, the Srebrenica massacre remains an emotive issue in the Netherlands, prompting endless soul-searching as to whether the men of the Dutch battalion, "Dutchbat" for short, could and should have done more to protect Srebrenica's Muslim population.

Twenty years after the tragic events, the two former Dutch UN blue helmets say they remain traumatised by their experiences in Bosnia.

But they are clear when it comes to criticism and allegations of cowardice.

"We would have liked nothing better than to fight. But the UN did not give us the means," an emotional Wentink told AFP in an interview, with his former fellow soldier Van den Berg also present.

"We were abandoned... and so was Srebrenica," he says.

- 'Empty promise' -

After they arrived in Srebrenica in early 1995 "spring came and so the incidents between Bosnian Serbs and Muslims started to pick up," recalls Van den Berg, who manned observation post "Charlie" on the enclave's western perimeter.

He says the Bosnian Serb army started blocking convoys, "testing the UN to see how far they would go."

Both frightened civilians and the UN peacekeepers "lacked everything", added Van den Berg, who lost 20 kilogrammes (44 pounds) during his tour to Srebrenica.

Troops lacked arms and ammunition and were hamstrung by technical problems.

The first serious attempt to invade the enclave came on July 6, 1995, he says.

Corporal Wentink was at a communications post and two decades later still has a copy of a written order, which he showed to AFP.

"Prevent by all means" the entry of Bosnian Serb forces into the enclave, the order said. A firefight broke out soon afterwards.

"The little ammunition we had soon ran out," says Wentink.

Desperately-needed reinforcements and supplies never came.

"The Serbs were cunning," Wentink adds. Their forces constantly avoided direct confrontation with the Dutch UN troops, to avoid more reinforcements being sent in.

"I wanted to reassure people. I said 'everything will be fine', but that was an empty promise," sighs Van den Berg.

The promise "still consumes me today," adds Van den Berg, who is still associated with the Dutch army, working for its security branch as a civilian contractor.

- Terrified refugees -

On July 11, 1995 the enclave was overrun.

"I took a young girl to a first-aid station. She was wounded by mortar fire," remembers Wentink.

"The distress in her eyes is impossible to forget," he says, brimming with emotion.

The peacekeepers and about 5,000 refugees, mostly women and children, retreated into the UN base at Potocari. Thousands of others gathered outside.

Some were so terrified of the prospects ahead, they started committing suicide, Van den Berg recalls.

Then, the Muslim refugees were bussed out of Srebrenica by the Bosnian Serb army.

Told the refugees would be "well-treated", Dutch peacekeepers were ordered to assist in the transfer.

Some 300 Muslim men and boys however were separated from their families -- to be murdered later.

- 'Genocide?' -

Van den Berg and Wentink say they heard about the slaughter in late July for the first time after they arrived in the Croatian capital of Zagreb on their way back to the Netherlands.

"We were all thinking... genocide? What?" says Wentink, who today is an IT specialist.

Upon their return to the Netherlands, the men for the first time realised the true extent of the tragedy.

"It's something you never forget. It still haunts me today," says Wentink.

But he adds: "There's one thing I'm sure about. I don't feel guilty anymore. We did what we could right up to the end."

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