Dutch UN troops near the Moslem enclave and UN safe area
The Hague - AFP
Two decades after the Srebrenica massacre, one burning question still sears the Netherlands's collective consciousness: could Dutch UN peacekeepers have done more to save almost 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys from slaughter?
Europe's worst atrocity since World War II took place in mid-July, 1995, when lightly armed UN Dutch peacekeepers were overrun by Bosnian Serb troops in the supposedly UN-protected "safe haven" of Srebrenica, during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War.
Thousands of men and boys were murdered and their bodies dumped in nearby mass graves in the days that followed, as the Dutch UN battalion -- called the "Dutchbat" for short -- returned home via an alcohol-fuelled reception in the Croatian capital of Zagreb.
In the Netherlands the events at Srebrenica still stir up controversy, with questions remaining over the Dutch blue helmets' role in what has been labelled as genocide by two international courts.
The Netherlands boasts a long tradition of peacekeeping, but at Srebrenica they "were confronted with their helplessness," according to Ko Colijn, international political and security researcher at The Hague's Clingendael Institute.
Numerous reports in the aftermath of the massacre indicated the Dutch had assumed the mission in Bosnia on purely moral grounds without first examining its feasibility, he added.
The Dutch decision was partly driven by a guilt complex born from an often passive attitude to Nazi occupation during World War II, these reports said.
This "error of judgement", as it was later described in a Dutch parliamentary committee report, ultimately led to the resignation of Labour Party prime minister Wim Kok's government in 2002, when it admitted it could have done more to protect civilians at Srebrenica.
- Survivors want apology -
Srebrenica massacre survivors are demanding closer scrutiny of the Dutchbat's actions 20 years ago and there have been unsuccessful attempts in the past to bring its senior commanders to trial.
"The role of the Dutch still needs to be examined," said Mohammed Dukovic, who survived the slaughter by fleeing into Bosnia's mountains.
"They need to apologise to the entire population -- children who had to grow up without their fathers, uncles and brothers," he told AFP.
Last month the Dutch state for the first time apologised to the relatives of three Bosnian Muslim men who were in the employ of the Dutch UN forces at Srebrenica, but who were expelled from the compound and subsequently murdered.
A Hague-based court ruled the Dutch state was liable for the deaths of over 300 Bosnian men and boys who were killed by Bosnian Serb forces on July 13, 1995, after they were expelled from the UN safe haven.
But the court also ruled the state could not be held to account over the actions of the Dutch troops before the fall of Srebrenica -- and for thousands who died afterwards.
The victims' relatives have appealed the ruling, saying they want to court to hold the Dutch state liable for all murdered victims.
Ludy de Vos, a former Dutchbat soldier, remains convinced the UN-mandated force did all it could against overwhelming odds and firepower.
"They (Dutchbat) did their utmost," he told AFP in a recent interview, adding that many Dutchbat soldiers still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders and some have committed suicide.
"We were abandoned. Many people find that hard to understand," said De Vos, a sub-commander at the time, who said that promised UN air and logistical support never materialised.
Joris Voorhoeve, Dutch defence minister at the time, blames the endless soul-searching over the massacre on a "Dutch Calvinist tendency towards self-flagellation".
Yasushi Akashi, who was a UN special representative in Bosnia 20 years ago, admits the Security Council did not properly consider whether its resolutions at the time of the Srebrenica killings were realistic.
"The (Security) Council kept on issuing these great resolutions, but they were difficult to implement," he told AFP. "We sent peacekeepers where there was no peace to keep."