Dealing With Genocide A Dutch Peacekeeper Remembers Srebrenica

Ten years after the worst European genocide since World War II, a Dutch soldier talks about his experiences and insists he didn't know the scale of the tragedy as it was unfolding. Relatives of the missing and dead think otherwise and insist the Dutch could have prevented the massacre.

By in Venlo, the Netherlands


Dutch peacekeeper Gerald Verhaegh in Srebrenica.
Gerald Verhaegh

Dutch peacekeeper Gerald Verhaegh in Srebrenica.

Gerald Verhaegh was there. Ten years ago, he was one of the 370 Dutch soldiers stationed at the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica, Bosnia in an effort to protect it from the bloody grasp of the Bosnian Serbs. He was a member of the United Nations peace-keeping force that stood meekly by as Bosnian Serbs rounded up Muslims and transported them away. Later, he learned that the Dutch soldiers' passivity was a vital ingredient in what became the largest act of genocide in Europe since World War II. Since then, he has been branded a coward, both at home and abroad.

That, says Verhaegh, is unfair. He can't understand why the Dutch peacekeepers are still incriminated back home. "It's not right that we are reproached," he says. "We did what we could."

And the events that took place in Srebrenica 10 years ago, which resulted in the massacre of up to 8,000 unarmed Muslims, have left their mark on the Dutch soldiers. Forty percent of them have needed psychological help, in some cases years of counseling, to put the slaughter behind them. Verhaegh, a 34-year-old from the small village of Panningen, however, has so far abstained. "I was able to handle it pretty well. I was 24 back then -- a bit older than most of the other soldiers."

Verhaegh, who now works as a sales manager at a cosmetics company, says he doesn't have a feeling of guilt for what happened. After all, it was clear from the start that the enclave -- one of six so-called "safe havens" meant to provide safety for Muslim refugees during the vicious fighting in Bosnia -- was at the mercy of the Bosnian Serb forces. On one side, there were 370 Dutch peacekeepers, on the other stood thousands of saber-rattling soldiers. "Even three times as many peacekeepers would not have been enough to stop the Serbs," Verhaegh says.

An image from a video only recently made public showing six teenagers killed near Srebrenica.
AFP

An image from a video only recently made public showing six teenagers killed near Srebrenica.

Verhaegh was ordered to the Balkans in early 1995 to help protect the some 60,000 Muslims collected in the enclave. The Dutch government, under then Prime Minister Wim Kok, had done everything it could to get the prestigious assignment. And for the first couple of months, the unit felt little in the way of danger -- and anticipated nothing of the oncoming catastrophe. But then, the Bosnian Serbs under the leadership of Ratko Mladic became more and more aggressive in the face of the small Dutch force. Soon, Mladic even began preventing food transports from entering the United Nations safe haven. And that marked the beginning of the tragedy.

Dutch had no idea what was happening

On the morning of July 11, it started in earnest. "All day, Serbian buses loaded Muslims up and took them out of Srebrenica," Verhaegh says. Everyone felt that something was going on, but Verhaegh says he had no idea he was witnessing the beginning stages of a mass murder. He saw a few corpses of Muslim men lying on the ground, "but I assumed they were killed in skirmishes with Serbs."

It was only months later, when he was back in Holland, that he, along with the rest of Holland, learned about the scale of the catastrophe. At the time, Verhaegh says, he felt "powerless."

As the end neared, the harmless "Dutchbats," as the Dutch peace-keepers were called, were further humiliated by the Serbs. Verhaegh had to turn his helmet and his bullet-proof jacket over to them. But he said he didn't fear for his life. Others were forced to strip down to their underwear. Then, dressed as UN soldiers, the Serbs could more easily convince the Muslims to go with them. At one point, "we realized that the Serbs had taken pretty Muslim women into a building. But they barred us from entering it," Verhaegh said. One can only imagine the gruesome crimes that took place behind those closed doors.

The Serbians also humiliated Dutch commander Thom Karremans. At one point, Mladic summoned Karremans to a hotel room and then had him photographed drinking and toasting with the Serbs. The photo went around the world as proof of the good rapport between the UN troops and the Serbian war criminals. At a court hearing, Karremans insisted that he only understood the true intent of the Serbs "three or four days" after the Srebrenica massacre had occurred.

A few days earlier, Karremans had asked Nato for assistance in the form of air raids. He also asked for better equipment and supplies for his men. In the end, only four Nato fighter bombers that were in the Adriatic Sea area arrived to attack the Serbs. Two missed their targets and the other two were shot down. That same night, the Dutch gave up. "The Serbs have won," said the Dutch Defense Minister Joris Voorhoeve.

"Dutchbat" Soldier Verhaegh insisted the UN and individual member governments share the blame for the seriously restricted deployment mandate that contributed to the disaster. "We were abandoned," he says. "The United Nations should have at least supported us, and our government should have better equipped us and they should have expanded our mandate." Under the mandate, the lightly armed Dutch soldiers were only allowed to shoot over the head of aggressors - even when they were attacked by Serbs.

Film with Bosnian Serb atrocities disappears

A mass grave near Srebrenica.
DPA

A mass grave near Srebrenica.

When they returned home, the Dutch soldiers were greeted by Crown Prince Willem Alexander, who praised them. "I want to express my admiration for your accomplishments in Srebrenica." But as the scope of the catastrophe emerged, the Dutch began a painful national debate over who was actually to blame for the genocide in Srebrenica.

Seven years after the massacre, Prime Minister Kok resigned along with his entire cabinet. At the time, the independent Netherlands Institute for War Documentation had released a report which made clear the extent of the carelessness with which politicians had plunged into the war in Bosnia and how woefully unprepared the Dutch military had been for the mission. In a reconstruction of the deadly days in Srebrenica, Holland's Inter-Church Peace Council came to the conclusion that the genocide could have been prevented if the Dutch government and its military leadership in the city had reached other decisions and had negotiated more courageously.

But even today, many irregularities remain unresolved. Among them is a the mysterious disappearance of film footage taken by a Dutch soldier of Bosnian Serbs committing atrocities. The film disappeared when it was developed. Another is the accusation that the Dutch had fraternized with the Serbs and, secretly, admired their tight military organization. And again and again Muslims have spoken about what they experienced in Srebrenica. One woman told the Rotterdam newspaper NRC Handelsblad how shocked she was by one peacekeeper's behavior when her son was kidnapped. "I will never forget this soldier's face: He just stood there and watched. But the worst was that he laughed."

Relatives of the Srebrenica genocide victims have now started legal action against the Netherlands in a court at the Hague. The plaintiffs accuse the country of not having done everything it could to save their family members. Dutch lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld, who is representing the families, believes there is enough proof backing up the accusations for the complaint to be successful. One of the plaintiffs is Hasan Nuhanovic, who worked as a translator for the UN. He says the Dutch soldiers banished his brother from the Srebrenica safe haven with the argument that he didn't have a proper UN identity card.

Bosnian Serb army Commander General Ratko Mladic, left, drinks toast with Dutch U.N Commander Tom Karremans, second right.
AP

Bosnian Serb army Commander General Ratko Mladic, left, drinks toast with Dutch U.N Commander Tom Karremans, second right.

A book recently published in the Netherlands poignantly captures how some Dutch peace-keepers have struggled with the painful memory of what happened in Srebrenica. "Herinneringen aan Srebrenica" ("Memories of Srebrenica") documents the experiences of 170 of the Dutchbat through interviews about their memories of the event a decade ago and how they deal with it today. Jet Peekel, one of the book's authors, writes, "One of the soldiers said that only now, 10 years later, can he get through a day without thinking of Srebrenica. 'But a noise, a smell, something that catches my eye, is enough to bring me straight back to that day.'"

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