"A Toast to The Dead" Srebenica Widows Sue UN, Dutch Government
Some of the Dutch United Nations soldiers who failed to prevent the massacre of Srebenica in July 1995 gave the Serbs a back-slapping welcome, handed over their uniforms and even actively helped to separate Bosnian men from their families, say relatives of the 8,000 men and boys who were murdered. A German attorney is preparing a lawsuit against the UN and the Netherlands.
A Bosnian woman weeps next to the coffins of Muslim men and boys before their burial in Potocari, near Srebrenica.
But then, on July 11 1995, the battle for Srebrenica escalated. Grenades flew, gunshots whipped through the air, and soon there were bodies lying everywhere. Sabaheta Fejzic and her husband ran with their baby to a Dutch military base. But instead of finding shelter there, they were turned away: the camp was overcrowded.
And then Sabaheta saw something she still can barely believe: A group of Serbian soldiers ran across some Dutch troops and the soldiers greeted one another happily. They threw their caps in the air and some even hugged one another. "We were shocked," said Sabaheta Fejzic.
It was then that many refugees suspected what would happen to them, because they no longer had protectors. The next evening, the Serbs arrived, said recalls Sabaheta, and indiscriminately took girls, boys and men out of the camp. She told a Dutch soldier about the deportations but he only pushed her away. The Serbs also took her husband, and literally tore her son from her arms. Sabaheta Fejzic never saw either of them again.
On these days in July, the Serbs murdered more than 8,000 Muslim Bosnians. Even now, mass graves are still being discovered. The shameful role of the Dutch soldiers in the massacre was the subject of several investigating committees in the Netherlands. Prime Minister Wim Kok accepted responsibility and had to go as a result of the mistakes of the political and military leadership.
Eleven years after the massacre, the events of the summer of 1995 are now taking on a new dimension. The largest independent legal firm in Holland has familiarized itself with the fate suffered by people like Sabaheta Fejzic. And in the coming autumn, the lawyers, working for about 7,930 victims and surviving family members, will sue the government of the Netherlands und the United Nations for compensation in the district court of The Hague. It would be the first time that the UN must answer to a court of law for the alleged failure of their troops, shackled by politics and bureaucracy, to safeguard the very people they were charged with protecting.
Axel Hagedorn of Germany heads the international department of the Amsterdam law office of Van Diepen/ Van der Kroef. "We have closely examined the local conditions in Bosnia, and we have spoken with many survivors," said the attorney. He says he has documented so many gruesome deeds that he believes he has a good chance of success with his case.
Dutch "trying to keep a lid on it"
But Hagedorn also knows he will have to convey the full horror of what happened in order to win, because the government of the Netherlands is trying "to keep a lid on it". Reparations isn't an issue in the Netherlands, he said, adding that hardly anyone thinks about the many people who were killed or who lost their families due to the woeful behavior of the Dutch troops.
Widows Zumra Sehomerovic, Kada Hotic and Sabaheta Fejzic (from left to right) in Bare cemetery, Sarajevo.
The man hesitated and then uttered only one word: "Srebrenica."
Hagedorn and his staff say they are attacking "a wall of silence." After two years of preparation, the team of attorneys is going public with the case this week in the Netherlands. "It's not going to be a picnic for us," said the attorney, who moved to Amsterdam from Hamburg a few years ago. After all, many people in the Netherlands do not want to reminded of the events in Bosnia.
The attorneys have formulated charges: First of all, in contradiction to their UN orders, the Dutch troops did not protect the Muslims, so that the population became an unprotected target for the Serbs. Secondly, the Dutch authorities were slow to report the atrocities to the UN which is why no additional help was sent.
Hagedorn said he could even imagine that "a few soldiers collaborated with the Serbs out of fear." But the Dutch government and the United Nations should never have exposed such "completely unprepared people" to a situation where serious shooting was taking place.
Ten attorneys in Holland and four in Bosnia currently are working on the class action suit. Their criticism of the Dutch Army leadership is based first and foremost upon accounts from such eyewitnesses as Zumra Sehomerovic, 54.
The woman from Srebrenica describes how Dutch soldiers allowed Serb militia leader Ratko Mladic's men to disarm them, without resisting. Some of the Dutch troops even took off their uniforms and Serbs then slipped them on.
The next day, the Dutch troops lined up with the Serbian Chetniks as if nothing had happened. The UN soldiers had helped to separate the Muslim men from their families. Zumra Sehomerovic saw her husband once more, standing in a ditch on the left side of the road. He was never seen again.
Bosnian Serb army Commander General Ratko Mladic, left, drinks a toast with Dutch UN Commander Tom Karremans, second right, while others unidentified look on in village of Potocari, some 5 kilometers north of Srebrenica Wednesday, July 12, 1995.
But now witnesses are providing detailed reports of how they repeatedly informed the Dutch troops about murder and rapes. It was in fact possible to know what was going on in the protected zone, said Hagedorn, because "many soldiers must have heard the screams of people and the shots."
But the suit will not be directed only at the government of the Netherlands; it will also be against the UN. Up to now, the Dutch government has argued that its unit, called "Dutchbat," was part of the Unprofor peacekeeping force [United Nations Protection Force]. Thus all legal claims must be lodged with the United Nations.
Should the judges in The Hague follow this line of argumentation, UN General secretary Kofi Annan might have to weigh in on the debate about why his soldiers, borrowed from member states, often "do nothing when the going gets tough" (Hagedorn). In Rwanda, too, the UN utterly failed just when the situation became most dangerous.
Hagedorn's team has already cleared one hurdle. The Dutch judge has granted financial assistance to cover trial costs for ten plaintiffs whose cases represent the others. Now the statements will be drawn up for these ten women. In addition, the attorneys want to create a foundation in the Netherlands for the other plaintiffs, which would make it possible to launch an American-style class action suit under Dutch law.
First, the court will decide whether the Dutch state shares responsibility and thus liability for the massacre. A second lawsuit would then focus on the amount of reparations.
For most surviving family members, however, money isn't really the issue. They still want an answer to the question why the Dutch soldiers did not at least try to stop the Serbian butchers.
In July 1995, Kada Hotic fled from the Serbs toward the UN camp with her husband Sead and her brothers Ekrem and Mustafa. But she said the Dutch troops turned them back, and did nothing to protect her and the many thousands of other unarmed refugees.
True, there were only 500 Dutch troops against an overwhelmingly superior force of 15,000 Serbs. But why didn't they request back-up, why didn't they ask for air strikes? And why didn't they at least surrender properly, instead of as eyewitnesses say even assisting the Serbs? And why did the Dutch commander in charge, Colonel Ton Karremans, even drink a toast with mass murderer Ratko Mladic whose Serbian troops were wreaking havoc outside?
Hotic only knows that the Serbs, after drinking a toast to the dead, then took her husband and one of her brothers with them. The bodies of Sead and Ekrem were discovered later in a mass grave. "I have lost trust in the UN and in the whole world," she said.
Translated from German by Toby Axelrod