|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
25 April - 1 May 2002
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Srebrenica, Serbia's SabraWas the massacre of Muslims at Srebrenica Serbia's Sabra and Shatila? Negar Azimi investigates Dutch involvement in the controversy
In an enclave called Srebrenica in late 1995 at the height of the Bosnian War, Serb nationalist forces under the command of Ratko Mladic deported thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys to schools, warehouses, and remote fields leaving women and young girls behind. It was here, in the first ever United Nations-designated "Safe Area," that Europe's largest massacre since the World War II took place.
The Serbs systematically executed over 7,000 people. Women, children, and the Dutch peace- keeping forces a short distance away could hear the screams. The killings went on for days.
In an unexpected turn of events last week, the entire coalition Dutch government, headed by Prime Minister Wim Kok, resigned over a report alleging governmental complicity in failing to prevent the massacre. The report, commissioned in 1996 and prepared by the Netherlands Institute on War Documentation (NIOD), stipulates that the Dutch government, the 120-man Dutch military contingent (Dutchbat), and the United Nations were all partly at fault in failing to prevent the tragedy that unfolded at Srebrenica.
The NIOD report argues that Dutch troops were sent in without a clear mandate and with inadequate weaponry to face the Serbs. They were, in effect, faced with "an impossible mission to protect an ill-defined safe area." The report continues, "The humanitarian motivation and political ambitions drove the Netherlands to undertake an ill- conceived and virtually impossible peace mission."
Dutch troops are also targeted as facilitators of the mass deportations that preceded the massacre. The 7,600-page manifesto also asserts that the Netherlands' military high command engaged in a massive cover-up in the years after the tragedy. High-ranking Dutch army officers, it claims, tried to limit the release of information and, where possible, to avoid sensitive issues. However dramatic the allegations may seem, the report's contents have also attracted strident criticism -- particularly from the families of the victims.
At the press conference in The Hague following the release of the report, countless Bosnian women, whose husbands and sons were among the dead, simply walked out of the proceedings, calling the report a "whitewash."
In the ensuing days, women staged silent protests both at The Hague, outside parliament buildings, they stood holding cloths decorated with hearts, flowers or teardrops and bearing the names of loved ones killed at Srebrenica.
The Interchurch Peace Council Counsel (IKV) in the Netherlands, which released its own report on the massacre only three weeks ago, noted in a statement, "once again Dutch responsibility is denied and others are to blame for the fall of Srebrenica and the genocide that followed."
The IKV had concluded in its own report that Dutchbat had abandoned the enclave without any resistance. The report writes, "The Dutch blue helmets gave up 'without a single shot.' The chance that the enclave would have fallen in the hands of the Bosnian Serbs would have been smaller if Dutchbat had really fought." It is not surprising, thus, that the IKV categorically deemed the NIOD report a "bitter disappointment."
In the end, the NIOD report exposed little that was not already known. It is one of a handful of reports prepared by both Dutch and foreign bodies that have produced variations on a single theme that the events at Srebrenica, though they could have been handled with more foresight, were in the end, inevitable. Importantly, the report seems to have closed off the possibility of criminal prosecution and reparations for victims, at least for the moment. So was the resignation a hollow gesture?
With general elections only four weeks away and government power already waning, some argue yes. They say that stepping down was hardly a dramatic step down for Kok, the social democratic premier, and his government. The Dutch government, one of the most liberal in Europe, has continued to lose ground to conservative forces in recent years, and Kok has already announced that he will not seek a third term in office.
Meanwhile, IKV and others, including Brussels-based humanitarian medical agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (the only aid group operating within the enclave at the time), are clamouring for a parliamentary investigation.
Parliamentary sources in the Netherlands told the Weekly that the parliament will take a vote on a potential investigation later this week. Dr Francis Boyle, professor of international law and legal representative for the survivors group "The Mothers of Srebrenica," told the Weekly, "I don't think we will get to the truth until the Parliament steps in; you have to remember that though the NIOD report was commissioned by the government, it took six years to materialise."
Strangely, the report mentioned no connection between the massacres at Srebrenica and former President Slobodan Milosevic, currently on trial for genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). General Mladic and Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic are wanted by the tribunal on 66 counts of war crimes, including charges of war crimes in Bosnia, among which is the Srebrenica massacre.
Mark Wheeler, International Crisis Group's Bosnia project director, told the Weekly from Sarajevo, "the fact that the NIOD report establishes no direct link between Srebrenica and either Milosevic or Karadzic is amazing to me, especially as it has been long known that Milosevic approved Mladic's plan to take the eastern Bosnian enclaves in the summer of 1995." Boyle adds: "All evidence indicates that the massacres were carried out with advanced planning and support from Belgrade and nothing happened in Belgrade without Milosevic."
The glaring absence of a charge will affect the Milosevic trial, Wheeler notes. The report will likely prove helpful to Milosevic in The Hague and to Karadzic, too, if he is ever tried. Bosnian Serb General Radisav Krstic, who was integral in planning the massacre, was sentenced to 46 years in prison last August at the ICTY.
It was only after the uncensored horror of Srebrenica was known that the international community was galvanised in to action against Milosevic in 1995. Following the massacre, NATO forces moved in, bombing the Serbs until a cease-fire and ultimately, the Dayton Peace Accords, materialised.
But the ambiguity of Srebrenica has scarred Dutch national conscience. The Netherlands, a country that has long prided itself on morality of its foreign policy, is shocked by the possibility that its government was at fault in Srebrenica; an event that some commentators have boldly called "the Dutch Sabra and Shatilla."
While the Dutch governmental resignation may be deemed too little too late, the fact that an entire government relinquishes power on a point of conscience is, in this day, perhaps without precedent.
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