This is an article for people interested in the tragic events in Srebrenica who can’t watch or read all the available material that explains the role of the Dutch from the Dutch perspective, because they don’t know the Dutch language. This article will be merely an introduction as there is of course much more to be told about these events than a simple blog post can cover.
In 1995 a brutal civil war was raging in what was formerly known as Yugoslavia. This country had for a long time been an example of how communism could sort of work for a short time- it sailed an independent course – and how people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds could live together in peace. At least since the end of the second world war until hostilities erupted in the early 1990s. Suddenly the most vicious violence seen in Europe since 1945 spilled all over our television screens and newspapers. For lots of Europeans the country had been a favorite holiday destination, so many people stared at the bloody mess in disbelief.
First Slovenia broke away from Yugoslavia. This secession was successful and almost bloodless, compared to what would happen later. The army tried to stop it, but the Slovenians put up a clever resistance, managed to block tank columns and Slovenia got recognized by Germany and the Vatican. Other countries quickly followed. Of course, the Slovenians who also served in the national army weren’t motivated to fight against their home, so that didn’t help to bring Slovenia back into the flock either. Crucial was the eruption of violence in the other wannabe nations. When Croatia also broke off, the national army, soon to be made up of mostly Serbian soldiers, turned its attention elsewhere. For years to come Croats would be mad at Slovenia for getting away unscathed. My professor of Slovene used to say that someone from Slovenia could expect to be refused service in restaurants in Croatia if the waiter carried some resentment. Eventually these feelings blew over.
Since the Serbs controlled most of the equipment of the national army they were the best equipped initially. Later the Serbs were blocked from purchasing arms by the international community and their adversaries weren’t. The Croat army got to be better and better equipped as the conflict progressed. However, the Bosnian forces were arguably the worst equipped ones. Their forces were made up of infantry with little artillery, tanks or other heavy weapons. Eventually casualties would be the worst in Bosnia. They did get some support from foreign islamist fighters.
The war was a very complicated patchwork of isolated conflicts with no clear front lines. There were some cities and sieges that captured the attention more than the many small raids and small skirmishes in little villages almost nobody had ever heard of.
Vukovar and also the siege of Sarajevo became iconic. The Serbs encircled Sarajevo and kept shelling the town from the surrounding hills. They used the nearby facilities of the recent Winter Olympics as a kind of execution grounds. People were shot on the podium for the gold, silver and bronze medal recipients. Snipers made life in Sarajevo almost impossible. At times people moved by walking in between empty tram cars that flanked them on both sides for protection.
The UN wished to stop all this madness, but was never accorded the means nor a clear mandate to do much. UN troops on the ground were not exactly a daunting military force. It became a propaganda goal of the Serbs to paint the UN forces as completely useless, woefully amateurish, clueless and unmotivated to do anything.
Even though the political leaders of the international community were not determined enough to stop the violence, the UN officers on the ground were sometimes overly zealous in promising help. The French general Morillon bravely cut through hostile lines with a convoy and famously announced to thousands of Bosnian refugees that they were now under the protection of the UN. Without the means of actually guaranteeing that safety. In a way he had put the western political leaders for an embarrassing fait accompli.
Because I want to talk about the Dutch involvement I will just say that as a step towards peace the UN created something called safe enclaves or safe havens. The idea was to let refugees go to these areas where they would be shielded from any violence. With UN soldiers observing. In case of trouble these UN soldiers could call for NATO air strikes. There were (and are) air bases in nearby Italy for that purpose.
The Netherlands became responsible for keeping the peace in Srebrenica, with their HQ in Potocari. Some 40,000 Bosnians took refuge in this enclave. Some sources claim there were even more. These were men, women and children. Some were armed fighters. The deal was that these armed fighters would help protect the entrance to Srebrenica. This enclave was located in a valley. In a way it was a trap.
The Dutch commander, lieutenant-colonel Thom Karremans, had about 400 soldiers at his disposal. And the promise of airstrikes when faced with imminent threats. His unit was called Dutchbat 3. Short for Dutch Battalion 3. This unit had been hastily formed and the soldiers who served in it were very young and inexperienced. One of the faces of this unit is Liesbeth Beukeboom who was 19 when she got sent to Bosnia and celebrated her 20th birthday while stationed in the enclave. She had signed up looking for adventure and had no idea what kind of hornets nest she had got herself into. Today she still suffers from PTSD. More on that in a minute.
According to Karremans they never had the proper means to stop any serious advance on their position. He and some of the soldiers under him compare the weapons they had with toys for children. ‘Klappertjespistolen’ in Dutch. Toy guns that make sound but fire no bullet. This may certainly express the feeling the soldiers had at the time, but their relatively light weapons did fire bullets. It’s true they did not have much ammunition to keep up a protracted fight though. The Serbs outnumbered them, outgunned them in terms of artillery and had some tanks. Karremans says he could have stopped the Serbs if he had had some modern Leopard tanks theoretically available at the time, but he was never given any.
A serious problem in Karremans’s strategy seems to be his lack of skills or understanding of psychological warfare. He did not have to militarily defeat the Serbs, he just had to scare them by emphasizing he and his unit represented the UN and that they had no right to be there. That there would be serious consequences later if they entered Srebrenica. It’s highly unlikely Karremans is a good poker player, because in his dealings with the Serb commander Mladic he lets himself be intimidated. The meeting between the two men was filmed and Karremans looks like a small child who’s being chastised by an angry parent.
He comes across as the leader of a group of boy scouts that ended up where they had no business. Some of his remarks during the conversation are particularly clumsy. When Mladic angrily berates him for having had the audacity of shooting at the Serb soldiers Karremans says he’s just the piano player. ‘Don’t shoot the piano player’. Mladic utterly humiliates him and throws this snappy retort in his face. ‘A lousy piano player you are!’.
Mladic goes on to treat Karremans as a stupid but harmless child that needs to be comforted after having done something silly and naughty because it doesn’t know any better. As a representative of the UN and The Netherlands he should have at least acted with more pride, authority and confidence.
It’s of course easy to criticize the man. He was undeniably in a very tight spot. The air strikes he had requested had been ‘too little too late’. The Bosnian fighters who were going to help protect the enclave had suddenly vanished. They had pulled out and had tried to break out to nearby Tuzla. His mandate said he could only open fire when fired upon. His position was not exactly a defensive bulwark but an area that was hard to protect, especially with only 400 lightly equipped soldiers with little or no experience.
On the left you see Liesbeth Beukeboom, probably 19 or 20 years old at the time.
All these things are true, but Karremans didn’t help his case with some outright bizarre gestures. He accepted a toast offered to him by the Serbs who had just overran his unit. He comes across as a whipped dog the entire time. He later accepts a gift – a lamp? – from Mladic, assuming it’s intended for Karremans’s wife. When asked by Mladic if he has children he lies and says he has two. When confronted about this in a short Dutch documentary called ‘The piano player’ he has no explanation for why he lied about this. It undermines his credibility.
One can also find the story that prior to being led in front of Mladic the Serbs had slit the throat of a pig in front of Karremans. The rumor goes that Mladic had said: ‘This is what I can do to the Bosnians and to you and your men.’
This story is problematic however. In the aforementioned docu ‘The piano player’ Karremans calls this a ‘spookverhaal’. A ghost story. It never happened. He says he doesn’t know where this story originated. Karremans then squirms in his chair when the documentary maker confronts him with an older videotaped interview in which he does say this event took place. And a historian is certain that the first person to relate the story with the slaughtered pig is Karremans himself, way back in 1995, right after the assault on Srebrenica. His credibility is therefore seriously compromised.
Much more damaging are the facts surrounding Karremans’s later claims that he had no idea the Bosnian men would be butchered. Ger Kremers, a surgeon who served with Dutchbat at the time, has come forward to claim Karremans definitely did know what fate awaited the Bosnian men. When the Bosnian men of military age were being separated from the women and children and men too old to bear arms the surgeon asked Karremans what he thought was going to happen to the younger men. According to Ger Kremers he responded: ‘This going to end badly’.
In 1995 the war had been raging for many years and it’s reasonable to assume everybody knew what could happen. It was highly unlikely the Serbs would not take revenge on the Bosnian men they had taken prisoner. It had already happened in so many similar situations. It was the standard modus operandi at the time. What makes Srebrenica stand out is the numbers. Over 8,000 men were killed. Some boys and men were forced to sing Serbian songs, beaten, tortured, had broken bottles stabbed into their genitals and were shot. This killing frenzy was fueled by alcohol.
Depending on the source you consult the massacre is either seen as a brutal and completely unwarranted barbarity on the part of the Serbs or a disproportionate but perhaps not entirely incomprehensible retaliation for prior attacks executed by Bosnian fighters on peaceful Serbian farmers in the area. Some sources claim that at least 1,300 Serbs living in the area were killed by Bosnians who used gruesome execution methods, involving castration, crucifixion, tying the victims with wires, nailing them to trees, etc. Others say raids were made on nearby Serbian villages because the Bosnians in the enclave were starving and were looking for food.
Back to the Dutch. Right after Srebrenica the members of Dutchbat were at first celebrated as war heroes. As more details emerged the tone of the media changed and they became cowards and a national disgrace. Footage emerged of members of Dutchbat wildly celebrating after being moved from the Srebrenica area to Croatia.
In light of what happened at Srebrenica it’s disgusting to see these Dutch soldiers get roaring drunk, dance, sing and merrily jump around.
Veteran of Dutchbat 3, Liesbeth Beukeboom, admits the images look appalling, but that some context is required to understand this a bit better. The Dutch had feared for their lives. Many thought they would never make it out of their alive. They had constantly been confronted with suffering, starving children, poorly clad people, some barefoot. They had had little food.
They weren’t used to drinking alcohol anymore and suddenly they found themselves at an event where the booze flowed freely. It’s worth repeating that many of them were very young. In interviews the Dutch often affectionately refer to the members of Dutchbat as ‘boys and girls’.
According to Liesbeth Beukeboom they had signed up just for the adventure and had no idea what to expect. Apparently at the time it was common to enlist by filling in a coupon you could cut out of a popular television guide and send it in.
After her tour of duty she had recurring nightmares in which she was surrounded by thousands and thousands of rats that were pressing upon her. Whenever she woke up and fell asleep again the dream continued and the rats got closer. According to her doctor the rats represented the refugees she hadn’t been able to protect.
She went on with her life, has a husband and three kids, but Srebrenica has always stayed with her. When confronted with video images of the events you can clearly see her wince.
To this day you can find YouTube videos with historic footage of the members of Dutchbat labelled as ‘cowards’.
Karremans got promoted to colonel after Srebrenica. One rank above luitenant-colonel. He lives in Spain because in the Netherlands he was threatened and also yelled at on the street. He admits he was not the right man for the job, but at the same time also says they all did what they could with the means they had at their disposal.
Even at 71 now it seems he is still completely baffled with what happened those days and by his own clumsy reactions. Personally I was surprised he was willing to sit through the ordeal of having to rewatch the video of him and Mladic while being interviewed for the docu ‘The piano player’. I can easily imagine officials in such a situation being entirely unavailable for any comments…
When it comes to the men and women who served under him I think it’s fair to say they are for the most part blameless. There was not much they could have done. It’s true they could have saved a few hundreds of the boys and men. According to a court ruling they are 10 percent liable. Some of the Dutchbatters did not treat the people under their care with much respect. In the picture below you can see some of the things they wrote on the walls of their compound. Eventually though it all boils down to leadership or lack thereof.
Their commander could indeed not win militarily, but completely blew his chances of coming to some sort of psychological stalemate in which Mladic wouldn’t have risked killing so many under the eyes of the UN. In some similar situation more forceful UN commanders did prevent massacres from taking place.
In all fairness, how many civilized men or women would have been able to stand up to the domineering bully that is Mladic? That Karremans was no general Patton or general Erwin Rommel or general Nathan Beford Forrest who would likely have barked back is obvious. The question is if a more balsy reaction would really have led to a more favorable outcome. Mladic’s blood was up. He was thoroughly enjoying having the upper hand. Perhaps if challenged he would also have killed the women and children AND the members of Dutchbat 3.
My guess is that Mladic being a bully would have only backed down when faced with an even bigger bully than himself. This is usually how it goes with bullies. They only respect strength.
If Karremans only wanted to save his own battalion he opted for the right course of action: bowing to Mladic. But of course Karremans was there as a military man. Society does expect soldiers to be willing to risk their lives. I am guessing most people who study the situation will come to the conclusion that Karremans did not act in the best interest of the Bosnians trapped by the Serbs. The comparison with the three audacious generals I have mentioned higher up is also only partially valid since they were fighting for their own side, with no restraints imposed on them about when to use violence. Nathan Beford Forrest did however ignore the actions of his superiors to save the men under his command from capture. Look up the battle of Fort Donelson if you wish to see an example of a bold officer who managed to circumvent the preposterous incompetence of his superiors to at least salvage what he could from a rotten situation.
Whoever appointed Karremans as the commander of Dutchbat 3 also isn’t blameless. According to Dutch historians the Dutch army knew from exercises and simulations in Germany that Karremans lacked leadership skills and, for example, let himself be carried away in simulated negotiations he would later face for real with Mladic. In these staged negotiations he had to deal with veterans who were playing opponents.
Here Karremans is captured on video joking about prostitution in the Netherlands while dealing with these actors. Based on the short video these actors behave pretty much like the Serbs did in reality. Clearly Karremans – contrary to the instructions he got – decided for himself that the best way to deal with the enemy was to fake a jovial kind of camaraderie hoping to put them at ease and getting favorable terms… Official doctrine was to keep a formal distance in these situations.
No matter the questionable tactics of Karremans the main blame lies with the top western officials who provided inadequate resources to truly ensure safety in the area.
And of course the ones who pulled the trigger more than 8,000 times in those summer days 25 years ago were not the members of Dutchbat. The Serbs did that and by doing so are responsible for the biggest premeditated massacre in Europe since world war two.