In ‘The Powerless mission of Dutchbat’ you can watch the testimonies of several members of Dutchbat. Their mission may have been powerless, but this 3 part docu certainly is powerful.
Dutchbat was a unit of about 600 Dutch soldiers who – under the flag of the UN – were sent to Bosnia during the Yugoslav wars to help and disarm the warring parties. It soon turned out that they didn’t have the means, nor the respect from the locals, nor the international backing to disarm anyone at all.
Soon they were forced into the role of the de facto protectors of a so called safe haven, the enclave of Srebrenica. There, thousands of upon thousands of Bosnians sought refuge from victorious and better armed Serbians (or Bosnian Serbs if you want to be more exact).
You could say that Dutchbat and their compound and the enclave were then under siege from early 1995 to July 1995 when Srebrenica finally fell.
The locals quipped that UN stood for United Nothing (or Het Verenigde Niks in Dutch).
The Serbs were firmly in control of the situation. They cut Dutchbat off and only allowed a trickle of supply through. It seems they played a psychological game with them. The Dutch had to ask the Serbs for permission for everything. Sometimes supplies were let through and sometimes they weren’t. I think that this must have created a psychological dependency on the Serbs in the minds of Dutch. They allowed themselves to be bullied. Their constantly repeated explanation for this is that they had toy guns instead of real weapons.
It’s true that Dutchbat was lightly armed. The Serbs had them surrounded with a massive artillery park. The Serbs outnumbered them about 10 to 1. The Dutch were supposed to get air support from a Nato base in Italy, Aviano, if things got hot. This air support – which had huge destructive potential – was called for, but never really materialized. In practice air support meant that the air force took out MAYBE one or two tanks. They bombed once and don’t know what they hit.
This did little to stop the Serbs from overrunning the enclave in July.
The big question is whether Dutchbat could have done more to stop the Serbs.
They clearly had more than just toy guns, because the Dutchbatters say they did kill or wound scores of Serbs.
I think that in the end they – especially their commander, Karremans – did not want to risk dying in a serious effort to stop the Serbs. Would the Serbs have killed these UN soldiers if they had put up a more stubborn fight? Would they have risked escalating the conflict? Maybe. Maybe not. Mladic, the Serbian commander, was certainly suggesting he wouldn’t mind killing them during his conversation with Karremans. A conversation is a generous term here. Mladic just steamrolls over him and Karremans looks like a beaten little puppy that’s having his nose rubbed in his own poo.
Mladic, ever the manipulative sociopath, asks Karremans if he has children. Karremans LIES and says he has two children. Karremans says he doesn’t know why he lied about that, but I think you can guess. He hoped he would be less likely to be killed if Mladic thought he had kids.
Karremans then also drinks slivovica with Mladic as though they are celebrating something. During the conversation Karremans tries to deny any responsibility for what is happening. Near the end he does ask to speak to some of his soldiers that Mladic is holding in captivity. The request is granted – possibly because Karremans is making himself so small – and the soldiers do say he did their best to encourage them.
We don’t know for sure if Mladic would have killed all Dutchbatters if Karremans had chosen to put up a stiffer resistance. I think it’s fair to say that Karremans thought he could save his own soldiers, but decided that at that point he could be of only little help to the population in Srebrenica. I believe the Dutchbatters when they say they didn’t know the Serbs were all set to kill 8,000 Bosnian males. They assumed they would be facing some pretty harsh questioning, but not genocide.
Once the enclave had been overrun the only option left to stop the killing – they had ZERO support from outside – would have been to threaten to martyr themselves. Something like: ‘Mladic, if you want to harm these people then you will first have to shoot myself and all my soldiers and risk bringing on the ire of the entire world.’ This MAY have stopped Mladic in his tracks.
Several factors were at play to rule out that option.
Karremans is no Leonidas of Sparta, or Rommel, or Patton, or Giap, or Nathan Bedford Forrest… This is not a person who can act on his own. He’s more akin to general Paulus at Stalingrad (though far less arrogant). Karremans keeps repeating it was up to the higher ups to do something. And the higher ups did indeed completely fail Dutchbat.
Another factor is that not all the Bosnians Dutchbat were de facto protecting were innocent. Karremans certainly didn’t think they were all innocent. He says Bosnian fighters organized raids into Serb held territory from inside the enclave. Perhaps Karremans didn’t feel like dying for people who also had some blood on their hands. I do think that most of the 8,000 Bosnians massacred there were innocent of such actions.
The Serbs weren’t the only once who had attacked Dutchbat. The Bosnians inside the enclave had thrown a grenade at them. To encourage them to stand and fight. They most likely did not intend to kill anyone, but one Dutch soldier did die. Many Dutchbatters saw the huge loss of blood the slain soldier had suffered. You can imagine that did this not increase the sympathy the Dutchbatters may have felt for the Bosnians.
Dutchbat then helped to evacuate the Bosnians. Basically helping to put people on busses taking them to their death. The Dutchbatters claim that their presence helped to save over 20,000 of them. Whereas ‘only’ 8,000 were killed.
This is the only reasoning in the docu that I really disagree with. The Serbs were in total control. If Mladic had wanted the women and children dead they would have been dead. Dutchbat or not. Mladic deciced not to kill those. Would he have killed those as well without Dutchbat there? Did he use the women and children as a sort of decoy? Leading them to safety gave him the opportunity to kidnap the men. The Dutchbatters were confused, because the women and children were indeed sent off to safety. They could at least have the illusion that everything was going to be fine.
Many Dutchbatters soon found out what was really happening, but then it was too late to stop the killings.
Particularly shameful is that Karremans then accepted a gift from Mladic. A stupid lamp… He is seen smiling on camera and he jovially asks if the gift is intended for his wife. He’s being chummy with a notorious mass murderer.
To his credit Karremans admits it wasn’t his finest moment.
Ultimate blame for the disaster lies with the top leaders of the UN and the Dutch politicians responsible for the mission.
The main reasoning behind equipping Dutchbat was: ‘above all, let’s not provoke the Serbs!’
No tanks, no artillery, no heavy weapons and only a promise of massive air support if push came to shove.
The same reasoning as when the allies gave up Czechoslovakia to Nazi-Germany on the eve of the Second World War.
No wonder the Serbs had no respect for the UN and Dutchbat.
The whole affair leaves the world with a cynical aftertaste because it seems that people over at the UN had already decided the enclaves were to be given up and not really defended.
A more forceful Dutchbat commander MIGHT have won the psychological battle against Mladic OR may have got all his soldiers and himself killed along with all the Bosnians. We will never know.
Dutchbat faced a horrendous task and I think we can all understand they didn’t feel like martyring themselves for a lost cause in a war that made very little sense to them.
If you want to watch the docu you can stream it here, but you will need to use a VPN connection if you don’t live in the Netherlands and you will need to know Dutch.