It was an atrocity that shocked Europe and left an indelible mark of shame on the Dutch Government and its military. More than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred at Srebrenica during the Bosnian War. It happened because the Dutch peacekeeping force, sent there to protect the besieged Muslims, stood aside to allow the Bosnian Serb forces under General Ratko Mladic to enter the town and systematically put to death its entire male population.
Two years earlier, in 1993, the UN had declared the area of Srebrenica a ‘safe enclave’ under UN protection. The Dutch forces were assigned to the area to ensure the promise was honoured. But instead, following a prolonged siege during which the starving population was deprived of food and medicine, Mladic’s forces overran the enclave, herding men and boys into sheds, factories and football grounds, where they were brutally put to death. The massacre was later described by Kofi Annan, UN secretary general, as the worst mass killing on European soil since World War II.
Subsequent eye-witness accounts cast a damning stain on the Dutch protectors and their officers. Not only did they fail to protect the besieged, but they were even seen to evict terrified civilians pleading for shelter in their headquarters. The savage brutality inflicted by the Bosnian Serbs was carried out in full view of the Dutch protectors – a crying child having its throat cut, a young boy beheaded for refusing to engage in forced sex with his older sister, girls and young women openly raped while the Dutch looked the other way.
An official report in 2002 led to the fall of the Dutch Government and the resignation of the prime minister. The Netherlands accepted it had ‘a debt of honour’ to the people of Srebrenica, and has paid €5 million a year since then for the reconstruction of the town, the identification of the 8,000 remains, and to promote reconciliation. The infamous Mladic, ‘the Butcher of Bosnia’, has been convicted and jailed for life on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
And yet, bizarrely, the Dutch Government saw fit to award insignias to the soldiers who served in Srebrenica because ‘they deserved recognition for their behaviour in difficult circumstances’, citing their limited mandate and the ill-equipped nature of the mission. It was a gesture that provoked massive condemnation and protest rallies from The Hague to Sarajevo.
But the story does not end there. Two years ago, an angry former Dutch defence minister revealed that, on that fateful day, the outnumbered Dutch had called for promised backup by way of NATO air strikes. They were told that 40 were on their way, but only four arrived, with negligible effect.
And then a whole saga of deceit and duplicity began to unravel. It was revealed that Britain, France and the US had secretly agreed, six weeks earlier, not to use air strikes, without telling the Dutch, in return for the safety of British and French hostages in the hands of the Serbs.
Mladic, however, was aware of the deal, and thus knew that he would face no real opposition on his mission of mass murder in Srebrenica.
And so, the truth slowly comes out. There was more to the Srebrenica tragedy than the shameful cowardice of the Dutch. The three major powers of Britain, France and the US had colluded in sacrificing the Muslim population in order to appease the bloodthirsty Butcher of Bosnia.
History repeats itself; treachery and betrayal will always be casual weapons in the world of geo-politics.