Mladic arrest fails to lift burden from Dutch

AP News
Posted: May 28, 2011 6:13 AM
Mladic arrest fails to lift burden from Dutch

Witnesses to slaughter, Dutch troops assigned to protect the Muslims of Srebrenica 16 years ago say they find satisfaction but little relief from the trauma and shame after the arrest of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general who overran their unit.

Nowhere outside the Balkans did the 1995 Srebrenica massacre have such a profound impact as it did in the Netherlands, which sent ill-prepared troops in blue U.N. helmets into the Bosnian morass.

More than a quarter of the nearly 400 soldiers serving with the Dutch U.N. battalion required medical or psychological treatment after they returned home.

The massacre also became a major political scandal that brought down one government and was the subject of exhaustive historical and political inquiries. And it resulted in a shift in military doctrine for later Dutch participation in international military operations.

Mladic's forces overwhelmed the understaffed and ill-equipped Dutch unit in the eastern Bosnian enclave, which had been declared a U.N. safe zone. Under his command, Bosnian Serb troops separated women from the men and boys, then went on a shooting rampage that lasted more than a week. About 8,000 Muslims died.

Mladic deceived both the Muslims and their Dutch protectors who were evacuated. Some of the troops perceived the trap they had fallen into, but most did not.

Derk Zwaan, who was 18 when he was stationed in Srebrenica, said he received a text message Thursday from his sister about Mladic's arrest while driving his car, and had to pull over to the side.

"I cried, the tears rolled down my cheeks. People were looking at me, wondering what was going on with me. Yeah, 16 years later it is still deep, very deep," he told the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper.

He recalled his battalion's participation.

"I told the men that they (the Muslims) could go ahead and get in the bus, that they would drive toward Tuzla, that there was nothing wrong. Yes, afterward, maybe a bit naive. But everybody was saying it."

The humiliated Dutch troops returned home to scathing charges of cowardice and incompetence, although subsequent inquiries exonerated the ground forces. The investigations blamed the debacle on the Dutch government and the United Nations for sending the battalion into the mission, failing to give the peacekeepers enough weapons for self-defense and refusing to answer the commanders' call for air support.

Those conclusions of the National War Documentation Institute prompted the Dutch government to resign in 2002.

Wim Kok, the prime minister who took responsibility and quit politics after the report, said Mladic's arrest "does not undo the terrible suffering that he caused to so many defenseless and innocent people, but it does make it possible that he will now have to take responsibility at the Yugoslav tribunal. The law must take its course."

Mike Hezemans, who also served with the battalion, told the national broadcaster NOS that seeing Mladic arrested and convicted would be therapeutic. "For me it's a piece of history that can be closed," he said. Srebrenica "left me with post-traumatic stress syndrome and five years of intensive therapy."

"I'm glad that he's in jail," Srebrenica veteran Arjan Elskamp said. "Very nice. But I would have very much liked to have had a little more support when we were being destroyed, spiritually and physically. We can close another chapter again, but we as forgotten Dutchbatters (soldiers from the Dutch battalion) can never close" the book.

The helplessness of the Dutch troops prompted a revision of operational procedures in subsequent missions, said Ko Colijn, director of the Clingendael Institute of International Relations.

The Dutch military would no longer accept parallel lines of command, as it did with the United Nations in Bosnia. Soldiers would always be well-armed, and have access to Dutch air support, he said.

A four-year mission to southern Afghanistan went a long way to rehabilitate the Dutch military, Colijn told The Associated Press. "It was a robust combat mission" that restored the army's confidence. "It was the real thing," he said. "Dutch public opinion also grew more resilient," accepting the loss of 24 soldiers.

But the Netherlands also has become more cautious about wading into military affairs. After Srebrenica, an informal understanding was reached that troops would not be sent abroad without at least the tacit consent of parliament.

Last year, the government collapsed when it failed to muster a majority for renewing the military's combat role in Afghanistan. Instead, it agreed to send a small unit to Kunduz province to train Afghan forces, on the understanding that "not a shot would be fired." Dutch fighter jets would nonetheless be on call in Kunduz.

And while the Dutch joined the NATO force supporting rebels in Libya against the regime of Moammar Gadhafi, the government ruled out bombing missions for its air force.

The Netherlands still faces legal challenges for its role in Srebrenica. Lawyers for about 6,000 women who lost relatives in the massacre, known as the Mothers of Srebrenica, are suing the government. They are seeking compensation, but it is unclear how much.

"I think the United Nations and also the Dutch state should start to give their regrets to the people of Srebrenica," said Axel Hagedorn, a lawyer for the group.

"But they never did. They only hide after legal proceedings, and they take anything just to avoid legal proceedings. But there is a moral responsibility," Hagedorn told AP Television News.