Old wounds reopened

Observations on Srebrenica

Although mass graves from the 1995 Srebrenica massacre are still being discovered in eastern Bosnia, the UN troops who failed to protect the town are to receive military honours from their government.

On 4 December, the 850 Dutch soldiers who made up the peacekeeping battalion sent to guard the UN-designated "safe area" will be honoured with a special insignia that "recognises they had to work under extremely difficult circumstances and did so honourably", according to Henk Kamp, the Dutch defence minister.

At the same time, the Dutch Veterans Institute is arranging for a group of veterans to visit Srebrenica next year.

In July 1995, just under 400 of these soldiers were supposed to be guarding Srebrenica when Bosnian Serb forces entered the town and deported its 20,000-strong Muslim population, killing around 8,000 men and boys. The atrocity has been described as the worst to occur on European soil since the Second World War.

The complicity of Dutch soldiers in the massacre has been the subject of fierce debate, since their role as "impartial" peace-keeping troops did not allow them to open fire on the Serb forces unless they were attacked. The Dutch were also outnumbered and would have been powerless against the Serbs without further support.

However, Dutch UN commander Thomas Karremans was photographed drinking a toast with Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general, around the same time, and survivors allege that Dutch troops knew the murders were taking place. Relatives of the victims are now suing the UN and Dutch government over the soldiers' failure to protect Muslim civilians.

The new developments have been greeted with anger from survivors. Hajra Catic, president of the Srebrenica Women's Association, a leading survivors' group, expressed outrage at news of the military honour. She feared that among those honoured would be men "who handed over the Srebrenica people to Chetniks [Serb paramilitaries]".

But rank-and-file Dutch soldiers have also been victims. Initially castigated by the Dutch media, they were partially exonerated by an official report in 2002 which blamed senior military officials and Dutch politicians, leading to the resignation of the entire Dutch cabinet.

Many soldiers have struggled to come to terms with their role in the atrocity, and the Dutch defence ministry says they experience more than twice the usual rate of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Dutch Veterans Institute hopes that the visit to Srebrenica will promote reconciliation between soldiers and survivors.

Not everyone thinks it possible. Zumra Sehomerovic of Women from Srebrenica, another survivors' group, says that Dutch soldiers need to face up to the fact that they were complicit in the massacre. "As victims, we feel that the Dutch soldiers are participants and perpetrators in crime, together with Bosnian Serb soldiers and the Yugoslav People's Army," she said.

Nearly 12 years on, only 2,528 of the estimated 7,789 bodies have been buried. "Mass graves are still not exhumed and most mortal remains are unidentified," says Hajra Catic.

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