Twenty years have passed since the events that took place in the small eastern town of Srebrenica; one of the UN’s designated ‘Safe Areas’ where thousands of Muslim refugees had sought solace at the height of the Bosnian War. Despite being under the protection of western peacekeeping forces, the town was overrun in July 1995 and over the days that followed over 8000 men, women and children were massacred by Bosnian Serb forces under General Ratko Mladic. As world leaders have come together in Bosnia to join its commemoration, the search for the remains of victims in the killing fields of the Drina Valley continues. So too does the complicated process of uncovering where responsibility for the mistakes that have been made ultimately lies. Whilst military leaders Mladic and Karadzic are awaiting trial in the International Criminal Tribunal of the Former Yugoslavia (ICTFY) in the Hague, the focus also shifts once again to the role of the Dutch and the wider international community. This short article seeks to briefly look back at the events of 1995 in the light of recent new research.
In 1995, Srebrenica housed approximately 30,000 to 40,000 Muslim refugees, protected by lightly armed Bosnian forces and Dutchbat III peacekeepers. The Dutch Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD), concluded in 2002 in its 3400-page report that the Dutch political decision to send support troops to the village was largely based on a moral and humanitarian desire to play a role in world affairs. Accordingly, the troops lacked a clear mandate, were insufficiently prepared and armed, and were not provided with an established guarantee that air support would be provided if necessary. Tom Schuurman, a Dutchbat veteran, recalled in 2002, that most of these factors were highly noticeable on the ground as for example 90% of their heavy weaponry, the anti-tank rockets, was destroyed by water damage, and the other 10 per cent could not be used because the actual detonation material was left outside the enclave (Dutch only).
Although Srebrenica was an established safe area, it was suggested in the NIOD report that the Dutch peacekeepers were unable to hold it in the case of an attack and would be heavily reliant on air support. That support however never came when it was needed the most, something that former Bosnian foreign minister Muhamed Sacirbey claims was due to a secret agreement made by the French, UK and US a month before the assault to halt all airstrikes. Although it is difficult to establish the veracity of this account, the vulnerability of Srebrenica was acknowledged from an early stage.
CIA documents released in 2013 give a clear view that Washington was at least aware of the possibility that the Bosnian Serbs were seeking to assault the remaining Muslim enclaves in the east of Bosnia. Srebrenica was deemed the most vulnerable due to its geographical location in the Drina valley, making it very difficult to defend from potential invasion, as any assaulting force would have access to the higher ground above the town. Although Srebrenica was demilitarised and effectively proclaimed a ‘safe area’ in April 1993, the surrounding areas were not and slowly but steadily Serb troops surrounded the compound and started to cut off its inhabitants vital supplies. Food and fuel became continuously sparse and the guard towers surrounding the compound where slowly and steadily taken over by the Serbs. Thirty UN peacekeepers were taken hostage and an ultimatum was warranted to the Dutch to leave the area. The enclave ultimately fell on July 11 1995 and photos of the Dutch military leadership having drinks with Mladic, whilst the troops were packing up to leave went across the world, leaving a notion that it was ultimately the cowardice of the Dutch that caused the fall of Srebrenica.
Although it is very unlikely that the full truth will ever be established, recent reporting increasingly suggest the shocking extent to which Srebrenica was a strategic and political fiasco. Although factual responsibility lies with those at trial in the Hague, grave mistakes have been made by the Dutch political leadership, but perhaps even more decisively, the UN and NATO. Amidst the blame game however, it needs to be acknowledged that it was the local Muslim population that paid the ultimate price and it is the victims, both those that died and those that were left behind, that deserve commemoration and justice. As much as can be said about who bears responsibility, it was and is above all else a human tragedy from which valuable lessons should be learned.
Annabelle de Heus is a PhD student in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham focusing on the politics and history of Northern Ireland.