AS a UN war crimes court gears up to close its doors next month after two decades of putting on trial the worst offenders of the 1990s Balkans wars, a long shadow remains in The Netherlands.
In its final trial judgement, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia on Wednesday sentenced former Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic to life behind bars for his role in Bosnia’s 1992-95 war.
The court in particular found Mladic responsible for the genocide at the eastern Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica, where his battle-hardened troops overran lightly armed Dutch UN peacekeepers, supposed to protect the “safe haven” area.
Mladic’s soldiers herded off almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys before murdering them and dumping their bodies in mass graves.
Even today, the Srebrenica massacre remains an emotive issue in The Netherlands where the tribunal is based, amid soul-searching about whether the men of the Dutch battalion, “Dutchbat” for short, could and should have done more to protect Srebrenica’s Muslim population.
For those Dutch blue helmets involved, the memory is still painful.
Ronald Wentink, who was a young corporal at the time, said he will forever be haunted by the look in a young girl’s eyes as he carried her to a first-aid station after she was wounded by mortar fire.
“The anxiety in her eyes is a flashback for me. This moment of anguish and impotence sums up the fall of the enclave,” he said.
“I was a 21-year-old boy who didn’t know how to speak well,” another veteran, Edo van den Berg, told AFP in an interview in 2015 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre.
“I nevertheless tried to bring some calm by saying ‘we are here, everything will be fine’,” he said.
“It did not go well… it’s something I should have never promised.”
Bosnian Serb forces overran the enclave on July 11, 1995 with video footage at the time showing an ebullient Mladic strutting up Srebrenica’s main road.
Shortly afterwards Muslim men and boys were separated from women and children, and taken to execution sites where they were shot and buried in mass graves in Europe’s worst atrocity since World War II.
Today, more than two decades later, Dutch and European courts still hear cases involving Srebrenica.
Earlier this year a Dutch court ruled the state was partly to blame for the deaths of 350 men and boys who were allowed to leave the UN compound at Potocari.
Judges ordered the country to pay compensation to the victims’ families.
“Nobody could have thought that a genocide was possible in Europe in 1995,” said lawyer Bert-Jan Houtzagers as he appealed the finding on behalf of the Dutch state.
Last year, the European Court for Human Rights dismissed a claim that the Dutch commanders be prosecuted for failing to prevent the deaths of three of the men.
Numerous reports since the massacre have said the Dutch assumed the mission purely on moral grounds without first examining its feasibility.
The reports ultimately led to the resignation of the Dutch government in 2002.
Former Dutchbat soldiers are still confronted “on the football fields, in cafes and by their relatives” by the question: “why did you not do anything?”, said their lawyer Michael Ruperti.
Criticized for “putting their security above all,” at least 220 veterans are now seeking financial compensation and more importantly “a recognition by the courts and society for the injustice”, the De Telegraaf daily reported Thursday.
The veterans also want an apology from the Dutch government for sending them on a “mission impossible.”
Former Dutch defense minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert last year acknowledged the battalion had been sent to Bosnia “without adequate preparation… without the proper means, with little information, to protect a peace that no longer existed.”
“It was an unrealistic mission, in impossible circumstances,” she said.
For the veterans, Wednesday’s verdict in the Mladic case offers some consolation.
“It removes some of the negative feelings and brings us a little closer to recognition,” Olaf Nijeboer, spokesman for the group told De Telegraaf. — AFP