Days of Shame
by Henry Porter
When the Dutch officer in charge of protecting the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica
requested an airstrike in July 1995, he was refused as he had used the wrong form.
It was one of a series of failures and blunders that led to Europe's worst massacre
since the second world war. And now the UN has accepted the blame.
The most striking image yet to emerge from the fall of Srebrenica comes in
a BBC film to be screened next week. It shows the indicted Serb war criminal
General Radko Mladic presenting the commander of the UN peacekeeping force at
Srebrenica, Colonel Ton Karremans of Holland, with gifts wrapped in Christmas
paper. Mladic was evidently in an expansive mood and he had good reason to be:
at that very moment his troops were preparing to massacre the 4,000 men and
boys who the UN had handed over to him.
There cannot be more devastating evidence of UN complicity in the disaster
of Srebrenica, but now finally after three and half years the UN has completed
its inquiry into the fall of Srebrenica and produced a damning indictment of
UN policy, of its decision-making processes and behaviour in the field. The
155-page report, prepared by UN official David Harland, concludes: `Through
error, misjudgment and an inability to recognise the scope of the evil confronting
us, we failed to do our part to save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb
campaign of mass murder.'
It was widely predicted that the UN would seek to tone down Harland's findings.
But the document appears as it was written and nobody escapes his conclusions,
not even Kofi Annan, who was in charge of the peacekeeping operation in Bosnia
in 1995. But the harshest criticism is reserved for the secretary general of
the time, Boutros Ghali, his senior commander General Bertrand Janvier, and
his top envoy in Bosnia, Yasushi Akashi þ each is held responsible for
the failure to stop the Serbs from surrounding the UN safe haven in July 1995
and butchering an estimated 7,400 people.
In fact, the Harland report tells us little that was not suspected or known
by the people who have investigated the events of 7-16 July 1995, and certainly
it does not provide much in the way of consolation for relatives of those killed.
But it does establish an official record of the failures of nerve and obligation
that afflicted the UN. Harland could not be more categoric and there is no doubt
this report will cause an intense period of self-examination about the way the
UN handles itself in situations such as Bosnia.
Srebrenica has become one of the key events in the UN's history, although you
will find few people who know what happened in the city, and why thousands of
innocent civilians were handed over to the Serb killing machine by Dutch peacekeepers.
For even if they have heard of the name Srebrenica, most people consider the
events which took place there indistinguishable from the other disasters of
the Bosnian war. But Srebrenica is special, not just because of the calamitous
role played by the UN, but because it was there that the world witnessed the
most extreme manifestation of Serb aggression. For, even as Mladic was assuring
the hopelessly naive Dutch peacekeepers that everyone would be spared, his officers
were laying plans for the mass extermination of Muslim men and boys. This was
not only the largest mass killing since the second world war, it was also the
This is what happened. In the early days of July, the Serb forces led by Ratko
Mladic were seeking to consolidate north-eastern Bosnia into a Serb stronghold.
The little town of Srebrenica (Silver City) –which had been declared a
UN safe area three years before by General Morillon –stood in his way.
More than 30,000 Muslims had sought refuge there, and Mladic was determined
that they should be expelled before any settlement incorporated their right
to live in the town and surrounding villages, like Ãepa. On 8 July, a
heavily armed force consisting of regular Serb soldiers and paramilitaries descended.
On 9 and 10 July, the town was bombarded. The Dutch did not fight back, partly
because 30 of their number were held prisoner by the Serbs, but mostly because
they lacked equipment, support and –to put it generously –military
The Muslims knew what would happen and many escaped into the mountains in an
attempt to walk the 40 miles to the nearest Muslim-held territory. They were
ruthlessly pursued by Serbs, shelled and shot at. As many as 3,000 died in the
countryside to the north and west of Srebrenica. Their bodies still litter the
hills. Those who were rounded up were executed and buried in mass graves.
On July 10, Colonel Karremans, commander of the Dutch forces, requested air
attacks from the senior soldier in Bosnia, the French general, Bertrand Janvier.
The Frenchman showed a startling indifference to the plight of Srebrenica. Several
times he refused permission. Then, as the situation reached crisis point on
11 July, he declined to allow NATO planes to bomb the Serbs because Karremans
had used the wrong request form. He was of course playing for time, doing anything
rather taking direct action, which he believed would inflame the Serbs. How
wrong he was. If sufficient numbers of aircraft had attacked on 11 July, there
is little doubt the Serbs would have been unable to carry out the massacres
five days later.
The tragedy that unfolded is recorded in a remarkable, timely and harrowing
BBC documentary, A Cry From The Grave, to be shown on 27 November. Quite apart
from the experience of watching the terror on the faces of men about to die,
one sees how the tentative and feeble leadership of the Dutch allowed Mladic
a free hand in Srebrenica.
The Dutch bear a large responsiblity, but one cannot escape the impression
that they are let off lightly in the report. After all, it was they who forced
Muslim families from the UN compound, then handed over their blue peacekeeping
helmets to the Serbs, who later used them to trick the Muslims who had fled
to the hills into giving themselves up. The thing which mattered most to Dutch
commanders, much more than their mandate to preserve the peace, was the safety
of these soldiers, and for that ignoble prioritizing they have justifiably faced
much criticism in the international community.
Yet it is also true that the Dutch felt deserted by the UN. No one seemed especially
concerned at the UN headquarters in New York. The French, Americans and British
did not understand what was going on, or did not care. Harland's report seems
to opt for the latter, because it is absolutely clear from US intelligence material
–radio intercepts and pictures from spy planes –that the Americans
knew what was going on. As one mass grave was being bulldozed, US intelligence
satellites and spy planes recorded the resulting disturbance in the soil.
What happened after the Dutch surrendered control of Srebrenica is almost too
chilling to recount. The men and women were separated; the women herded on to
buses and dispatched west to Muslim territory. About 4,300 men were held back
so Serbs could weed out `Muslim war criminals'. There were of course none –just
ordinary men and boys.
Soon their possessions were burned and they were taken on civilian buses to
the killing grounds –farms, football fields, school playgrounds. Some
were killed by grenades lobbed into their midst, then finished off by machine
guns; but others had to wait their turn on buses and trucks, watching their
friends and relations being shot. The Serbs left very few witnesses. Indeed
it is said that even the bus drivers who were called upon to transport the Muslims
were made to kill one man each so that they could not testify without confessing
their own guilt. By 17 July, the vast majority of the men handed over by the
Dutch were dead.
The extent of the slaughter might not have emerged if it had not been for the
bravery of US reporter David Rohde, who in 1995 was working for the Christian
Science Monitor. Although the secretary general's top envoy Yasushi Akashi of
Japan had insisted no large-scale atrocity had taken place at Srebrenica, Rohde
decided to investigate and, at great personal risk, travelled to north-east
Bosnia with camera and notebook. Soon he found the evidence he was looking for
–ammunition cases, documents and decomposed body parts. Later that year
he returned and found another site, but this time was arrested by the Serbs.
His stories proved what the UN had been so desperate to conceal.
The terror and shame of Srebrenica is represented for me by the story of a
man I met one sunny afternoon at a conference in Sarajevo. Hasan Nuhanovic is
one of the most coherent witnesses of the tragedy, and for his testimony alone
it is worth watching the A Cry From The Grave.
Nuhanovic was interpreter for the Dutch forces and so, during the Serbs' final
assault on Srebrenica, arranged for his family to be given shelter in the UN
compound at Potocari. He believed they would be safe from the Serbs. Several
times he begged UN officials to include his 21-year-old brother in the official
lists of UN employees but they refused. Later, when the Serbs demanded that
all Muslims should leave the compound, three armed Dutch soldiers insisted that
his mother, brother and father should all go. He has never seen them again and
as a result bears an appalling burden of guilt.
`Nothing can give me consolation', he says in the film. `I have to live with
this all my life. I will hate myself for one or another reason. I tell myself
that I should have taken the soldier's pistol. But in these moments you have
no brain. You are obedient. No one complained. They just walked [to the gates]
knowing that they were going to die.'
Nothing captures the fecklessness of the Dutch peacekeepers like the story
of the Nuhanovic family. Hasan, who is today employed by the UN in the Muslim
town of Tuzla, has no idea what happened to his family and no notion where their
bodies lie. It is a peculiar distress shared by all the bereaved of Srebrenica.
They also bitterly resent the feeling that the UN and the international community
would rather forget Srebrenica. They point to the handful of men that have been
indicted for war crimes by the International Tribunal at the Hague, and the
even smaller number that have been arrested in connection with the massacres.
Hasan has sworn not to let a day pass without him telling the story of how
his family were taken from him by the Dutch and the Serbs. Intellectually, he
understands that he was not responsible for their deaths, but emotionally he
cannot stop blaming himself. In a way, his life is frozen at the moment he saw
them leaving the gates of the UN compound at Potocari. It is almost impossible
for him to get on with his life. He needs to find some resolution –closure,
if you like –which is why he is exploring the possibilitiy of bringing
a case against the Dutch peacekeepers who clearly had a moral obligation to
protect his family. Legally, it is an enormous challenge, but at least he has
on his side the UN report admitting a very large degree of responsibility for
the debacle of 1995.
This article appeared in The Guardian (London), 17 November 1999.