Dutch nationalism trumps those of the Balkans
by Guido Snel
In the autumn of 1994 I spent three weeks in the Ossendrecht barracks, attending an interpreters’ course for the Srebrenica mission. I was soon promoted to officer rank, which could have won me command responsibility. Given my inexperience and lack of inclination towards army life, I soon dropped out. Six months later I watched on television the fall of the enclave. Ever since then I have wondered how I myself would have behaved during those July days in the enclave. I should like to think that I would not have closed my eyes to the worst of scenarios, as Dutchbat did.
But then I showed no martial propensities during my stay in the barracks. After the very first day of training with a weapon that I was told to treat as my own, I decided never to load it. At that time I was studying what was then called Serbo-Croat and comparative literature, and did not pay much attention to the war, despite the fact that in a sense I was closer to it than many other Dutch people. It was only later that I recalled a television interview with the Spanish writer Jorge Semprun, which I saw when I was at my secondary school and which made me think. He argued that the 20th century proved that the 6th Commandment was wrong. In cases such as the Nazi extermination of the Jews, one was morally bound to take up arms and be ready to kill, in order to prevent a greater tragedy.
Today, as a person who translates books from the former Yugoslavia and speaks and teaches the language, I come into contact with people who lived through the war, and have to deal with their very personal stories, their voices. I have learned not to apply politics to these testimonies, in order for them to remain - as they should - in the domain of the individual. Hence perhaps my concern for the fate of these stories as they become public.
The people of Srebrenica believe that the Dutch treat them with disdain and that their voice is insufficiently heard. They are right: the Dutch story has subdued the Bosnian one. In the dialogue between Holland and the Srebrenica survivors, it is Holland that dictates the tone. We hold parliamentary investigations into our role and decide which aspects need to be discussed: for example, lost rolls of film, communication problems between the UN and Holland, and so on. But are we aware of the needs of the Srebrenica survivors? Do we not avoid hearing their voices, out of fear that we may be asked to admit to our guilt? There is no compromise solution: we tolerate the story about Srebrenica only if told in our own translation, generously allocating to the victims a secondary role. Our story repeatedly insists that in the given circumstances, such as Serb military superiority with respect to Duchbat, Holland could not have done more. And we invariably add: ‘Just like the rest of the international community.’
But why is this dialogue so difficult? Because of Dutch indifference? Intent? Differences of cultures and aspirations? Lack of empathy for others? Or the ‘insolence’ of the people of Srebrenica, who continue to insist on our responsibility ten years after the event? I hope I may be permitted to say that the Dutch are not alone in their understanding of Srebrenica. The lack of resolution on the part of the International Tribunal in arresting war criminals is a good example of this. Srebrenica in itself demands an urgent and uncompromising involvement of the international community. The survivors are made to postpone their mourning until the bodies of the victims have been found and buried. Undetected mass graves lie in the Serb zone. Only 2,000 out of 8,000 bodies have been found and identified. The Serbs are unwilling to cooperate, but what else could one expect?
The Dutch story about Srebrenica is impressionistic, the Bosnian realistic. We paint our role in rough and murky strokes, while the people of Srebrenica draw it in detail. Read, for example, Postcards from the Grave by Emir Suljagić, who interpreted for the UN observers in the enclave. He describes hunger, destitution and death, as well as permanent physical and mental humiliation. He supplies details which have reached the Dutch media: prostitution conducted at the Dutchbat perimeter, traffic in cigarettes, which brought profit to some Dutch soldiers (negligible perhaps by our standards, but capital in the wartime economy of a besieged town); graffiti such as the ‘No teeth...? A mustache...? Smel like shit...? - Bosnian girl!’ which the photographer Tarik Samarah snapped, and which will hang in Parliament. Impressionism avoids realism. We need an exhibition, an officially organised commemoration, in order to find the right place for such examples in our own story.
Stench and prejudice
Translators are pedantic people, sensitive to how the names of places, people executed, victims, perpetrators are pronounced.. This is not only because the court that employs them demands the greatest precision in identification, but also because proper pronunciation shows a basic respect for the reality of another part of the world. NRC Handelsblat was the first newspaper to print the name ‘Milošević’ with its diacritics, in order to indicate its proper pronunciation. By contrast the NIOD report, compiled at the behest of the Dutch government and dealing with the causes, realities and consequences of Srebrenica, abounds with incorrectly spelt personal names and other errors. How important this is depends on ‘the perspective’. It is likely to be crucial for the Srebrenica survivors. Your husband or father has disappeared. His name is on the Red Cross list, that is all. In this situation every detail is important. Is it your father or someone else? Is a person from your village or from another?
We, in contrast, stress that our historians have provided an analysis of the situation in Srebrenica that involves several thousand pages of text. We struggle to pronounce those names and cannot be bothered with some little hooks. Dutch primness reacts against the public manifestation of grief typical of Bosnian village culture. Deep down we consider loud wailing and pain-filled open lamentation bad manners. You are meant to keep your anguish private, and if it is to be publicly manifested you would much rather stand in silent rows. In our imagination we assume the same attitude that Dutchbat displayed in the enclave.
Why was Dutchbat unable to identify with the people of Srebrenica? What prevented the Blue Helmets from empathising with the besieged? Physical revulsion? Bad teeth? Suljagić writes that during the summer months he fled from the stench of those aimlessly walking the streets. It never occurred to Dutchbat that the besieged people of Srebrenica too might have hated their worn out, smelly bodies. Dutchbat stories refer only to their stench, as if the people involved did not possess any sense of smell, while Karremans shows great understanding for his unit’s demoralisation due to lack of soap and water. His men ‘could not wash properly for months’. But what about the Bosnian women? ‘No teeth...? A mustache...? Smel like shit...?’ It is a matter of perspective.
And there is also the puzzling metamorphosis whereby ‘people’ become ‘Muslims’. In 1995 over 7,000 Muslims were killed in Srebrenica, says a random report on Dutch Radio 1. Muslims? Many of the victims are not offended to be called ‘Muslim’, of course, but that is not the point. What is involved here is a superficiality that erases individual lives. As if these were not fathers, sons, brothers, as if they had no profession, their own view of the war or their future, their own memories, their own ancestors. It is as if they never planned to marry, divorce, start a new profession once the war is over, forget life in the enclave as fast as possible. As if they were not angels and thugs, faithful and unfaithful spouses, but only Muslims whose sole fate was to be sacrificed in an ethnic conflict.
Susan Sontag wondered why the Bosnian war did not lead to a mobilisation of the European left intelligentsia of the kind that happened at the time of the Spanish civil war. She refers to a wrong interpretation of the war as a religious conflict being a factor: the fact that we view most of the victims as ‘Muslims’. It is difficult to say whether she is right, but in my view descriptions such as ‘ethnic conflict’ or ‘religious war’ (or even ‘tribal war’) serve in the last instance to justify Serb nationalism.
Semezdin Mehmedinović wonders in his Sarajevo Blues, after the massacre in Ferhadija, why media attention did not bring sympathy. ‘An understanding of the Vietnam tragedy started only with the arrival of the first body bags.’ Maybe this is how we should view Dutchbat. At the start of the fall of Srebrenica, some panicking Bosnian soldiers killed a Dutch soldier, Raviv van Rensen. ‘The enemy is the one who kills our people.’ - in this case a bullet from a Bosnian gun. At the borderline of its international solidarity, Holland stumbled .
The NIOD report was a great opportunity for the Bosnian-Dutch dialogue to continue. It was, of course, a political manoeuvre on the part of the Dutch prime minister, Wim Kok, to shift the Srebrenica case from the domain of The Hague to the canals of Amsterdam. The task of the NIOD - ‘to establish the truth’ - included countless interviews with the victims: this was a chance for their stories to appear in public in an ‘objective’ context. NIOD’s prestige was intended to soothe the anger of the victims against Holland.
A political truth
In presenting the report, NIOD chairman Hans Blom developed his master narrative. According to NIOD, Dutchbat found itself between the dynamic of the Bosnian war and the slowness of the UN, and remained squeezed between the warring factions. Dutchbat, in short, was not to blame. There was much talk of errors committed by Dutch politicians and the Dutch army, of inadequate general training. This led the representative of the victims demonstratively to leave the hall.
There was talk of ‘playing to the gallery’. Dutch arrogance towards Bosnia grew. Was this because we found the victims ungrateful, unable to grasp the importance of our quasi-historical research? Dutchbat told the TV cameras that it felt vindicated, which only confirmed the impression that the people of Srebrenica were right. NIOD confirmed that neutrality exists even in cases of genocide, which the people of Srebrenica found incomprehensible - hence the report’s conclusion ‘politically motivated’.
Faced with criticism from experts, the authors of the NIOD report routinely answered by defending their scientific method. They had collected sources and interpreted them in a historical account based on the task of ‘establishing the truth’. They resolutely rejected any notion that they were (consciously or not) involved in politics. The great bulk of their report is in itself a barrier to a good debate. Are all these sources really relevant to the issue of Dutch involvement in the events surrounding Srebrenica? Who has time now to study in detail the voluminous report? On the other hand, even a superficial look reveals errors and idiocies. For example, according to NIOD, at its time of its formation Yugoslavia had, in addition to Hungary and Romania, also Germany and Turkey as its neighbours! Simple error or symptom of a fundamental indifference? Indifference too has political implications.
‘The West and the rest, beauty and the East’
The writer Miroslav Krleža, who organised a great exhibition about the South Slavs in Paris in the 1950s, raged at the French ‘picturesque images for the tourist market of people in headscarves, Turkish drums, turbans, and blood feuds...What the West sees in us is a decorative optical trick that is far from the truth.’ Danilo Kiš would later rediscover this anger when confronted with the disparaging ignorance of Western Europe. NIOD calls this ‘a matter of perspective’, of which it is indeed itself an example. I received my share of it during my brief military career. There was discussion at one session about relations with the local population. Sexual and other close contacts with the local people were decreed undesirable. Two soldiers who dated local girls had been pursued by angry fathers with knives. ‘It is not that you will easily succumb, however’, said the young lieutenant, ‘since the girls there are pretty hairy’. Loud reaction in the hall. There followed a lesson on venereal diseases, displayed on a large screen in their terminal stages.
Another suspect business: no summary of the NIOD report has yet been published in the Bosnian language. The English translation, by contrast, was promptly produced. The Bosnian translation, which the NIOD has itself prepared in the meantime, is ready for publication. Why has it taken such a long time, and why is it not available in Sarajevo bookshops today? Is the NIOD concerned with a possible commotion on the occasion of the tenth anniversary? It is my guess that the authors never gave a thought to the Srebrenica survivors or the Bosnian public. Their search for truth serves only internal Dutch aims, a Dutch truth. NIOD helped Kok with a parliamentary investigation. After its long-waited publication, the prime minister resigned. It was an excellent cosmetic move. Everyone was satisfied. Dutchbat was given a new opportunity to celebrate, this time discreetly, without cameras, without even Prince Willem-Alexander to dance with them.
Nationalism in the Western mode
His name recalls Srebrenica. Misunderstandings, impotence, indifference and vanity form the story of Hasan Nuhanović, the best-known interpreter in the enclave. In July 1995 he tried unsuccessfully to put his brother’s name on the list of Dutchbat personnel in order to give him a chance to leave. Major Franken, Karremans’s right hand, prevented this, so as ‘not to endanger the security of others in the event of a Serb take-over’. Nuhanović’s brother did not survive the fall of Srebrenica.
Nuhanović is not like other Srebrenica survivors, perhaps because he can speak for himself. His English is good, he does not need others to tell his story. Nuhanović has taken the Dutch state to court. Dutch cameras shake when Hasan appears on the screen. He seeks out the media, while his stories contain sub-plots and twists that for the Dutch have been uncomfortable themes ever since World War II. His family fell victim to Dutch loyalty towards the occupying power, and to an excessive confidence in bureaucratic procedure. His family was a victim of lists, lists with people’s names on. Those lists!
Why was Franken unwilling to take a risk? Nuhanović was highly nervous: was he simply overwrought, or was his excited state caused by a realistic estimate of what was about to happen? According to Franken, who kept to what the Serbs permitted him to do, Nuhanović was over-excited. Did Franken try to imagine what he was feeling? The major became a model of Dutch lack of compassion and imagination. Dutchbat was unable to foresee the outcome of the situation, and did not take seriously the fears of the population. The Dutch, in fact, felt as endangered as the local population, which in the given circumstances, to put it mildly, made no sense. Rules, instructions and poor communication would later supply the desired justification.
It is possible that in Nuhanović’s case the fact that he was not of the same nationality as his employers made a difference. During my training I was told that Dutch interpreters were in high demand, because the local interpreters were unreliable. No one asked me about my own background or motivation. My passport and my Dutch name guaranteed that I was a born professional, while the Bosnians were first Bosnians and then interpreters.
Nationalists believe that their image of the world is the only right one. That there may exist other perceptions of the world, other ways of experiencing it, is something that nationalists learn only when they come face to face with others. This, however, is something that by definition they do not do. Our Dutch nationalism is subtle, it is not considered political, it does not dig up the bones of ancestors in order to carry them in processions. But it exists, albeit hiding behind bureaucratic rules. It uses ‘the objective language of historical analysis’ rather than obscure rhetoric. The Srebrenica survivors have spent a decade wrestling with their grief, many not knowing what happened to their relatives. We are responsible for the fact that while doing so they have to fight their Blue Helmets, the Dutch. You may call it irony or tragedy, but the behaviour of The Netherlands in regard to Srebrenica is a case of autism that surpasses Balkan nationalism.
This article has been translated from Dani (Sarajevo), 8 July 2005
‘My case is one of the most terrible in terms of the international community’s role. The Dutch major Robert Franken told me to explain to my father that he can remain on the base. My father asks what will happen to his younger son and my mother. Franken tells me: "Hasan, tell your father that if he does not want to stay, he can go too. And there’ll be no further discussion." My father had three seconds to decide whether he wants to stay on the base, to go on living with his elder son, or go and die with his younger son and his wife. He chose to leave. A month ago, at the court in The Hague, Major Franken coolly states that he gave him a choice. What sort of choice?’
Hasan Nuhanović, quoted in Globus (Zagreb), 15 July 2005