No one should get a medal for failing to do their duty
by Janine Di Giovanni
When I think of the 500 Dutch soldiers awarded medals this week to commemorate a massacre they failed to avert, I think of the families of six dead men I interviewed last summer on the tenth anniversary of the fall of Srebrenica. The torture and murder of these Muslim men by Bosnian Serb paramilitaries was captured on video. The tape was hidden for a decade, then unexpectedly aired on Bosnian television.
Watching it, unforewarned, was a mother who last saw her 17-year-old boy when he was ripped from her arms by a Serb soldier and forced to march into the woods, never to return. The mother remembers a Dutch soldier standing by, looking on. I also met a daughter who was 12 when she last saw her father, marching into the woods as sirens signalled that Srebrenica was falling. The next time she saw him was on the tape, begging for water before being shot in the head.
I know that the Dutch soldiers - UN peacekeepers stationed to protect Srebrenica as a safe haven - did not have the weapons or men to hold off a Serb onslaught. I know they were foot-soldiers obeying orders. I know they must carry guilt about the massacre and that the ultimate blame lies higher, with the French general who refused the air strikes that might have saved the men. But for the Dutch defence minister, Henk Kamp, to commend these troops is more than an insult to the memory of the dead, some of whose bones will never be found. It is a sign that justice will never be handed down for an act that the international war-crimes tribunal has classed as genocide.
Srebrenica today is a Serb town, a victory for ethnic cleansing. When I think of those undeserved medals, I think of a lone voice crying out in the winter of 1993. That was a terrible time for Srebrenica. Hundreds of shells fell every day. The enclave was encircled. Little aid got in; civilians were shot by snipers in the doorways of their homes. There was no anaesthetic for amputation; there was nowhere to bury the dead. A group of us in a nearby city made contact with a radio operator. At first he made jokes about his desperation for a cigarette; then he began to beg for help. He broke down after a few minutes. ‘In the name of God, do something.’ Then the line was cut. We did nothing. The town limped on for two years before the horrible day in July 1995 when the men were separated from the women; when the town once known for its miraculous waters for pregnant women became synonymous with hell on earth.
We, the international community, did nothing. The UN soldiers did something; they helped the massacre by not protecting the civilians of Srebrenica. These medals are a symbol of justice distorted. It means that hatred prevails. Saddest of all, it means that the cycle of vengeance and violence will continue, on and on.
Janine Di Giovanni is the author of Madness Visible, a Memoir of War. This comment appeared in The Guardian (London), 7 December 2006.