Dutch UN troops haunted by the shame of Srebrenica

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Michiel Peperkamp is still haunted by the distraught faces and unbearable grief of women he saw in Bosnia.

The former soldier was painting the doors and windows of a public housing estate in the picturesque village of Middelrode last week. But seven years ago he was a member of the Dutch peacekeeping battalion forced to stand aside as Bosnian Serb forces massacred thousands of Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica. A long-delayed report on the responsibility of Dutch politicians and senior military officers was finally released last week, causing the collapse of the government and the resignation of the head of the army, Lt Gen Ad van Baal.

In 1995, Mr Peperkamp was one of 55 Dutch troops taken hostage at gunpoint and held for three days by the Serbs. "I was very frightened," he recalled. "I had just turned 18, and it was my first time out of the Netherlands. One minute we were there with our UN badges, thinking we were untouchable – the next I had guns pushed in my back and was being told I would be killed if there were air strikes or any other resistance."

Lightly armed and deprived of support, the 400 members of "Dutchbat", as they were called in UN parlance, allowed the so-called safe haven of Srebrenica to fall without firing a shot. "It was bad enough being there," said Mr Peperkamp. "Then back home, we were made to feel like cowards, and responsible for the terrible things that had happened."

The report by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation has come too late for many of the men who saw what happened seven years ago. "Our troops went though hell for years, with the finger unfairly pointed at them," said Ton Heerts, the chairman of the General Federation of Military Personnel.

"They were made to feel guilty for shocking events over which they had no control, as the report bore out. The army top brass and the politicians were to blame, not the troops who were made the scapegoats." Indeed, according to Acom, the Christian organisation for the military, up to 10 Dutchbat members have committed suicide, though there is no official confirmation. About 70 per cent have since left the services.

Lawyers and welfare groups say criminal involvement, drug abuse and violent behaviour have been far higher among those who were at Srebrenica than among other veterans of UN missions.

"Many of my friends suffered post-traumatic stress," said Mr Peperkamp, but he did not forget the far worse suffering of the widows and children left behind. "Others were also to blame, but we Dutch should be big enough to offer some financial compensation.

"It won't bring thousands of husbands and sons back, but it might help them to cope."