Outrage at medals for Dutch in Srebrenica

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The Independent Online

The Bosnian Presidency has lodged an official protest with the Netherlands after members of the Dutch battalion that failed to protect the "safe haven" of Srebrenica were decorated by their government.

The Defence Minister, Henk Kamp, pinned insignia on some of the 850 members of the ill-fated battalion headed by Lieutenant-Colonel Tom Karremans. Accusations of responsibility for Europe's worst massacre since the Second World War, when Bosnian Serb forces killed more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in July 1995, led to the fall of the Dutch government in 2002.

At the ceremony, Mr Kamp said the battalion was powerless to prevent the massacre. The thousands of victims boarded buses that suddenly arrived the day the Dutch commander had toasted Srebrenica's new overlord, General Ratko Mladic, at the UN base in the village of Potocari.

Clutching Serb pledges and impressed by Mladic's phoney display of bonhomie for the cameras, when he dished out sweets to a few stunned-looking children, the doomed men took quiet leave of wives and daughters, murmuring, "I'll see you soon", "We'll all meet in Tuzla", and "Everything will be fine".

But those silent Serbian bus drivers did not head west on the main road into government territory in Tuzla or Kalesia as Mladic said they would. They swerved abruptly off the highway to deserted, ethnically cleansed hamlets where the men and boys were taken off, blindfolded, herded into sealed locations such as the school gym at Karakaj and the football stadium in Bratunac, and massacred.

Then the killers combed the pine forests between Srebrenica and Tuzla, desperately trying to track down the 23,000 fugitive Muslims who had made a run for it, despite Mladic's booming, jovial promise: "Nothing will happen to you".

Thousands of executions went on until 17 July. The Dutch left Srebrenica on 21 July. Only when a few survivors staggered into Tuzla did the scale of Mladic's atrocity dawn on them. Colonel Karremans and his men are objects of deep, abiding contempt, feelings in no way mitigated by bouts of Dutch hand-wringing, the fall of the government in the Hague and the release of a detailed reports on who did what in those muddled July days.

But the Dutch did not betray Srebrenica; their UN commanders, the Japanese UN envoy Yasushi Akashi and the French commander of the UN force, Unprofor, General Bernard Janvier, did it for them. Those two, to the anger of Rupert Smith, the British commander in Bosnia, vetoed air strikes against the Serbs, leaving the Dutch battalion defenceless on the ground and the Serbs in possession of what they assumed was a green light.

Colonel Karremans, in fact, appealed to the UN to authorise Nato air strikes on 10 July when it became clear the Serbs were bent on overrunning the entire enclave. Famously, Unprofor refused the request, saying the Dutch had filled in the official form incorrectly.

When the last defences crumbled on the 12th, the Dutch commander also demanded the right to escort the surviving civilians to safety. Mladic, armed with the carte blanche from higher up the UN chain of command, simply ignored him.

Nor should General Janvier and Mr Akashi carry the can alone. They reflected an almost solid consensus in London and UN headquarters in New York - as well as Paris and Moscow - that Serbia's total victory in the wars of the former Yugoslavia was a foregone conclusion, and the Bosnians were being a nuisance for opposing the inevitable. At that time, President Bill Clinton's advocacy of air strikes was scorned in most Nato capitals as a fantasy.

Yesterday, in Sarajevo, a representative of the Mothers of Srebrenica condemned the Dutch government's awards to the soldiers, some now out of the army. "Something the entire world would be ashamed of, the Dutch reward it," said Kada Hotic. "This is for the Hall of Shame."

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