Dutch courage is a disgrace to the United Nations

At last the dreadful evidence: Srebrenica was left to its fate as soldiers scrambled for safety
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First, the words of Private Honig of the Dutch 13th Air Mobile Unit at Srebrenica, who saw: "...an old woman crawling on her hands and knees, bleeding. Children had lost their parents ... We covered half the route running, my mates and I, looking for cover from yard to yard. After that we got a lift from a YPR [armoured vehicle]. That wasn't really allowed. Our physical presence on the road to Potocari was meant to protect the people. But the sergeant pulled us in: `First you lot in safety'."

Could anything describe the shame of the United Nations at Srebrenica so definitively? As the civilians of the east Bosnian town awaited their rape and massacre at the hands of the Serbs last year, the soldiers of Holland - who had requested a tough assignment in ex-Yugoslavia - were on the run. The most precious lives were not those of the innocents so soon to be betrayed, but those of the armed soldiers of a Nato army. "First you lot in safety." It should have been Unprofor's motto. And when the Dutch peacekeepers returned home from their humiliation at Srebrenica, what happened? They were given a heroes' welcome. The authors of this carefully researched and devastating book are both Dutch. Honig (no relation to Pte Honig) is a lecturer in war studies at King's College, London, and Both is a former research assistant to the lugubrious Lord Owen. They set out in chilling detail the collapse and subsequent bloodbath at Srebrenica, as well as its terrible ordeal over the previous three years. By the time Srebrenica was about to fall, most of the Muslim commanders had fled the city. The best soldiers who remained were used to protect the town's civic leaders in their flight over the mountains, leaving the Serbs to pick off the virtually undefended thousands of civilians who trailed in their wake. It is also true, as Honig and Both state, that "final culpability ... must rest squarely on the shoulders of the most senior Serbian politicians and officers". They were the war criminals. Blaming the massacres on the Dutch UN force leaves no room, the authors tell us, for the dilemmas of real life. Accusing the Dutch troops of cowardice can "create a fertile breeding ground for dangerous stab-in-the-back myths".

The problem is that every Muslim who survived Srebrenica believes he or she was stabbed in the back, and they have every right to feel that way. The enclave was a UN safe haven, and the Dutch were supposed to defend it. Through bureaucratic misunderstandings, incompetence and - yes - some cowardice too, they failed to do so. And since the Dutch represented us, that failure is our shame and humiliation for all time. Incredibly, however, the Netherlands' authorities still fail to understand the gravity of their disgrace.

Nothing could better illustrate this than the smugness of a letter from the Dutch defence ministry to this paper last month, pointing out, correctly, that a UN document which I had obtained on a recent visit to Bosnia - it contained UN orders to the Dutch battalion to defend the civilians of Srebrenica - had already been published by the Dutch authorities who had explained last year why their troops could not follow the instructions. Oddly, however, the Dutch ministry's letter failed to refute or even mention a far more damaging document carried in my report, a document which was apparently prepared by the Serbs and - incredibly - signed by a Dutch officer, who stated, days after the massacres, that "I assert that the evacuation [sic] was carried out by the Serb side correctly ... the Serb side has adhered to all the regulations of the Geneva Conventions".

Honig and Both reveal for me why the Dutch mysteriously made no mention of this document in their letter of complaint - because the document is real and the Dutch soldier's signature is genuine. It was, the authors reveal, a Major Franken who signed his name to this utterly mendacious document, along with a Bosnian Muslim official who was to recall later that "when Mr Franken and I had read this document we looked at each other in silence. Without words we understood that the document did not correspond to the truth." Both men, the authors say, had "no choice" but to sign, Franken adding the words "as far as it concerns convoys actually escorted by UN forces" in his own hand.

It is true, of course, that young, inexperienced soldiers could not be expected to behave with unique gallantry when faced with hostile Muslims behind them and even more hostile Serbs in front. But throughout the pages of this remarkable book, the truth comes out. "Everybody got a fright," Sergeant Batalona recalls, when the Dutch battalion was ordered to prepare to fire on the Serbs. "You could easily get killed in such an operation. As far as I knew, we had not been sent to Srebrenica to defend the enclave ..." Next morning, the authors write, "was an uneasy one for the Dutch soldiers ... some were certain they would die". When a Dutch unit was confronted by a Serb tank, "after a moment of great panic [sic], the Dutch realised the Serbs were summoning them to surrender". Why, one keeps asking oneself, were these Dutchmen in uniform in the first place? Aren't soldiers occasionally expected to fight, even to die?

The sole air strike on the last day is re-created in detail as the Dutch woman pilot asks the air controllers for confirmation of her target location. "Roger Alpha, get that shit," comes the reply from Srebrenica. She destroyed one tank. Within hours, the Dutch defence minister was shouting "Stop! Stop! Stop!" down the telephone to the Dutch air co-ordinators in Italy. The UN had already taken the same decision. Heaven spare us.

`Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime', Jan Willem Honig and Norbert Both (Penguin, pounds 6.99).