A Cautionary Tale for US Before It Enters Bosnia
Americans may soon embark on a mission improbable. This report of how Dutch peacekeepers failed to prevent a July massacre of Muslims tells why.
THE HAGUE — The last thing on Pvt. Ynse Schellens's mind on July 9 was peacekeeping and protecting Muslim civilians from attack by the Bosnian Serb army.
Caught between warring factions, the Dutch soldier and his fellow UN peacekeepers were eager to abandon Observation Post Kilo, a hilltop compound in Srebrenica, a town the UN declared as a "safe area."
The lightly armed Dutch force had endured three days of Serb shelling. The day before, angry Muslims defending the enclave had killed a Dutch peacekeeper when he abandoned a UN post to the Serbs.
As a Bosnian Serb officer warily walked up to his post in the late afternoon, Private Schellens and the other peacekeepers felt a sense of relief.
"Ready to go?" the Bosnian Serb officer asked.
"Yeah, we're ready," shouted the Dutch soldiers.
Two days later, Srebrenica fell, and 400 Dutch soldiers stood by as about 800 mostly elderly Muslim civilians were rounded up and later killed, according to witnesses.
The passivity of the Dutch peacekeepers and their UN commanders in this massacre shows that, after five years of trying new ways of peacekeeping in the post-cold-war era, the international community is still far from getting it right.
With American troops poised to enforce peace in Bosnia, the US insists its mission will be different.
But the Srebrenica debacle shows it's not easy for trained killers to act as dispassionate mediators in Bosnia. But UN officials warn that soldiers, trained to think in terms of black and white, victor and vanquished, often become frustrated in Bosnia and sympathize with the stronger, more professionally organized Bosnian Serb army, according to civilian UN officials.
Four Dutch soldiers, in interviews this month in the Netherlands, say they hated some of the Muslim men they were supposed to be protecting. Those feelings are only scratch the surface of smoldering anti-Muslim sentiment among UN troops throughout Bosnia that American troops could soon feel.
The downward spiral of Srebrenica's peacekeepers began long before Private Schellens gave up his post. It has roots in the UN's ill-defined notion of peacekeeping in Bosnia.
In the spring of 1993, after Serb troops nearly took refugee-packed Srebrenica, the UN Security Council declared Srebrenica and five other Muslim cities demilitarized "safe areas" to be protected by UN troops. The former mining town, made up of chalets nestled in a valley, had swelled from a prewar population of 5,000 to 42,000.
But when UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali requested 34,000 UN troops to man the safe areas, no nations were willing to contribute the troops to carry out the ambitious plan.
West European leaders faltered, wary of domestic opinion opposed to having their soldiers sucked into a violent, protracted Balkans war. And the US refused to send any troops.
Mr. Boutros-Ghali submitted a new request - sarcastically known at UN headquarters in Zagreb as "safe-havens lite." The Security Council eventually authorized 7,300 troops. In the end, only 3,500 troops were deployed.
Two years later, UN officials were confident that a Serb offensive launched against Srebrenica on July 3 was designed only to gain control of a road that ran through the safe area and led to a Bosnian Serb-controlled bauxite mine.
On July 6, that assumption began to unravel. Two Bosnian Serb shells slammed into the sandbag wall of one Dutch post, Foxtrot. Dutch commander Lt. Col. Ton Karremans requested that NATO carry out a "close air support" strike on nearby Bosnian Serb targets.
But Col. Charles Brantz, UN commander for northeastern Bosnia, did not forward the request to his headquarters in Zagreb, Croatia, because he had not received a proper target list.
Over the next two days, fighting intensified. At 1:43 p.m. on July 8, three Bosnian Serb tank rounds slammed into the wall of Foxtrot, causing severe damage. And an old dynamic in Bosnia peacekeeping came into play again.
Muslim soldiers, who often positioned themselves near Dutch observation posts, fired on the Serbs, drawing retaliatory fire that would come dangerously close to the peacekeepers, Dutch soldiers said.
Dutch commanders also had themselves to blame for the deteriorating situation at Foxtrot, according to Sgt. Johan Bos, a Dutch antitank unit commander.. The post was equipped with one of the unit's five working, American-made, TOW antitank missile launchers, but was unable to use it.
The battalion's TOW launchers, equipped with night-vision targeting sites, were placed in different locations to monitor troops' movements along the enclave's perimeter. Because they take so long to reload, at least two of the TOWs should be deployed close to each other, according to Sergeant Bos.
Fifteen minutes after the rounds hit Foxtrot, a Bosnian Serb tank drove over the Muslim trench and stopped about 100 yards in front of the post. Bosnian Serb soldiers ordered the Dutch to leave.
As the Dutch fled, Muslim soldiers furious at the UN for not firing at the Serbs, killed a Dutch peacekeeper, Raviv van Renssen. (In later interviews, Muslim commanders said that the Serbs had killed Renssen.)
The next day, Dutch observation posts, including Schellan's, began falling like dominoes. Two Dutch armored personnel carriers and their crews were captured by the Serbs. The Dutch were despondent and put up no resistance.
One reason for the Dutch surrender was that Bosnian Serbs had blocked resupply convoys for weeks. The peacekeepers ate their last fresh food on May 5 and were living off rations. For weeks, soldiers had been forced to make day-long walks, or used horses and mules, to carry supplies.
In the end, being a Bosnian Serb hostage was paradise compared with being a peacekeeper. "The Serbs treated me very well. We could take a shower if we wanted," Schellens recalls. "We could play soccer and basketball. Three meals a day. Cigarettes and beer. It was OK."
Dutch force weakened
The Dutch battalion was also well below strength militarily. In April, it shrank from roughly 650 soldiers to 400 soldiers when the Bosnian Serbs refused to allow 190 peacekeepers who went on vacation back into the enclave.
When the Dutch first tried to enter Srebrenica, the Serbs forced them to change their armored personnel carriers from being equipped with 22-mm cannons to lighter 50-caliber machine guns.
At the end of May, commander Karremans sent out a letter informing his UN superiors that he had not been resupplied since Feb. 18, his troops had 16 percent of the ammunition they needed, and he was unable to carry out his mission.
His UN superiors, confronted with similar shortages in the other five surrounded enclaves and unwilling to confront the Serbs over the issue, bet that the Serbs would never call their bluff.
Karremans was sure NATO airstrikes, as a last resort, could halt the Serbs' advance in Srebrenica. But with so many observation posts falling, he was unsure where the main Serb attack was coming from. The enclave's UN military observers (UNMOs) - different from the Dutch peacekeepers - had abandoned their offices on July 8 and retreated to the nearby Dutch base in Potocari.
Commander in the dark
Two Bosnian translators were left in the UNMO office in the town. Their superiors continued to file reports without informing UN commanders that they had abandoned their post. As the Bosnian Serb attack intensified on July 8, Karremans was essentially blind to what was happening around Srebrenica.
On July 9, a list of possible Bosnian Serb targets for NATO airstrikes finally arrived in UN headquarters in Zagreb, but Bosnian Serb tanks were already five miles into the enclave and only one mile south of Srebrenica. But UN commanders in Zagreb still believed the Serbs were not interested in taking the entire enclave.
UN Commander Bernard Janvier ordered the Dutch to create a "blocking position" to prevent the Serbs from entering the town. He demanded that the Serbs halt their advance, free all Dutch hostages, and withdraw their forces to the enclave's perimeter. If the Dutch position was attacked, General Janvier warned, NATO close air support would be used.
Blocking position set up
Karremans thought the blocking position was foolish, but ordered six Dutch APCs with more than 30 soldiers to set up a visible, but difficult to defend, blocking position on the main road a half mile south of Srebrenica.
As the blocking position was established on July 10, the mood was relaxed, according to Cpl. Hans Berkers, the driver of one of the APCs. But in the early afternoon, Bosnian Serb shells hit, sending Corporal Berkers and others scrambling.
At 6 p.m., Serb infantrymen were seen advancing toward the position. The Dutch fired 50-caliber machine guns at the Serbs, halting the advance.
Despite the pleas of his advisers, Janvier turned down three requests for close air support sent by Karremans over the course of the day. Janvier said that the blocking position - that he himself had ordered - was too close to the Serbs to risk an airstrike, according to Col. Harm De Jonge, a senior UN adviser in Zagreb.
As night fell, the Dutch received reports that the Serbs were advancing to the east of the blocking position. Muslim troops were supposed to guard the peacekeepers' flank. But the Dutch, not trusting the Muslims, withdrew.
Tensions between the Dutch and Muslim soldiers had been simmering for months. In later interviews, the Dutch blame the Muslims for putting up no resistance to the Serbs, and Muslim commanders blame the Dutch for barring them from using two Muslim tanks in UN storage.
Waiting for NATO airstrikes
After the Dutch blocking position was abandoned, word arrived that a massive NATO airstrike, involving 40 airplanes hitting 20 Bosnian Serb targets, would be carried out the following morning.
At midnight the Dutch deputy commander, Maj. Robert Franken, met with Muslim leaders in Srebrenica to tell them of the coming airstrikes. But when the sun rose on July 11, thick fog covered Srebrenica, preventing airstrikes.
When the weather began to clear, Berkers was ordered to drive his APC up a hill overlooking Serb positions. Karremans's sixth request for a NATO strike had been approved. Four Dutch F-16s were on their way to Srebrenica.
Inside Berkers's APC, an air controller focused a bomb-guiding device equipped with a laser on a Serb tank below. Overhead, the female pilot of a Dutch F-16 released two bombs. Berkers saw the tank jump five feet in the air.
Within minutes, Bosnian Serb commander Gen. Ratko Mladic threatened to kill all 30 of the Dutch hostages he held if another airstrike was carried out.
Dutch Defense Minister Joris Voorhoeve called UN Special Envoy Yasushi Akashi and asked that the airstrikes be halted to save the Dutch peacekeepers' lives. Mr. Akashi had already canceled the strikes to protect the UN hostages.
Immediately after the airstrikes were called off, the Dutch compound in Srebrenica, surrounded by 10,000 terrified civilians seeking help, was abandoned. As Serb shells rained down on the town, panicked Dutch truck and APC drivers, including Berkers, admitted running over Bosnian civilians as they drove through throngs of civilians fleeing to the main UN base in Potocari. Video shot by Dutch soldiers shows UN trucks arriving in Potocari with civilians clinging to every inch of the vehicles.
At 4 p.m. the Serbs entered the abandoned Dutch compound in Srebrenica.
The Mladic 'pig' show
That evening, Dutch commanding officer Karremans and other UN officers were summoned by Serb commander Mladic to a nearby hotel to negotiate the fate of the 25,000 to 30,000 Muslim civilians huddled in and around the UN base in Potocari.
When they arrived at the hotel, they saw a Serb soldier cut a pig's throat. As the pig died, Mladic told the Dutch commander: "You have to be able to stand this before we can talk."
Over the next two days, Dutch soldiers witnessed the execution of one Muslim man and found nine dead Muslims near their base in Potocari, but did little as more than 800 elderly Muslim civilians were separated from their families and taken away.
Surem Huljic, a Muslim man who says he was one of the men taken away in Potocari, believes all of the men were killed in a mass execution in the nearby village of Karakaj.
The nine bodies were videotaped and photographed by the Dutch. But the videotape was later destroyed by Dutch soldiers under orders from an officer because it also had video of one of the unit's forward air controllers. Dutch officials say the film from the still camera was accidentally destroyed in a military film-processing lab.
Peacekeeper Berkers saw 2,000 Muslim prisoners under Serb guard on a soccer field in the nearby village of Nova Kasaba on July 13. The following day, Schellens, Sgt. Warner Ceelen, and 15 other Dutch soldiers saw dozens of dead bodies on the road, a dump truck full of bodies, and an excavator digging an apparent mass grave near the soccer field. US spy photos show an apparent mass grave at the same location, and a decomposed human leg and documents from Srebrenica were discovered there by the Monitor in August.
But after the Dutch withdrew on July 21, Dutch commanders said they had no evidence of war crimes being committed, and Karremans said the Serb "militarily correct operation" was carried out in "the right way."
What the Dutch really knew
In a series of damaging revelations in August and September, Dutch journalists discovered that a list of 239 Muslim men who were inside the Dutch compound in Potocari was drawn up by a Muslim translator to protect the men when they were ordered to leave by Karremans. All 239 are now missing and presumed dead.
The list was faxed to UN headquarters in Zagreb, and deputy Dutch commander Franken carried a copy out of Potocari in his underwear, according to Dutch officials. But UN officials say they never received a copy of the list, and the Dutch government now says the list was temporarily lost.
Dutch press reports also later revealed that deputy Commander Franken signed an agreement with the Bosnian Serbs on July 17 stating that the Muslim evacuation was conducted properly and no war crimes were committed.
Following protests from the Dutch parliament, the Dutch Defense Ministry launched a wide-ranging investigation of its troops' conduct in Srebrenica. It promised to announce its findings by the end of October.
UN officials warn that if the Dutch, who underwent three months of specialized peacekeeper training before going to Bosnia, crack under the pressure of experimental 1990s peacekeeping, American troops also could.
Suddenly thrust into the brutality of the conflict, few Dutch peacekeepers probably imagined that the Bosnian Serbs would execute the hundreds of civilian Muslim men who were rounded up outside the UN base. But it's unclear how many of them would have cared.
"I think there's no way you can prepare somebody to go to war. It's a strange world there," says Schellens who now teaches mentally handicapped children for a living. "The Muslims stole from the posts and they shot one of us. Hating is a big word, but they were no friends of mine."