Dutch Courage

How's this for bravery? Seven years after the event, the Dutch government releases a report on how its soldiers failed to protect Muslims in the infamous United Nations safe haven in Bosnia known as Srebrenica. Prime Minister Wim Kok subsequently resigns, along with his government. A cabinet member at the time of Srebrenica, Kok was said to shed tears reading the report. It was an astonishing mea culpa--or was it?

First, though, I have my own mea culpa. In the winter of 1996, I tracked down the survivors of one village in the Srebrenica enclave. Most were women and children deported by the Bosnian Serbs, who then killed all the men and boys they could find. At the time there was no solid evidence of this, and the Serbs hotly disputed it. So I thought if I found every family from this one village, Lehovici, and brought them together, their cumulative story would be compelling and moving proof.

It was their first reunion since Srebrenica's fall, and it was about the harshest thing any journalist has ever done to a group of innocent people. I showed them photographs and videos of their ruined homes. I helped them compare notes and tally up how few of their menfolk had survived. In some cases I introduced them to witnesses who had seen their loved ones die. I reduced all of the women, and most of the children, to tears while news-documentary cameras rolled. I felt very ashamed, but took notes, confident that one day it would all be worth it.

The story that ran, "The Death of a Village" (Newsweek, April 15, 1996), won many awards. Even today people remember it. It was part of a growing body of evidence, now undeniable, that the Bosnian Serb Army under Gen. Ratko Mladic's personal direction systematically slaughtered 7,500 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. I went on to other stories, in other parts of the world. Somehow, I thought, justice would inevitably be done for the 30,000 women and children of Srebrenica who had been ripped from their homes and shorn of their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. And nothing could have been farther from the truth. Today fewer than a dozen Muslims have returned to the town of Srebrenica. The UNHCR says only 137 Muslims have resettled in the entire enclave, most in outlying districts. Their farms, homes and community are occupied by Bosnian Serb squatters. Internationally supervised elections produced a municipal council dominated by Muslims; they commute to their offices under guard and return to refugeedom at night. The well-organized and hard-campaigning women of Srebrenica visit regularly, under police or military escort--and are cursed and spat upon by the thieves of their lives and the assassins of their loved ones. Granted, many of these Serbs are themselves refugees, induced to flee from Sarajevo's suburbs by their own leaders' threats. But their tragedy is small change next to that of Srebrenica's women. Such is ground zero at Europe's only other modern genocide.

The massacre is generally credited with galvanizing NATO into acting against the Serbs, culminating in the Dayton peace accords in late 1995 that envisioned the return of refugees to their homes and the arrest of war criminals--chiefly Radovan Karadzic and Mladic. Both remain at large in Bosnia, and their victims refugees, for the same reason: the unwillingness of the West to risk any of its soldiers' lives. Such timidity is a leitmotif of what went wrong in Srebrenica. Outnumbered seven to one, with promised NATO airstrikes denied, the Dutch contingent surrendered without a shot. Cowed by the Serbs, their commander, Col. Thom Karremans, shared a toast of slivovitz with General Mladic while Serb propaganda cameras rolled. The Dutch failed to protest when Serb troops separated Muslim men and boys from the women. They ignored screams of men being tortured and killed in the hundreds, next door to the Dutch headquarters. They gave the Serbs their U.N. vehicles and uniforms, later used to trick fleeing Muslims into surrender. Dutch soldiers who managed to take pictures of Muslim corpses found their film "accidentally" destroyed when it reached the Netherlands.

All this is old news in Holland. What upset the political establishment, and prompted the resignations, is that the military also engaged in a cover-up of its misdeeds and misled Dutch ministers. While Kok said he would "accept partial political responsibility," he refused to accept blame. As mea culpas go, it was weak. But then, the resignations were pretty much an empty gesture, anyway. Dutch parliamentary elections were already scheduled for May, and Kok and his cabinet will stay on as caretakers until then. With this moral show of "courage," perhaps, he will even win to fight another day.