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Commemoration Controversy: The Commemoration of the Srebrenica Genocide in the Netherlands

Introduction

Satko Mujagic, a survivor of the Omarska concentration camp and president of the BiH Platform in the Netherlands, is currently busy organizing events to collect and ship supplies to the victims of recent floods in Bosnia. With an enthusiastic smile, he tells us how much money was raised in the recent weeks and how many supplies were collected that are all going directly to flood victims. According to Satko, the recent floods have been extremely impactful to the people living in these regions. The floods have connected people who, not so long ago, were bitter enemies fighting a civil war. “Nove Mostove Gradjamo Zajedno,” (Building New Bridges Together) is a slogan that Satko wears proudly on his shirt. He explains the great meaning behind this slogan by saying that not only are we building the physical bridges that collapsed during the floods, but the emotional bridges that collapsed between the people during the war.

The war was a result of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia falling apart, which pushed many nations in the region to seek independence. Bosnia and Herzegovina became one of these nations when the government pushed for independence by means of a referendum. On March 1, 1992, Bosnians declared themselves an independent state, and the European Community officially recognized the separation on April 7, 1992. However, these events led to a military reaction in the region and to multiple years of bloody warfare. The European continent was shocked again by horrific images of war and violence and crimes against humanity. The war had many casualties and even up to today has a strong influence on Bosnian politics. The fall of the United Nation’s safe zone at Srebrenica arguably offers the most horrific example of the atrocities committed during the Bosnian war. More than 40,000 Bosnian Muslims fled to this small village in eastern Bosnia in search of the safety and protection seemingly offered by Dutch United Nations blue helmets. However, the Dutch U.N. troops were not able to defend the enclave and were overrun by Serb military forces in July 1995. This disastrous event resulted in the slaughter of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims by Serb military forces, led by Ratko Mladic. It once again showed the international community that the post-Holocaust world was evidently not free of the horrors of genocide. The international community utterly failed to prevent the more than 700 mass graves containing the bodies of more than 25,000 missing and murdered people. Srebrenica will forever be burdened with the loss of many human lives and the reputation of being the first officially recognized act of genocide on the European continent after the Second World War.

According to Emir Suljagic, a Srebrenica survivor, “Srebrenica was a combination of all the elements of the war…It was a siege the length of Sarajevo, only more intense. It was the brutality of Omarska, only more brutal. It was the complicity of the United Nations, only more obvious. Srebrenica was everything that happened over three years in Bosnia culminated into one place and one time.” Emir was in the small minority of Bosnian Muslim men that survived the harrowing ordeals that took place in Srebrenica. 

Historical Context

With a Catholic influence from the West, Orthodox from the East and Islamic from the South, Bosnia’s pre-war population consisted of a mixture of people of all three religions. The Croat Catholics consisted of 17% of the population, the Serb Orthodox made up just over 30% of Bosnia and the Muslims consisted of 40% of the Bosnian population. The differences in religious affiliation, and therefore ethnicity, in Bosnia have led to many different quarrels throughout the past couple of centuries. After the Second World War, Josip Broz Tito was able to consolidate and keep Yugoslavia together for 40 years of relative peace. However, in the 1980s, with looming debt and an unstable economic system, Yugoslavia was hit with an economic crisis and the religious tensions that Tito was able to suppress, quickly surfaced.

After Slovenia and Croatia, Bosnia declared its independence from the Yugoslav federation in March 1992. By April the same year, Bosnian Serbs, with the backing of the Yugoslav National Army from the Serbian state, unleashed the waves of brutal violence that would claim thousands of lives and displace millions of people, creating millions of refugees. Serbia’s plan was to ethnically cleanse Bosnia of all Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) and create a “Greater Serbia” that stretched from its eastern borders with Romania and Bulgaria to the Adriatic Sea. The ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks by the Serbs was particularly successful in Bosnian towns closest in proximity to Serbia proper. Thousands of Bosnians were killed, tortured, raped and thousands more were forced to flee or were displaced to enclaves such as the town of Srebrenica.  

For more than three years, Srebrenica, cut off from the rest of Bosnia, held out against the Bosnian Serbs that encircled the enclave. The conditions in Srebrenica were dire as thousands of refugees from nearby cities competed for shelter, food and water. By March 1993, the conditions grew so intolerable that the French general, Phillipe Morillon, arrived to declare that Srebrenica would be protected by the United Nations. Srebrenica was declared a safe area by the United Nations Security Council in April 1993. Resolution 819 was passed which demanded that “all parties concerned treat Srebrenica and its surrounds as a safe area which should be free from any armed attack or any other hostile act.” Contingents of Dutch troops were positioned in Srebrenica with a mandate to protect the civilians. However, the Bosnian Serbs continued to put pressure on Srebrenica and the United Nations Protection Force by turning away humanitarian aid, not allowing the UN soldiers to move freely in and out of the enclave and occasionally shooting at Dutch observation posts. By May 1995, the humanitarian situation in Srebrenica became catastrophic as the UN forces started running dangerously low on food, medicine, and ammunition.

Jasmina Vugdalic, a Bosnian refugee currently living in the United States, tells a harrowing story of despair and desperation in Srebrenica during the war. Her family was forced to flee the nearby town of Gedenje, as Serbian troops came through the town burning it to rubble, and move to Srebrenica. Conditions inside the safe haven were so dire that it became necessary to raid homes in search of food. Her grandfather died during one of these raids as he gathered food to feed his family and save them from starvation. After her grandfather’s death, Jasmina’s family fled Srebrenica on foot with a group of other Bosnians and escaped to Zepa. They were able to stay there until buses came to transport women and children into relatively calm Muslim controlled territories. The men had to find their way through the woods to the safe zones. As he was trying to escape, her father stepped on a land mine and was shot down by the Serbs stationed in the nearby hills.

The “safe area” of Srebrenica proved to be anything but when Bosnian Serbs moved into Srebrenica in July 1995. Under the direct command of Ratko Mladic, the Serb troops quickly and swiftly started their slaughter campaign against the defenseless Bosnian Muslims as UN forces stood idly by. Dutch commander Tom Karremans asked for NATO to intervene with air strikes, but the demands were late and ineffective giving the Bosnian Serbs free reign to launch their most devastating campaign of ethnic cleansing.  On July 11, 1995, Serbian troops moved into Srebrenica. Of the roughly over 40,000 people that were taking refuge there, around 20,000 made the attempt to escape either through the mountainous terrain to Muslim territory many kilometers away and a few thousand to the Dutch base in the nearby town of Potocari. Many Muslims seeking refuge in Potocari were turned away by the Dutch. Of the thousands that were turned away, a few hundred men of military age were forced to leave the compound and were killed at the hands of Serbian forces. Others, mostly the elderly, women and children, remained in Srebrenica.

On July 12, 1995, the Serbs under the command of Mladic, moved to the Dutch base in Potocari as the international community looked on, and began separating the men from the women. The systematic slaughter, torture and rape of Bosnian men and women began while the UN Protection Force stood down. After the massacre of thousands, American spy planes detected signs of mass burials around the areas of Srebrenica. Additionally, satellite images documented an organized effort to conceal evidence of mass murder by re-burying bodies previously buried in mass graves.

International Reaction

The United Nations protection force in Bosnia (UNPROFOR) and, specifically, the Dutch battalion stationed in Srebrenica and Potocari, failed to deter the Bosnian Serb attack on Srebrenica and many surrounding towns in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They have been criticized by much of the international community for failing to protect the safe area. Human Rights Watch stated that the fall of Srebrenica made a mockery of the international community’s professed commitment to safeguard safe areas. In particular, Human Rights Watch declares that the Dutch stationed in Bosnia mishandled the crisis by concealing evidence of human rights abuses. The organization also reports that the Dutch destroyed documented video evidence showing mass executions of Muslims while the Dutch looked on. The Dutch UNPROFOR fired warning shots over the Serb units and their mortars fired flares, but the troops never fired defensive shots at the attacking Serbs. Lieutenant-Colonel Thom Karremans, the commander of the Dutch battalion (Dutchbat) troops in Srebrenica, requested for NATO assistance, but these requests fell on deaf ears until months after the Srebrenica Genocide. In August 1995, NATO launched a bombing campaign that lasted until September. The Dayton Agreement was signed in November of the same year, symbolically ending the war. 

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, an ad hoc court located in The Hague, was formed in 1993 by the United Nations to prosecute grave crimes committed in the Former Yugoslav states. The court has jurisdiction over four types of crimes: breaches of the Geneva Convention, violations of the laws of customs of war, crimes against humanity and genocide with life imprisonment as the maximum sentence. The court defined the Srebrenica war crimes as genocide. In November 1995, Radovan Karadzic (President of the Serbian Republic) and Ratko Mladic (Commander of the Bosnian Serb Army) were indicted by the ICTY for their role in the atrocities committed against the Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica and are currently at trial. Bosnian Serb general Radislav Krstic was convicted of aiding and abetting genocide alongside Dargo Nilokic. In addition, two other Bosnian Serbs were convicted for their role in the genocide in Srebrenica and sentenced.

The 1999, the UN Secretary General at the time submitted a report on the fall of Srebrenica. The UN report on Srebrenica is critical of the Dutch performance evident in its confusion and lack of understanding that “the Dutch battalion did not report more fully the scenes that were unfolding around them following the enclave’s fall. Although they did not witness mass killing, they were aware of some sinister indications. It is possible that if the members of the Dutch battalion had immediately reported in detail those sinister indications to the United Nations chain of command, the international community may have been compelled to respond more robustly and more quickly, and that some lives might have been saved.”

Dutch Responsibility

In 1996, the Dutch government commissioned the NIOD (Netherlands Institute for War Documentation) to issue a report on the events that transpired in Srebrenica. In 2002, the NIOD published its report, six years after the research began. The NIOD report criticized the decision-making process of the Dutch battalion once the Bosnian Serbs took Srebrenica, but failed to take responsibility for the events leading up to the genocide. The report concludes that the proper course of action for the Dutchbat would have been to allow all Bosniaks into the compound and alert the international community of the gravity and extent of the crimes. Additionally, according to the report, Karremans should not have allowed the Bosnian Serbs to separate the men and women and that all evacuations should have been conducted by the United Nations. Furthermore, it mentions that the Dutch government shares responsibility for the failure of the Dutch troops to “take all reasonable measures to protect refugees and civilians” as ordered by the United Nations headquarters on July 11.

During Krstic’s trial, Karremans admitted that he was aware of the potential dangers in allowing the Bosnian Serbs to separate the men from the women at the Potocari compound. According to a witness, Fazila Efendic, the Dutch troops were also aware of the potential dangers in allowing the separation. She states that “when we saw them separating the men, that is when we knew exactly what was to happen. The Dutch soldiers knew, too. Some of them were crying. Others just walked away. They couldn’t look for the shame of it.”

Prime Minister Wim Kok issued a public statement after the NIOD report was presented in 2002, saying:

"The international community failed to offer sufficient protection to those in the safe areas. The government of the Netherlands, as a member of the international community, therefore failed as well. The Netherlands emphatically disavows responsibility for the horrific murder of thousands of Bosnian Muslims in 1995. Today’s decision, however, acknowledges that the Netherlands shares political responsibility for bringing about a situation in which such an act was possible. The “international community” is faceless and cannot express its responsibility to the victims and survivors of Srebrenica. I can, and I do so now. Once again, as I have said before, I would like to emphasize that the soldiers of Dutchbat are not responsible for what happened there."

With his statement, Wim Kok puts blame on the “international community,” but fails to explicitly state the role of the Dutch government in Srebrenica. The statement was seen as a way to bury the Srebrenica tragedy in Dutch discourse at the time.

The topic of Srebrenica was unearthed when the Dutch Ministry of Defense decided to honor the Dutchbat soldiers that served in Srebrenica in 2006. The Ministry of Defense and former Dutchbat soldiers that attended felt as though their courage should be recognized as they faced severe circumstances. The Dutch-Bosnian community and the families of Srebrenica victims were furious and decided to organize protests in The Hague. The commemoration of the Dutchbat was seen as a completely disrespectful and insulting gesture. The international community was taken aback by the commemoration and showed their disdain by publishing articles about the additional injustice committed against the victims of Srebrenica. 

Victims Demand Justice

The families of Srebrenica victims are asking for the Dutch government to recognize their suffering and take responsibility publicly. Families of the Srebrenica victims recognize that the main perpetrators were the Bosnian Serbs. However, because the Dutch were sent to Srebrenica to protect the safe haven and failed to do so, the sentiment remains that they share responsibility for the events that transpired. The victims of Srebrenica are looking for a sincere apology. According to John Borneman, “an apology should aid in reestablishing the dignity of the victim. And, paradoxically, through that act of reaffirmation of the value of the other, the wrongdoer … reestablished its own value. … It is a relational act, dependent on the authenticity and sincerity of the wrongdoer as perceived by the victim.” The atrocities committed in Srebrenica require the international community and, specifically the Netherlands, to commit to providing answers and reparations for the victims.

However, the opposite seems to be the status quo. Requests for information from the Dutch government by the Srebrenica victims fell on deaf ears. In the six years that the NIOD report was being written, the Dutch government ignored the requests of the victims. To the survivors of the Srebrenica genocide, the recognition of the pain and suffering is critical and vital for the process of reconciliation. The government is willing to participate in the reconstruction and the humanitarian aspects of rebuilding Srebrenica, but is reluctant to speak on the events leading up to the tragedy and their responsibility in not preventing the massacre.

At the National Srebrenica Commemoration, former government minister, Jan Pronk stated: “Denial is still taking place… Maintaining silence and ignoring questions, and enforcing this from the top down, is harmful… It may well be that we cannot provide answers that will satisfy the needs of everybody involved, but it is not up to us, here in the Netherlands, to determine whether the questions put to us repeatedly are legitimate.”

Several of the victims’ concerns were addressed when in 2014 legal proceedings in Dutch courts established the Netherlands liable for 300 deaths of those expelled from the compound in Potocari. The court ruled that the “Dutchbat should have taken into account the possibility that these men would be the victim of genocide and that it can be said with sufficient certainty that, had the Dutchbat allowed them to stay at the compound, these men would have remained alive.”

Bosnian-Dutch Community

On June 21, 2014, at the annual Bosnian community picnic in the Beatrixpark, Schiedam, the Netherlands, Alma Kosovic, Alisa Siocic and Melisa Herdic were willing to share their thoughts on the memory of Srebrenica in the Netherlands and the role of the government in recognizing the genocide. BiH Platform secretary Alma Kosovic identified a troublesome lack of knowledge and understanding among the Dutch youth. There is little awareness of what happened and the role Dutch soldiers played in this horrible event. Alma gave the example of a group of MBO-level young men that went to Srebrenica as part of their education in the field of security. These students have a chance after their initial studies to join the army and perhaps end up in peacekeeping situations themselves. “Very few of them had heard of the atrocities at Srebrenica beforehand” and only after they saw the overwhelming number of graves the students made a connection. In her remarks, Alma also makes clear that recognition is very important because it helps everyone to deal with this sad chapter of history. “Recognition is therefore not about guilt or money, although 20,000 euros in damages is of course disrespectful, but it is about learning from past experiences and doing justice to those who survived themselves and their relatives.” Melissa Herdic added that people simply “want to hear I am sorry” by the government, because of the failure of Dutchbat in the protection of Srebrenica. Symbolic measures, such as a half-mast flag at governmental buildings on the eleventh of July and participation in the official commemoration, says Alisa Siocic, are some of the ideas on how the Dutch government can do justice to the victims and survivors of the Bosnian War, and especially Srebrenica.

The next day, we spoke to Satko Mujagic at a distribution center in Woerden, the Netherlands. Here, the Bosna and Herzegovina Platform (BiH Platform) has organized the collection, allocation and transport of clothes and other goods to be sent to the victims of the 2014 floods in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Some 50 people were helping sort all clothes that had been given to the organization. These are extremely busy days for the BiH Platform and especially for their committed chairperson Satko. However, he was more than willing to share his thoughts on the commemoration of the Bosnian War in the Netherlands.

“The role of the Dutch government has historically been problematic,” Satko of the BiH Platform explains, especially because at first the reports on the fall of Srebrenica said it was not the fault of Dutchbat. Even now, more than 20 years after he had been imprisoned in the concentration camp Omarska, he still sees too little signs of active engagement by the Dutch government in the remembrance of the genocide at Srebrenica. The Dutch government seems to have an inherent problem in dealing with the black pages in the history book. Whether it is the cultural effect of the slave trade, the so-called “police actions” in Indonesia, or in this case the fall of the Srebrenica enclave, there seems to be little political motivation to openly deal with the consequences and legacy of these historical facts. In the interview, Satko identifies this ignorance on part of the government predominantly as a result of feelings of shame. It is just too tempting to shift the focus from Dutch responsibility to the United Nations, the lack of support when the enclave fell or the Serbs who committed the atrocities. However, as he points out, everyone should accept the role they had in the tragic conflict that led to the genocide of thousands of Bosnian Muslims.

As a result, there is a need for a commemoration of Srebrenica in the Netherlands. “If an individual dies, those related want to have a moment and place to honor that person,” Satko says, “so it then is also logical that there should be a place and time when the victims of the Bosnian genocide can be honored.” Here there is a role to play for the Dutch government, because it firstly is of great importance to the Bosnian community in the Netherlands, and secondly because of the Dutch military involvement in Srebrenica. However, Satko is also quick to point out that he does appreciate a lot of the efforts made by the Dutch government, such as the donation of approximately one million euros towards a new memorial in Srebrenica.

At this moment, the BiH Platform is preparing a letter to the Dutch government and all the political parties with concern regarding commemoration of Srebrenica in the Netherlands. In the letter, the platform will ask for the passage of a resolution that fully acknowledges the events of Srebrenica and the role of the Netherlands. Such a statement would be similar to earlier statements by, for example, the British government, the United Nations and the European Union. After the passage of such a statement, Satko Mujagic hopes that Dutch politicians also take their responsibility and that they will commemorate on July 11, together with the Bosnians, the dramatic genocide on the Bosnian Muslims.

When asked about the format of the remembrance, Satko tells the story of his own imprisonment in Omarska and how that affects him in his fight for recognition. To people who survived places such as Omarska and Srebrenica, it is of great importance to be acknowledged by the responsible authorities. Therefore, it is necessary to establish a commemoration, museums, monuments and historical fieldtrips. Only through the institutionalization of these places and memories can the history of the Bosnian genocide be preserved, remembered and taught correctly. There have to be moments and places where people have the opportunity to come together to remember and learn from this horrific genocide. One should therefore acknowledge that there “may also be a need for a monument and museum in the Netherlands.” The commemoration with acknowledgement of the Dutch government would be a step further towards proper dealing with one’s past, and of course it should be said that many things have already been achieved, but Satko concludes the interview revealing the inconvenient truth that “there is definitely room for improvement.”

Jasmina Vugdalic agrees that the Srebrenica Genocide should be commemorated in the Netherlands. When asked why, Jasmina responded that “Srebrenica should be commemorated because it is an example of the evils that humans can commit, and an example of how the rest of the world just sat by while all this was happening. I do believe that the reason that events like this keep repeating is because we don't talk about them enough. I think it is critical for the future generations to know that truly barbaric and unimaginable things can, do and are still happening.”  She believes that knowledge is the best form of commemoration for the victims of Srebrenica. Additionally, she thinks that the Dutch government carries the burden of recognizing the genocide because they were directly involved in the events that transpired. The Dutch were responsible for the safe area, and they failed to protect the people of Srebrenica. Jasmina acknowledges the role of the Dutch in the failures of the West to protect Bosnia, but believes that the government should not carry the events as a badge of shame, but rather admit their mistakes and learn from the past. 

Even though the Dutch government has yet to accept responsibility for their role in the Srebrenica genocide, there have been positive shifts in discourse in recognizing Srebrenica. “Srebrenica” has been incorporated into the historical canon of the Netherlands and is being taught to secondary students in order to highlight the multifaceted difficulties of peacekeeping. This addition to the discourse is accompanied by the 2010 Serbian Declaration on the Srebrenica massacre. In this statement, the Serbian government condemned the crimes committed against the Bosnian Muslims and apologized to the victim’s families. Additionally, there has been an ongoing discourse between the Dutchbat soldiers and Srebrenica survivors that is seen as a tremendous step in the right directions as soldiers and survivors struggle to reconcile with the tragedy that has so greatly impacted their lives respectively.

On January 15, 2009, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on Srebrenica. Most everyone in parliament voted in favor of the resolution. The resolution “calls on the Council and the Commission to commemorate appropriately the anniversary of the Srebrenica-Potocari act of genocide by supporting Parliament's recognition of 11 July as the day of commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide all over the EU, and to call on all the countries of the western Balkans to do the same.” The European Parliament resolution recognized the massacre at Srebrenica as genocide and legitimized the claims of the victims. The resolution re-ignited the Srebrenica debate as similar resolutions were established in the United States and Canada. The Dutch Foreign Minister was asked by an organizer of the National Srebrenica Commemoration to participate in the commemoration. The Dutch Foreign Minister declined the opportunity. The Speaker of the Lower House of Dutch parliament was invited to participate in the July 11 Commemoration of Srebrenica. The Speaker declined. No representative from the Dutch government participated in the commemoration of Srebrenica. In not doing so, the Dutch government denies the victims of Srebrenica vital steps in the reconciliation process. This participation would have acted as a means of bridging a gap that has long existed between Srebrenica and Dutch government.

The resignation of the Kok government was symbolic in that it affirmed that the events in Srebrenica were catastrophic. However, the resignation failed to provide the victims of the Srebrenica genocide with an apology. The apology and therefore recognition of failure in part by the Dutch government to protect the victims was never offered in fear of legal and financial consequences, but it is vital for the victims. The reconciliation process cannot and will not take place until there is justice for the human rights abuses. 

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