By ISA BELLE
For a school assignment, I interviewed an ex-Dutch batter who served in Srebrenica during its fall. The interview was interesting, so I decided to translate and post it here. I encourage you all to read it; however it’s best if you do a bit of research beforehand so you can understand it better.
Please take into consideration that I am not a professional interviewer and have never interviewed before in my life. I hope you find the interview worth your time anyway.
What did you know about the war in Bosnia before you went to Srebrenica?
Not a lot, just that there was a war, I saw a lot of it on television. I knew it was between different national groups. On television I saw blokes with those blue helmets helping the local population, and then I thought that I would like to do that as well. So after high school I applied for military service.
When exactly did you arrive in Srebrenica and how was the situation at that time?
I arrived there in December 1994. The situation was quite calm. I was immediately disappointed in the beginning. I went on a patrol during one of my first days there and I saw this older man who told us: ‘Ide kuce!’ Go home!” That was only one of many examples when I felt that the local population did not really appreciate us being there.
How was the relationship between Dutch soldiers and Muslims in Srebrenica? Also in relation to the death of Raviv van Rensen from a shell of the Bosniak fighters.
We really saw them as “locals;” they were seen as a “different” group of people. Of course we had to be neutral, and in my opinion the Dutch soldiers did a good job at it. We didn’t involve ourselves too much with the locals. Giving humanitarian aid was not allowed as agreed with the Bosnian Serbs. Medically trained staff was only there for the Dutch. Our mission there was only to observe both fighting groups. Through observation one can keep the factions away from each other. The case of Raviv van Rensen was in the last week before the fall of Srebrenica. When it became known that the shell from Bosnian fighters killed him, we thought:”What in God’s name are we doing here?” But we couldn’t complain because that was the only casualty. If you think about the fact that only one man died during the whole mission, it is still (xxxxx) . Then extra medical stock came, in case of similar events, but that stock was never used.
Did you have any idea of Mladic’s plans for the enclave?
No, I was just a normal soldier, nothing special. The staff did not know about them either. It was thought that the Bosnian Serbs only wanted a small part of the enclave. The first attacks were mainly directed to the southern part of the enclave, so we thought they only wanted to have the southern half of the enclave. However, people were wondering what the Bosnian Serbs would do with all the people in there if they might conquer the whole thing.
Were you allowed to use violence or weapons when necessary?
Only if someone aimed for you while shooting, then you were allowed to shoot back at them.
Did you, as a group, have to be extra-careful because there were some Dutch hostages in Serbian hands?
The fact that there were Dutch hostages in Serbian hands did not in any way dictate the way we acted. Commander Thom Karremans did everything possible to get air support, even though there were hostages. It is possible that the hostage situation unconsciously played a role; nonetheless it was not important enough to not ask for air support.
What went wrong with the air support?
I believe that you needed a special form in order to get air support. Karremans filled the form several times, but apparently on the wrong form. You can call it bureaucracy, too many rules around the whole procedure. Furthermore, the request was not directed to the people who can approve as it went to Tuzla. From there it routed to Sarajevo where it was approved before heading to Zagreb. Coincidentally, the Dutch were responsible for approval in both Tuzla and Sarajevo, and thus contributed to the negative image of Dutch during the war. Eventually air support came. There were two Dutch airplanes in the air, again another Dutch image. That gave people a reason to conclude conspiracy theories.
In your opinion, what was the main thing that went wrong?
The failure I think was with the air support. If that had been working well, it probably would have prevented the genocide. The other side factors that also occurred during this time would not have mattered.
How do you feel about the negative image of the Dutch batter?
I do not feel bad about it as I have always been able to think clearly about what I did or did not do. If people want to put it in a negative light, they can; I don’t care. I myself think that the Dutchbat did their best. I don’t think the genocide was the fault of the Dutch; the same thing would have happened if the battalion was from another country.
What happened to you after the fall of Srebrenica and everybody had been evacuated?
After everything happened, my leave started. I had to come back to receive some kind of medal and to pick up some stuff. My wages continued to be paid until September and then my military service time was over. The mandatory military service time is nine months, but I served for fifteen months.
How was the motivation of the Dutchbat?
The biggest group of the Dutchbat arrived in Bosnia in January, and I arrived in December. In March I visited The Netherlands for three weeks. Motivation was hard to find after serving for such a long time. I was working at the hospital they arranged for me. The people working at the military hospital were supposed to leave in the beginning of May while I in the end of May. However, from April on, no-one was able to leave anymore. There was one convoy which had left at the beginning of July, but the people at the military hospital were not with it, so they were quite angry at the staff.
Furthermore, there was this tension between the staff and the soldiers in the hospital, especially with Major Franken. The tensions were common, the staff just wanted to uphold certain rules while the people thought it was a bit overdone, and they wanted to leave anyway. Surgeons, doctors and nurses thought it was time for them to go back home and that the staff did not do enough.
There were other minor incidents that worsened the tensions. For example, there was a certain walking path within the compound along the fences. Every time after dinner people in the military hospital went there to have a walk. At some point, that activity was not allowed because it seemed to hinder the guard working on duty. Then the people invented an alternative, which was to create a smaller route within the compound, but the staff did not agree on this route. So the compound became some kind of a prison where one could not just leave. When the staff limited your basic freedom within the compound, you got annoyed.
I have to say though, that I don’t think the soldiers in the military hospital were real soldiers. I thought they were civilians in military clothes. They did not behave like soldiers. They did not care about military rules; they hated them I think. I, too, disliked the rules, for example the rotating of shifts. There was one shift who wanted to leave, but the staff decided it would be better to send other people on leave. They expected that the people in the hospital could go on leave a week later or something like that. The people could not understand that, they were crying: “I want to go home!”
Moreover, in the beginning there were still things to do, humanitarian help and things like that. After April, the things we could do were limited. There were no patients anymore, so the help stopped because there were few medical supplies in order to nurse people. Then the boredom started. The weather was good, so most of the time we were just laying in the sun on a green field. I also did a lot of exercising, played a lot of risk, so I wasn’t really that bored.