The tulips of Srebrenica

It is July 1995 in Srebrenica, Bosnia. The Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic is shouting at the Dutch commander Thom Karremans. “Don’t tell me nonsense,” bawls Mladic, through an interpreter. “Answer my questions! Did you give orders to fire at my troops?” The moustachioed Karremans is rubbing his face slowly. He looks like a man trapped in a nightmare. “I gave the order to defend themself,” he said.

In video footage recorded by a Serbian cameraman at the time – the authenticity of which is not disputed – Mladic puffs his cigarette. He leans in. He knows exactly what he is doing. Placing his hand on the wall behind Karremans, he says: “You are here to help the Muslims and the Croats.” Karremans looks exhausted. He rubs his eyes, and mumbles something about a piano. “I’m sorry?” asks the interpreter. Karremans elucidates: “I am a piano player. Don’t shoot the piano player.”

Mladic shouts: “You are a poor piano player. Are you a married man, do you have children?” Nobody could miss the implicit threat.

Instead of shooting the piano player, Mladic’s soldiers shot about 8,000 Muslim men whom the Dutch were meant to be protecting. On Monday Mladic’s trial finally gets going in The Hague. His massacre is above all a Bosnian trauma. In time it will presumably become a Serb trauma. However, it’s also a Dutch trauma. Mladic found the country’s eternal weak spot.

Briefly, this is how Europe’s worst massacre since 1945 unfolded: a few hundred “Dutchbat” soldiers were supposedly protecting the “safe haven” of Srebrenica. They had only light arms, weren’t allowed to shoot unless shot at first, and never got the air cover they needed from the United Nations. Worse, they came from a country where not even the military has a warrior culture. In impossible circumstances, Dutchbat did everything wrong.

The Dutchbatters mostly just wanted to get out of Bosnia alive. After Mladic marched in, Muslims fled to Dutchbat’s compound, thinking the Dutch would save them. But Dutchbatters stood by and let Mladic’s soldiers pick out Bosnian men of military age. The Dutch journalist Bernard Hammelburg bewailed “the daft way our troops were standing around commanding traffic while the men and women were separated. I found that an Auschwitz image.” The massacre of Bosnian men – and many boys – had already begun.

Eventually Mladic allowed Dutchbat to leave Srebrenica. On video (available on YouTube) we see delighted Dutchbatters downing Heineken and dancing the conga. Mladic hands Karremans two presents. “Is this for my wife? Is this for my wife?” asks Karremans. “Have a safe journey,” says Mladic. He gives the thumbs-up and waves as the Dutch drive off.

When Dutchbat got home, the Dutch Crown Prince Willem-Alexander told them how proud he was of “your accomplishments in Srebrenica”. The Dutchbatters got medals. But soon the Dutch mood shifted. Srebrenica wasn’t merely a horror. It also echoed the other great Dutch horror: the selection and murder of three-quarters of all Dutch Jews during Hitler’s war. Then, too, the Dutch – contrary to foreign myth – had mostly stood by and watched. No other western European country lost a greater proportion of its Jews.

It was precisely to prevent another Auschwitz that the Dutch had initially joined the UN’s mission in Bosnia. This time, the Dutch wouldn’t stand by. But then, in Srebrenica, they did. “We put them on the train to Auschwitz again,” the Dutch author Raymond van den Boogaard sums up in his book on the massacre. Janja Bec-Neumann, a Serbian-born writer on genocide, uses another dread word from the 1940s. “On a micro level, for a couple of days in July 1995, Dutchbat collaborated with the Bosnian-Serb army,” she told the Dutch magazine De Groene Amsterdammer.

The Dutch government asked the Dutch Institute for War Documentation (Niod), which had spent decades researching the second world war, to write the official report on Srebrenica. When the report appeared, in 2002, the government resigned.

The Niod report said some Dutch troops had developed “negatively coloured stereotyped views” of the Srebrenica population. Some Dutchbatters, for instance, mocked the inhabitants – not all of whom had power showers – for smelling. These views perhaps made it easier for Dutchbat to hand over the Muslims. Nonetheless, as in the 1940s, the Dutch weren’t motivated by racist bloodlust. Rather, they were scared and clueless. This is not a warrior nation. As the political theorist Robert Kagan would say, the Dutch don’t have a hammer, and so they are helpless when somebody else does. Karremans enabled Mladic as his forebears had enabled Hitler. “To act like a tulip”, says Bec-Neumann, happens to be a longstanding Serbo-Croat expression meaning “to do nothing, fearfully”.

Srebrenica shook the Dutch belief that they could go around the world doing good while more primitive peoples, such as Americans and Britons, used hammers. The idealistic, blue-eyed Netherlands where I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s died some time after Srebrenica.

Mladic is on trial now, and the Netherlands may follow. Srebrenica’s survivors have begun legal action against the Dutch state.

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