July 5, 2006


By Udo Ludwig and Ansgar Mertin

Bosnian Serb army Commander General Ratko Mladic, left, drinks a toast with Dutch UN Commander Tom Karremans, second right, during Srebrenica Massacre July 12, 1995.Some of the Dutch United Nations soldiers who failed to prevent the massacre of Srebenica in July 1995 gave the Serbs a back-slapping welcome, handed over their uniforms and even actively helped to separate Bosnian men from their families, say relatives of the 8,000 men and boys who were murdered. A German attorney is preparing a lawsuit against the UN and the Netherlands.

They are unbelievable scenes that Sabaheta Fejzic, a bookkeeper from Vogosca near Srebenica, will never forget. War had been raging for years in Bosnia, and in the summer of 1995 everyone in Srebrenica was scared to death of the Serbian militia. But the people still had faith: in the United Nations, which had declared this city in Bosnia a “protected zone,” and in the blue-helmeted soldiers from the Netherlands, who had been stationed nearby for more than a year, charged with protecting this sanctuary.

But then, on July 11 1995, the battle for Srebrenica escalated. Grenades flew, gunshots whipped through the air, and soon there were bodies lying everywhere. Sabaheta Fejzic and her husband ran with their baby to a Dutch military base. But instead of finding shelter there, they were turned away: the camp was overcrowded.

And then Sabaheta saw something she still can barely believe: A group of Serbian soldiers ran across some Dutch troops – and the soldiers greeted one another happily. They threw their caps in the air and some even hugged one another. “We were shocked,” said Sabaheta Fejzic.

Srebrenica Massacre widows Zumra Sehomerovic, Kada Hotic and Sabaheta Fejzic (from left to right) in Bare cemetery, Sarajevo.It was then that many refugees suspected what would happen to them, because they no longer had protectors. The next evening, the Serbs arrived, recalls Sabaheta, and indiscriminately took girls, boys and men out of the camp. She told a Dutch soldier about the deportations but he only pushed her away. The Serbs also took her husband, and literally tore her son from her arms. Sabaheta Fejzic never saw either of them again.

On these days in July, the Serbs murdered more than 8,000 Muslim Bosnians (Bosniaks). Even now, mass graves are still being discovered. The shameful role of the Dutch soldiers in the massacre was the subject of several investigating committees in the Netherlands. Prime Minister Wim Kok accepted responsibility and had to go as a result of the mistakes of the political and military leadership.

Eleven years after the massacre, the events of the summer of 1995 are now taking on a new dimension. The largest independent legal firm in Holland has familiarized itself with the fate suffered by people like Sabaheta Fejzic. And in the coming autumn, the lawyers, working for about 7,930 victims and surviving family members, will sue the government of the Netherlands und the United Nations for compensation in the district court of The Hague. It would be the first time that the UN must answer to a court of law for the alleged failure of their troops, shackled by politics and bureaucracy, to safeguard the very people they were charged with protecting.

Axel Hagedorn of Germany heads the international department of the Amsterdam law office of Van Diepen/ Van der Kroef. “We have closely examined the local conditions in Bosnia, and we have spoken with many survivors,” said the attorney. He says he has documented so many gruesome deeds that he believes he has a good chance of success with his case.

Dutch “trying to keep a lid on it”

A Bosnian woman weeps next to the coffins of Srebrenica Massacre victims, Muslim men and children, before their burial in Potocari, near Srebrenica.But Hagedorn also knows he will have to convey the full horror of what happened in order to win, because the government of the Netherlands is trying “to keep a lid on it”. Reparations isn’t an issue in the Netherlands, he said, adding that hardly anyone thinks about the many people who were killed or who lost their families due to the woeful behavior of the Dutch troops.

But people in the Balkans haven’t forgotten, and the extent to which the massacre still affects them became very clear to German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung during a brief stopover in Bosnia the week before last. Near Sarajevo, Jung spoke with a man about the World Cup. Germany and Italy are fantastic teams, said the young Bosnian, but he had his problems with the Netherlands. And why so? Jung asked: “Have you had a bad experience with Dutch people?”

The man hesitated and then uttered only one word: “Srebrenica.”

Hagedorn and his staff say they are attacking “a wall of silence.” After two years of preparation, the team of attorneys is going public with the case this week in the Netherlands. “It’s not going to be a picnic for us,” said the attorney, who moved to Amsterdam from Hamburg a few years ago. After all, many people in the Netherlands do not want to reminded of the events in Bosnia.

The attorneys have formulated charges: First of all, in contradiction to their UN orders, the Dutch troops did not protect the Muslims, so that the population became an unprotected target for the Serbs. Secondly, the Dutch authorities were slow to report the atrocities to the UN – which is why no additional help was sent.

Hagedorn said he could even imagine that “a few soldiers collaborated with the Serbs out of fear.” But the Dutch government and the United Nations should never have exposed such “completely unprepared people” to a situation where serious shooting was taking place.

Ten attorneys in Holland and four in Bosnia currently are working on the class action suit. Their criticism of the Dutch Army leadership is based first and foremost upon accounts from such eyewitnesses as Zumra Sehomerovic, 54.

The woman from Srebrenica describes how Dutch soldiers allowed Serb militia leader Ratko Mladic’s men to disarm them, without resisting. Some of the Dutch troops even took off their uniforms – and Serbs then slipped them on.

Dutch help

The next day, the Dutch troops lined up with the Serbian Chetniks as if nothing had happened. The UN soldiers had helped to separate the Muslim men from their families. Zumra Sehomerovic saw her husband once more, standing in a ditch on the left side of the road. He was never seen again.

The attorney see the women’s testimony as essential because they think it will refute the line the Dutch government has taken up to now that its soldiers had no idea about any atrocities, and could have done nothing even if they had known.

But now witnesses are providing detailed reports of how they repeatedly informed the Dutch troops about murder and rapes. It was in fact possible to know what was going on in the protected zone, said Hagedorn, because “many soldiers must have heard the screams of people and the shots.”

But the suit will not be directed only at the government of the Netherlands; it will also be against the UN. Up to now, the Dutch government has argued that its unit, called “Dutchbat,” was part of the Unprofor peacekeeping force [United Nations Protection Force]. Thus all legal claims must be lodged with the United Nations.

Should the judges in The Hague follow this line of argumentation, UN General secretary Kofi Annan might have to weigh in on the debate about why his soldiers, borrowed from member states, often “do nothing when the going gets tough” (Hagedorn). In Rwanda, too, the UN utterly failed just when the situation became most dangerous.

Hagedorn’s team has already cleared one hurdle. The Dutch judge has granted financial assistance to cover trial costs for ten plaintiffs whose cases represent the others. Now the statements will be drawn up for these ten women. In addition, the attorneys want to create a foundation in the Netherlands for the other plaintiffs, which would make it possible to launch an American-style class action suit under Dutch law.

First, the court will decide whether the Dutch state shares responsibility – and thus liability – for the massacre. A second lawsuit would then focus on the amount of reparations.

For most surviving family members, however, money isn’t really the issue. They still want an answer to the question why the Dutch soldiers did not at least try to stop the Serbian butchers.

In July 1995, Kada Hotic fled from the Serbs toward the UN camp with her husband Sead and her brothers Ekrem and Mustafa. But she said the Dutch troops turned them back, and did nothing to protect her and the many thousands of other unarmed refugees.

True, there were only 500 Dutch troops against an overwhelmingly superior force of 15,000 Serbs. But why didn’t they request back-up, why didn’t they ask for air strikes? And why didn’t they at least surrender properly, instead of – as eyewitnesses say – even assisting the Serbs?

And why did the Dutch commander in charge, Colonel Ton Karremans, even drink a toast with mass murderer Ratko Mladic whose Serbian troops were wreaking havoc outside?

Hotic only knows that the Serbs, after drinking a toast to the dead, then took her husband and one of her brothers with them. The bodies of Sead and Ekrem were discovered later in a mass grave. “I have lost trust in the UN and in the whole world,” she said.

Translated from German by Toby Axelrod

  1. Owen
    July 5, 2006 at 9:02 am

    Daniel – it’s happened again. I’ve just done the verification and pressed Publish. The message has remained in the box and a new Verification code has appeared without any message telling me that the first effort to Publish was unsuccessful. If you get the message with this addition and not the one without this comment we’ll have an idea where the problem is occurring.
    (I trust you can delete this at the moderation stage)


    I think this is a potentially dangerous enterprise. The Dutch government and the UN certainly have to shoulder some responsibility for the failure of the demoralised and outnumbered Dutchbat force to put up any adequate resistance to Mladic. And this action will perhaps focus attention on the record of UN peace-keeping efforts elsewhere, in DRC for example.

    However we know that UN peacekeeping missions are often understaffed and under-resourced. Governments are often reluctant to commit manpower and equipment to back up worthy expressions of intent. Some UN peace-keeping forces have been effective, others have at least prevented a bad situation deteriorating into worse.

    The danger is that if governments contemplate the additional risk of financial liability that the success of this action would pose, they are liely to become even more reluctant to intervene.

    Douglas Hurd has been reported as saying that Srebrenica was the worst mistake of his political career. He elaborated. The mistake was not having failed to take timely action to prevent the massacre, it was having become involved in the defence of the safe havens. I think he saw this as having sucked the UK into what he seems to have seen as an internal conflict in which there was little hope of influencing the outcome and lots of risk.

    The danger is that an action like this – absolutely justified as it is – will nevertheless have the negative effect in the wider context of discouraging governments from becoming involved in a proposed peace-keeping mission on principle.

  2. David B.
    July 6, 2006 at 6:52 am

    Owen, I am afraid this is a Class-Action Lawsuit against the Dutch government and the United Nations. None of these institutions showed any genuine remorse or accountability with respect to Srebrenica massacre tragedy.

    The question is: Will Srebrenica massacre victims get any compensation?

    In Class-Action Lawsuits, victims barely see any money, because lawyers put at least 50% of awarded money into its own pockets.

    The rest is divided among thousands of victims which results in very small payouts.

    However, I don’t think this is about the money; this is about the U.N./Dutch accountability for failure to protect civilians from Srebrenica massacre.

    Now we know that Serbian forces also massacred babies:

    “Sabaheta Fejzic and her husband ran with their baby to a Dutch military base….The Serbs also took her husband, and literally tore her son from her arms. Sabaheta Fejzic never saw either of them again.”

  3. hissyfit_queen
    June 7, 2008 at 8:11 am

    absolutely awful!the suffering of these people os unimaginable!The perpetrators are evil, I wonder how anyone can kill a person ,let alone thousands. I can`t even raise a hand to anyone.
    The world should never forget what happened.
    “Lest we forget.”

  4. Anonymous
    June 9, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    There are no words to describe how this makes me feel. I can’t understand how something like this could even have happenend. Maybe Sabaheta Fejzic is right. I’ve lost faith in the world too. Many of my relatives were killed in this war and some of them weren’t even found. I so hope everyone of the perpetrators gets what they deserve. If not in this life then in the afterlife!

  5. Al Turkmany
    July 16, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    We look at the massacre of more than 8000 Muslim in Srebrenica Genocide
    to be committed by the Criminals Serbs
    forgetting the important role of EU and
    Russia in this war Eu provide a strong
    cover for the Serbs to commit their Crimes by not allowing any kind of weapons to be delivered to the Muslims
    and asking the fighting parties for
    peace they were actually guilty as much as the Serbs and some Eu citizen actually fight with the Serbs such as the Greeks , the Russian did much worse than this they send their solder to fight with the Serbs even their pilots and their war planes to drop their bombs on defense less Muslim .
    if you remember the war at its last days start to take a different path with the Muslim winning the war at this time the US , Eu and the Russian ergs for fire stop and at that time the Muslim fighter were in the way to Banjaloka a major city for the Serbs so you can see
    when the Serbs were winning its OK let them fight as long as the Serb Killing Muslim children and raping Muslim woman’s but once the Muslim start to win this war the west immediately seek for the war to stop and for peace take and I think the Dutch peace force as called is one of the strongest evidence of the insolvent of Eu , this mean there should be no peace no talk with infidels Serbs my brothers don’t be fooled by the peace and other crab its only the language of fire these Serbs Understand blood for blood and an eye for an eye .

  6. Anonymous
    August 12, 2008 at 4:33 pm

    The dutch have always been cowards.

  7. Owen
    August 12, 2008 at 10:04 pm

    Coming back to my comments of two years ago, I’m still convinced as I was then that the action was absolutely justified. I’m less convinced of the risks inherent in it. If the UN does not provide an adequate mandate and the contributing nation states do not provide adequate forces the only remedy is for them to be held to account by those they have let down.

    An employer or service provider owes their employee or their customer a duty of care.

    If a nation volunteering forces can show that they discharged their duty of care competently and conscientiously they have an adequate defence. If they did not observe that obligation they had no business taking on the task in the first place.

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