Dutch Blue Helmets: trauma and abandonment 25 years after Srebrenica massacre
By Imane Rachidi
The Hague, Jul 22 (efe-epa).- Jaski Portegies Zwart was 23, Edo van der Berg 21 and Ben Stidge had just turned 18 when they arrived for the first time in Srebrenica as part of a United Nations mission.
They felt untouchable — guardians of peace in a demilitarized territory.
In 1995, they watched on powerlessly as 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by advancing Bosnian Serb troops.
For 25 years, they and many other former soldiers have lived with the trauma of the worst massacre in Europe since World War Two.
They’ve had to field accusations of cowardice as they fight the Dutch government in a legal battle in which they claim they were abandoned and ordered to go on a “suicide mission.”
“It was a really exciting thing to go more out of my comfort zone than Belgium or camping in Germany. So everything was about that trip really exciting, it was for me an adventure,” says Stidge, who lives with his dog in a house on the Dutch border with Germany, isolated from society.
Srebrenica was then a Muslim-majority town surrounded by mostly Bosnian Serbs.
It had been declared a demilitarized zone in 1993 and hosted a group of soldiers from the United Nations Protection Force who were deployed in the area to monitor the ceasefire pact.
But they did not have sufficient firepower to fulfill that task and Bosnian Serb brigades took the enclave in July 1995 with little resistance.
Thousands of Bosnian Muslim fighters and civilians attempted to break through the siege and cross the forested mountains to reach Tuzla on the Bosnian side.
Some succeeded but most were ambushed by Serbian brigades.
Those who survived, some 25,000 people, mostly civilians, sought protection from the Dutch battalion (Dutchbat) base.
But it was all for nothing.
Serbian brigades separated women, children and the elderly from men and teenagers of fighting age.
The first group was deported to Tuzla and the second systematically executed. Between 11 and 22 July, some 8,370 people were killed.
The Blue Helmets did not attempt to prevent the massacre simply because they could not.
They numbered just 350 compared to 5,000 Bosnian Serb troops who advanced on the territory.
The Bosnian Serbs had long blocked their regular supply of ammunition, medicine and food. Despite repeated requests from the battalion the air support they desperately needed never arrived.