Dutchbat III and Srebrenica 1995

I hate to be judgmental, I dislike people who are judgmental. And yet, these times seem to be filled with this judgemental mentality. About current events and phenomena as well as those in the past. In retrospect, people are scrutinized and subsequently crucified for their actions of possibly years or even decades ago. Twenty-twenty hindsight combined with a high degree of ‘keyboard warriorism’ can give us a very judgemental narrative on something ‘keyboard warriors’ know nothing about.

In my opinion such is the case of the Srebrenica genocide in July 1995, and the role of the Dutch UN-batallion DUTCHBAT III and the unit’s CO, Lt-Col Ton Karremans. This UN-unit consisted of a few hundred men and women, lightly armed, on a humanitarian mission and responsible for guarding the Srebrenica area in Bosnia-Hercegovina as a UN ‘safe area’ against the Bosnian-Serb armed forces, led by Ratko Mladic. History has taught all of us how that has worked out. It became a bloody disaster.

Karremans and DUTCHBAT III have been accused of willingly cooperating with the Bosnian Serb military in what was to become a mass murder of 8,000 Muslim men in July of 1995. Video footage had been broadcasted of Karremans appearing seemingly joyful while meeting Mladic, exchanging gifts, as well as DUTCHBAT III assisting in displacing and separating the Muslim men from the women and children. Those men subsequently being taken away by the Serbs and executed in nearby areas.

They say ‘a picture says more than a thousand words’. However, what that picture says can be a flat-out misconception. As, in my opinion, is the case here. To thoroughly understand this, one has to look at the big picture. The background on a global, political and military scale. When studying all that, a possibly (and in my opinion definitely) different picture emerges. The roots of the Srebrenica massacre can be found at the highest levels, both within the UN and within several Governments.

First off, Dutch Department of Defense had sent their Military off with a mandate that made them vulnerable from the outset. A humanitarian mission, not requiring heavy armament, safe-guarding an already established United Nations ‘safe area’ in the Srebrenica area, to be taken over from the Canadians. This was the underestimated fashion in which DUTCHBAT I, II, III and IV were sent. ‘Visible presence’ of the UN this way was supposed to prevent the Bosnian Serbs from barging into the area.

Or so was the belief. Resolution 819 from the UN Security Council was the mandate. To be enforced by an international UNPROFOR military coalition. However, the entire conflict in former Yugoslavia would prove once again that the United Nations, with its lack of punching power, lack of resolve and lack of support from participating Governments, was and is a ‘toothless monster’. You can send the Military into an area but if you are not willing to back up words with actions, you will fail miserably.

And this lack of resolve from higher-up was felt by Karremans and his personnel. Too lightly armed, flooded with refugees and heavily outnumbered by Bosnian Serb forces, led by the ‘Butcher’ Mladic, which had been dug in there for a long time by then, both DUTCHBAT and the refugees they were supposed to protect were slowly but surely starved to death, being completely cut off from supplies and receiving no support at all from UN Headquarters in Zagreb, led by the French Lt-Gen Janvier.

Karremans requested air support at least four times, on July 6th, July 8th and July 11th, 1995. Three times, Sarajevo-based Brig-Gen Nicolai refused to dispatch the request to Lt-Gen Janvier because the request ‘did not meet the requirements in accordance of the ROE’. The fourth time, on July 11th, air support arrived in the shape of two Dutch F-16’s. It was Lt Manja ‘Toots’ Blok, the world’s first female operational F-16 pilot, who threw two bombs on two Serb tanks, then was ordered to leave the area.

More aerial missions were launched but they couldn’t find the area. Then air support was halted altogether. Apparently, ‘safe areas’ such as Srebrenica had already been deemed a lost cause. So, Karremans and his personnel were on their own. Heavily outnumbered and outgunned, no support, no supplies. And this is the setting in which the CO of DUTCHBAT III had to make an immensely hard decision. A deadly and impossible ‘Catch 22’ decision which would haunt him for the rest of his life.

When the Bosnian Serbs marched into the area, Karremans undeniably tried to reason with Mladic at first, seeking some sort of peaceful manner of what was inevitable: the Serbs taking over the area. Left with no room to maneuver at all by Mladic, Karremans did not opt for resisting, standing their ground and fight to the last man. He saw the lost cause. It would happen anyway. So, the CO chose to do everything in his power to get DUTCHBAT III out alive. It was no use to die right there and then.

Of course, DUTCHBAT III couldn’t have known about the pre-conceived Serbian plans to conduct a true genocide. And, when it commenced and when there could be no denial, what were Karremans and his people to do? Protest? Take up arms? Resist? From the outset all that was futile, and Ton Karremans knew it. With or without their resistance, the macabre Serbian plans were to be carried out anyway. So, Karremans’ only option was to try and get his men and women out of this alive.

I can hear those civilian ‘keyboard warriors’ shout ‘Hey! That’s what you Military have signed up for and are paid for: to fight and die. You neglected your duty!’ I strongly disapprove of this statement. It requires a set of huge brass balls on the part of Karremans to make this impossible choice and go for the lesser bad option in light of the circumstances of isolation and lack of support: bring DUTCHBAT III home in one piece. Karremans stood for his men and women. The Bosnian Muslims may disagree.

Watch the movie ‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’ You may conclude, just like me, that the real crime rests not with Lt-Col Karremans and DUTCHBAT III but with the higher-ups, the Generals and Politicians, who refused to deliver when the proverbial shit hit the fan. Ton Karremans and his people are often wrongly regarded as cowards and traitors. However, given the impossible circumstances, they have made the most of the situation. Whether we like the outcome or not. They simply had no choice…



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Peter van Stigt

Peter van Stigt

Dutch, military aviation artist, civilian, not a pilot but a city bus driver, independent thinker, but most of all: human being.