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Dutch Supreme Court Says The Netherlands Shares Responsibility In Srebrenica Massacre


In 1995, the war in Bosnia hit a tragic low point - the massacre at Srebrenica. Bosnian Serb forces killed an estimated 8,000 Muslim men and boys. Now the Dutch Supreme Court has said the Netherlands shares a small part of the blame for some of those deaths. Here to explain is David Rohde of The New Yorker. He covered the massacre as a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and won a Pulitzer for his reporting. Thanks for joining us.

DAVID ROHDE: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: To begin, the massacre at Srebrenica occurred almost 25 years ago. So just remind our listeners what happened there.

ROHDE: Essentially, Srebrenica had been declared a U.N. safe area. It was an effort by the U.S. and Europe to sort of somehow prevent the bloodletting in Bosnia. And rather than protect a town with U.S. troops, Dutch peacekeepers were sent to Srebrenica. And there was a promise that if the town was attacked, there would be NATO airstrikes led by the United States that would protect, you know - again, this is a U.N.-protected safe area.

SHAPIRO: So the Dutch were there as U.N. peacekeepers, and what happened?

ROHDE: The Dutch essentially capitulated. The Serbs took the town. There were 30,000 Bosnian Muslims in this surrounded enclave. And very quickly, the Dutch retreated to their U.N. base. And Serb soldiers started hunting for all the men and boys they could find among the Muslims who were trapped in the town.

SHAPIRO: I know that still, to this day, in Bosnia there is a ceremony to bury the unmarked remains of people that have been unearthed at Srebrenica. And so clearly there are still open wounds all these years later. Explain the culpability of the Dutch people that the Dutch Supreme Court found today.

ROHDE: So the really controversial moment was there were several Bosnians who worked as translators or employees of the Dutch on their base. There's one who's a friend of mine named Hasan Nuhanovic. And instead of having his brother and father flee through the woods, as most men in Srebrenica did, Hasan advised them to come to the Dutch base. And he said, you know, to his father and brother - and his mother came as well - the Dutch will protect you because I am a U.N. employee. Come inside the base.

SHAPIRO: And what happened?

ROHDE: The Dutch forced all of the men to leave the base, including Hasan's father and brother. His mother, you know, couldn't bear letting just the two of them leave, so Hasan's mother left as well. All three of them were executed.

SHAPIRO: Now the court ruling says that the Dutch forces are only implicated in the deaths of 350 people, which is a small percentage. How did they reach that number?

ROHDE: So the 350 are roughly how many men and boys had gone onto the U.N. base itself inside of it and expected to be protected, cases exactly like Hasan's, the one I described.


ROHDE: And essentially the Dutch court has ruled that if they had been allowed to stay on the base - again, they were all sort of ordered to leave by the Dutch - they would only have a 10% chance of surviving. I strongly disagree with this ruling.

There was a subsequent incident. Another town fell in a different part of former Yugoslavia during the war. And they were Canadian U.N. peacekeepers. And they were much more aggressive about protecting everyone who'd come on their base. They did not let the Serbs on the base. They sort of dared them to use force, and the Serbs backed off. And there was very small effort by the Dutch to do that.

This ruling is - you know, there are already statements coming out from survivors, but saying that this is sort of adding insult to injury, that, you know, saying it's only a 10% chance these men would have survived.

SHAPIRO: Have you talked to any of the Dutch peacekeepers about how they think of their actions that day?

ROHDE: The members of the unit actually feel quite guilt-ridden by it. I think some feel that they're unfairly blamed. And to be fair, you know, it was the world powers. It was, you know, Washington and its European allies wanting to look like they were doing something in Bosnia. And they essentially sent these Dutch peacekeepers on a mission impossible. But they do - I would say most of them wished they had done more done more on that day.

And in the end - and I want to be very clear on this - the real guilt here lies with the Bosnian Serbs, with Ratko Mladic, who was convicted of genocide for these killings around Srebrenica. That's where the responsibility lies. But it does set a precedent for future peacekeepers that they could be liable - maybe only 10% liable - for their actions when they're asked to protect civilians.

SHAPIRO: David Rohde of The New Yorker, thank you for speaking with us.

ROHDE: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And we spoke to him on Skype. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.