Dutch peacekeepers still suffer guilt, stigma 20 years after Srebrenica massacre

Rob Zomer has heard the comments many times over: You're cowards, killers. How could you stand there and do nothing?

A stream of insults to add to the mental injuries they suffered 20 years ago when they were part of a vastly outgunned and outnumbered Dutch battalion of United Nations peacekeepers who failed to halt the slaughter by Bosnian Serb forces of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, eastern Bosnia.

"When you hear — for 20 years now — only bad things that you do," said Zomer, "that makes you stressed, crazy."

Zomer is quick to acknowledge that the main victims of the worst massacre on European soil since World War II are the mothers, wives and daughters of Srebrenica who lost their men and boys in July 1995. But the lives of the small contingent of lightly armed Dutch troops who were powerless to intervene also changed forever. Many suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, and some have taken their own lives.

The Srebrenica massacre also had a profound effect on the Dutch nation. The government resigned seven years later after a damning report criticized authorities for failing to adequately prepare, arm and support the troops, sending them to Bosnia with a vague mandate to protect lives but insufficient weaponry to shield civilians from Bosnian Serb forces led by Gen. Ratko Mladic.

Now, as a result of what happened in Srebrenica, this nation that prides itself on a long history of contributing to international peacekeeping efforts makes sure its servicemen and women are ready to protect local populations but also themselves when they are sent overseas.

Dutch troops sent to serve in the international force in Afghanistan were sent with plenty of military hardware and a robust mandate.

"They had big weapons, big armored personnel carriers, they had helicopters, they had close air support — F16s, Apache (helicopter gunships)," said Derk Zwaan, a former Srebrenica peacekeeper who has also suffered trauma.

The lack of air power was key to the failure of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Srebrenica. The Dutch commander repeatedly called in vain for air backup as Serb troops bore down on the enclave. In the end, only one Serb tank was hit by a single air attack carried out by two American and two Dutch planes, said Joris Voorhoeve, the Dutch defense minister at the time.

Voorhoeve said a contributing factor in the debacle was an agreement between major powers not to use air strikes against Serb forces because it could endanger peacekeepers being held by Mladic.

"We could have bought time by earlier, stronger application of air force," Voorhoeve told The Associated Press.

He said it would not have saved the enclave, but could have given the United Nations a window to evacuate the population.

Instead, Mladic summoned scores of buses and separated men and boys from women as they were loaded on board.

"The buses with the males went in a different direction and we know the horrible effects," Voorhoeve said.

Serb forces methodically gunned down thousands of men at killing fields around Srebrenica before plowing their bodies into mass graves.

Both Zwaan and Zomer still struggle with the aftereffects of their roles in Srebrenica. Neither managed to hold down a job after leaving the military.

Zwaan joined the police in the Netherlands but had to leave due to stress-related complaints; Zomer became a locksmith but wound up quitting the job and the country.

Zwaan is now suing the Dutch government for compensation, alleging that it did not do enough to help veterans after they returned home.

Zomer has chosen a radically different path.

Instead of running from the Srebrenica phantoms haunting him, he went back and confronted them. Zomer now lives in a house he built himself overlooking the undulating hills and forests of Srebrenica. He spends his summer days tending his small herd of goats, cutting the grass with a scythe and making hay.

He still has horrific memories of doing what little he could to help Srebrenica's terrified population as Mladic's Bosnian Serb forces bore down on the enclave.

Zomer recalls a young mother pressing a baby, more dead than alive, into his arms. He carried the infant to a Dutch field hospital, but medics there were unable to save the child. Zomer was forced to bury the baby himself.

Years later, the mother found the remains of her child and buried them in a cemetery in Srebrenica reserved for victims of the genocide.

He said he hopes the baby's mother one day hears that, "I put her baby with a lot of respect in the ground," Zomer said.

It was the best he could do in Srebrenica.

Now, he helps other veterans deal with their traumas.

Dozens have dropped in since he moved to Srebrenica three years ago. They come to revisit places of horror etched into their memories by the events of July 1995 and Zomer hopes they leave with new memories. He takes his former brothers in arms to places where they served as peacekeepers. There, they build a fire, grill some meat and talk.

"First you're thinking of that place only (in terms of) stress," he said. After a barbecue on a summer evening, "then you have another mindset."

Some local residents, however, don't appreciate Zomer's decision to move to Srebrenica, where survivors still blame Dutch troops for not doing enough to protect the enclave's men.

He said that mothers of victims of the genocide still won't shake his hand if they are invited to memorial events to mark the massacre.

Zwaan has been back to Bosnia repeatedly and says he has made friends there.

"They said to me, 'Derk, you also have to continue your life. You can't stay in 1995.'"


Cohadzic contributed from Srebrenica.