On 11 July 1995 the Srebrenica enclave is overwhelmed by Bosnian-Serb troops led by General Ratko Mladic. The Muslim women are separated from the men. An estimated 8,000 Muslim men are then murdered and dumped in mass graves. Dutchbat digs its own mass grave. Where exactly, no one knows any more. “Two Dutchbatters took away my baby in a cardboard box. Where is her grave?”
By Eldin Hadzovic and Zvezdana Vukojevic
“The nurse said she was stillborn. The umbilical cord was twisted around her neck, and it suffocated her. I was inconsolable, but so weak I couldn’t even grieve. I fell unconscious,” the Bosnian Muslim Hava Muhic explains. A bit later, two Dutch soldiers come in with a cardboad box. “They took the baby with them, and said they were going to bury her. I didn’t even get a chance to see her.”
Half an hour after Muhic — then 24 — delivers a stillborn little girl, Dutchbat personnel send her away from their base. Still bleeding, she’s put into a truck and taken to a safer area.
It’s 11 July 1995. The Srebrenica enclave is overwhelmed by Bosnian-Serb troops led by General Ratko Mladic. The Muslim women are separated from the men. An estimated 8,000 Muslim men are then murdered and dumped in mass graves. To prevent discovery of this war crime — seen as genocide in the eyes of the Yugoslavian Tribunal and the International Court of Justice — the Serbs later dig up the bodies, and lay them in other graves spread all over Bosnia.
Dutchbat digs its own mass grave. And Muhic’s baby isn’t the only one buried on the Dutch base in Potocari, says ex-Dutchbatter Dave Maat (now 35).
Maat comes away from his experience in Srebrenica with post-traumatic stress syndrome. In an effort to recover damages from the Dutch Defense Ministry, he files a so-called ‘WOB’ (Wet Openbaar Bestuur or Open Government Act) procedure. As a windfall, he also receives officers’ reports and fact sheets, in which eight anonymous soldiers state that people are buried in a mass grave on the compound in Potocari.
In 2009, Maat hears from a former colleague, Adja Anakotta, that people in Bosnia are looking for information about the grave. He quickly puts all his documents at their disposal. The papers show that between five and nine adults are buried on the base. Only one baby is officially reported, but there are indications that in fact there are two or maybe even three.
“It reminds me of those vanished Srebrenica photo negatives. I don’t have a good feeling about it.”
Ex-Dutchbatter Dave Maat
At the time, the mass grave is set off with red and white ribbon, and marked by a wooden sign on which the names of the deceased are written in black felt marker. Despite the sign, the names of the dead appear nowhere in the documents. One body is identified as 70-year-old Behara Delilović. The others are said to be two men aged 70 and 75, a 20-year-old woman, and a baby boy who was born and deceased on 13 July 1995. One painful detail from the officer’s report: at the same moment mass murder is in progress all around Srebrenica, a soldier reports losing 300 Deutschmarks.
To find out exactly where the grave is situated, Maat files a new Open Government Act request. The Ministry of Defense lets him wait a year for a rejection.
“If there’s ever a suspicion that Second World War veterans are lying somewhere, no effort is spared, and a painstaking investigation is done to trace them,” Maat remarks. “Now that we’re talking about some buried Bosnians, the opposite happens. Nothing. And on top of that, more documents have gone missing. All kinds of moves are made, which make me think: if I did that, I’d have been fired a hundred times over. But highly-placed people in the Ministry of Defense get away with it. There are no sanctions against that. It reminds me of those vanished Srebrenica photo negatives. I don’t have a good feeling about it.”
Dave Maat is nineteen when he joins the roughly six hundred Dutch soldiers who, under the flag of the United Nations, go off to guard the ‘safe zone’ of Srebrenica. “We went to Bosnia to help people. Not to fight. I liked that idea. But we were sitting on the Titanic with those people. All we could do was move the furniture around.”
Gunner Joeri Eggink (22) also arrives in Bosnia in good spirits. There in the virgin snow he encounters a war zone. People are sitting in shot-up houses with missing façades and no rooves. They forage for food and sticks of wood to keep themselves warm. In his very first week, Eggink gets shot at. “You didn’t know by whom. But the bullets landed exactly a meter away from you on the ground. That’s just plain harrassment.” Scarcely two weeks later, Eggink has formed his conclusions. “You can’t do a thing for these people. We’re never gonna make this work.”
Adje Anakotta (24) dreams of being part of the air mobile brigade, but instead he gets sent out as a medic. His father — a proud veteran of the erstwhile Royal Dutch Indonesian Army — is worried about him. “It scared him, that as a UN soldier you get sent on a humanitarian mission, right in between two adversaries. He figured there wouldn’t be much we could do if the conflict broke out. Turns out my father was right.”
In April 1993, the UN declares Srebrenica a safe zone. The enclave in Bosnia-Herzegovina — which one year earlier broke away from the republic of Yugoslavia, and then became the scene of fighting between ethnic groups — now becomes populated by about 50,000 Bosnian Muslims fleeing from war violence. The Dutch blue-helmets must find a way to deflect a Serbian attack on the enclave. They are very lightly armed, and can do little more than walk patrols. ‘Observe and report’ is the motto. Beyond that, Dutchbat must take care that no Serbs come into the enclave, and no Muslims leave it. Eggink: “We were supposed to disarm the Muslims. During winter that went well enough, as the war fell practically silent then. But in the spring, the Serbs put the pressure on again, and disarming the Muslims was no longer viable.”
When war breaks out at the start of 1992, Hava Muhic is 21 years old. She lives nearby Srebrenica with her two-year-old son Aldin and her husband Hajrudin, who is a furniture maker. As the violence flares, the family flees into the woods. There they live for roughly six months in makeshift shelters. But when it gets too cold, they return to Srebrenica, which in spring the UN declares a ‘safe zone’ for Bosnian Muslims. “Most people from the surrounding villages were Serbian, and we were separated from each other.”
The living conditions quickly deteriorate. There is no food, water or electricity, and gradually more and more Muslims are coming to Srebrenica. Muhic takes refuge in a school building in the city, where she shares one room with her little son, her husband, his brother and their father. At night the men go off into the Serbian area, sometimes twenty kilometers deep, looking to steal potatoes. “Of course it was unintentional, but at the end of 1994 I got pregnant,” Muhic says. “We assumed the war would be over soon. And we were protected by UN troops, weren’t we? At least that’s what we thought.”
At the beginning of March, tensions in the vicinity are on the rise. The Serbs expel the Dutchbatters from their area, and only allow piecemeal food transports to trickle through. The Muslims start harassing the Dutchbatters, according to Eggink. “They tried everything to provoke the Serbs, so that we’d have to intervene. As Karremans said: ‘No good guys, no bad guys’.”
Nor did the Dutchbatters always behave in an exemplary manner. To avoid being annoyed by begging children, they made T-shirts saying “nema bonbon” — no candy. And they chalked the walls of the base with expressions like “No teeth? A Mustache? Smell like shit? Bosnian girl!”
A young man carrying his dead father home in his arms, gets inexplicably spat upon by Dutch blue-helmets near the gate, Adje Anakotta recalls. He himself stands guard one day right near the place where Dutchbat dump their trash. Four children come searching there for something useful. It is forbidden for them to be on UN grounds, and moreover the children are in the middle of a shooting area for the Serbs. Anakotta warns the children repeatedly. They don’t listen. Suddenly Anakotta’s sergeant walks up and pulls out a Glock 9 millimeter, loads it and aims at the children. “He started screaming real loud and waving that Glock around. Those kids were totally in a panic,” Anakotta says. Especially the little girl with blond curls, I can still remember the look on her face.
“I called out: ‘Sergeant, what are you doing? We can’t do that!’ — ‘Shut your mouth, I know what I’m doing!’ — He kept on cursing. The children ran away crying. Later I noticed he’d been using my Glock to threaten those children.”
One day Hava Muhic goes along with her husband to steal potatoes. They walk all night. “All at once we heard shooting. I don’t think the Serbs had seen us, but I was scared to death. After that I never came along again.”
At a given moment, the Serbs blockade the food transports completely. “There was no food, no vegetables, no fruit, no vitamins and no medicine. Nothing I needed during my pregnancy. If I was lucky I’d eat one meal per day, a sort of mash we made from grain. It was cattle feed, really.”
10 July 1995
At five in the morning, Dave Maat is awakened by one of his colleagues. “All hell’s broken loose! The Serbs are shooting with flak shells!” Flak is normally meant for taking out aircraft, but now the Serbs are using it to target Muslim establishments. When the sun rises, it’s suddenly terrifyingly quiet. Then comes the report that the Dutch observation post Foxtrot has fallen, and that the enclave and its refugees are now being fired upon with heavy artillery, including howitzers. From that moment, Dave Maat loses all track of time. He can’t tell any more if it all takes a day, two days or five. “I’ve never had so much adrenaline in my body. I thought my last hour had struck.”
At that same moment, gunner Joeri Eggink is sitting in an armored vehicle in Srebrenica. Just fifty men with six armored vehicles are expected to hold off thousands of advancing Serbs. “Suicide,” Eggink says. “A month earlier my machine gun had jammed. Not only did we have too little materiel, what we did have was trash.” In the course of the day, a large group of very aggressive armed Muslim combatants gathered in the market square, according to Eggink. “They threatened to shoot us to pieces if we retreated. They wanted us to go fight the Serbs alongside them.”
The very pregnant Muhic is also standing in the market square. “We couldn’t stay in Srebrenica, because of the Serbian advance. People were panicking, and I could be giving birth at any moment.”
As evening falls, the combatants pull out. Around two in the morning Muhic starts to get contractions. “The city was already surrounded, and the Serbian army was closing in fast. I was lost. I had my little three-year-old son with me, but none of the things I’d need for the baby.”
The refugees move en masse toward the Dutchbat base in Potocari, in hope of finding protection. Muhic and her husband too. It’s the last time she sees him.
“I still remember very well: the apples in the orchard were still green and sour, but there was nothing else to eat. My husband plucked a few and gave them to me. ‘Take good care of yourself and our child,’ he told me. I didn’t know those were the last words I’d ever hear from him.”
Just like so many men, Muhic’ husband tried together with his two brothers and their father, to break through the Serbian blockade and escape through the forest. In vain. “I got word that they found part of his skeleton — about a third of it. But he’s not buried yet. I want to wait until his skeleton is complete.” The remains of his father and one brother have been found, identified and buried; those of the other brother and her husband are still missing.
“I couldn’t speak very good ‘Muslim’, but from her gestures I could tell she didn’t want her baby to grow up in this world.”
Ex-dutchbat Joeri Eggink
That night, the Serbs bombard Srebrenica. Eggink and his colleagues wait under armor for morning to come. From a house beside one of the tanks there seems to be nothing left. The city of Srebrenica is practically vacant.
Suddenly Eggink can see thousands of Serbian footsoldiers coming down the mountains. “It looked like a flood wave,” he says. Eggink also sees a man of about seventy with an old hunting rifle standing in front of his house. “He refused to abandon his house. He was going to fight, and no amount of pressure could persuade him to come with us to our base. We drove further, and the Serbs were right behind us. I heard two shots and someone screaming. Then you know: that old man is no longer living.”
That same night, Eggink goes for the first time to help out in a factory hall on the Dutchbat grounds, where thousands of desperate and sometimes injured people have sought refuge. “One died from exhaustion, others didn’t want to live any more, and everyone was terrified of what the Serbs were going to do.” Eggink keeps giving out water, especially to the aged ones — but he sees younger people taking the water away from them. One woman grabs hold of him. “She pushed a baby into my arms,” he says. “I couldn’t speak very good ‘Muslim’, but from her gestures I could tell she didn’t want her baby to grow up in this world.”
A doctor is brought in, who declares the child is no longer alive. A bewilderd Eggink wanders through the hall with a dead baby in his arms. Someone points out which way to go. “But the door was very heavy, and I had the baby in my arms, so a colleague had to help me.”
Once outside, Eggink sees ‘a gigantic hole’.
According to an exchange of letters between Dutchbatters, which the authors have been permitted to see, the hole is 25 meters long. “It was dug with a bulldozer. I’m one meter eighty, but I could easily stand up in it. It was between two and three meters deep. There were already a couple of bodies lying in it.” Eggink stands at the edge of the grave, and he doesn’t want to just let the baby drop a couple meters into it. He carefully creeps into the grave, and looks for a corner in which to bury the baby. “What happened after that, I don’t know any more. I’d lost my way.”
11 July 1995
Dutchbat doesn’t allow refugees onto the base, but the very pregnant Muhic has tried for a long time to hold her child inside, and now she can no longer bear the labor pains.
“Bring me somewhere, it doesn’t matter where. I can’t handle this any more,” she says in the dark to her mother-in-law and her cousin, who hold her up and bring her toward the main gate of the base. “The soldiers held us back. I couldn’t understand a word they said, but we understood that we weren’t allowed in there. I gestured that I was one the point of giving birth, and I let them see my big belly. Then I was permitted inside after all — without my cousin and mother-in-law. Without any help I had to make it to the sick bay on foot. Finally I couldn’t take another step, and they brought me the rest of the way in a wheelchair, to where two nurses were standing ready.”
Meanwhile the Serbs are entering the enclave of Srebrenica from all sides. “We were completely surrounded,” Eggink recalls. After standing guard for a couple of hours, he turns back toward the camp in Potocari. “There were 40,000 Muslims on one road stumbling over each other, all wanting to go forward. They were in a panic, screaming and crying. You must have seen it on TV: a lot of noise and chanting, but not a shred of structure. At that moment the Serbs showed up with buses and dogs. They basically corralled those people. Those dogs were no sweethearts. The people standing in front got bitten, or beaten and kicked back at the same time, if they threatened to break through the line. An old woman or a child, it made no difference to the Serbs.”
Eggink assists in forming a ‘UN-line’ to keep the people under control, and to ensure things happen ‘humanely’. “By then we knew that buses were coming and we’d be transporting them away. But the Muslims all wanted to go at once. Pushing and shoving, kicking old people, just to be first on the bus.”
And the Serbs are taking all Muslim men of fighting age out of the crowd. They have to hand in their passports and other papers. Eggink asks the Serbs what’s the point of this. The answer he gets sounds plausible at the time: “We’re trying to pick out the war criminals. There have been Serbian families murdered by Muslims from the enclave, and the perpetrators will be prosecuted. The rest will be set free and can return to their families.”
Makes sense, Eggink thinks. “We had indeed heard stories of Muslims from the enclave who had murdered Serbs. It sounded reasonable to me that they should stand trial.”
The Dutchbatters also had supervision of the separation of the other men and women. According to the Yugoslavia Tribunal, that separation was a part of the genocide, in which Dutchbat in fact cooperated. Eggink: “We only did that to try and keep it a bit human. Call it naïveté. At that moment I believed what the Serbs were telling me.”
The Serbs literally and figuratively beat the people into the buses with sticks and rifle butts, Eggink recalls. “Later we heard that the buses with women were stopped half way, and that some of the women got raped by the Serbs.”
When all the buses were full, trucks were brought in to cart away the remaining refugees.
The baby that Hava Muhic has brought into the world isn’t breathing, and is taken away by two Dutchbatters in a cardboard box. They say they’re going to bury the baby. “A half hour after my delivery, they sent me away. I was weak, I was still bleeding, I didn’t know where my little son was, and I’d just lost my little daugher.” Muhic needed help. A neighbor woman, who was on the base together with her two daughters, promised to stay with her. “They told me I had to climb into the truck. It would bring us to a safe place.”
In buses and trucks, Muhic, her family and the neighbor woman are taken to a safe area — except for her father-in-law who, together with all the other men, is separated from the women and then murdered. At that moment she doesn’t know what’s happened with her little son Aldin, whom she left behind with her father-in-law — his grandfather. Later she hears that Aldin is taken from his grandpa and sent with a bus full of women to a free district.
At the end of the truck ride, Hava Muhic finds her cousin again. “Without her I wouldn’t have made it.”
Her cousin is shocked when she sees Muhic come out of the truck. “If she were an animal they’d surely have treated her better,” her cousin, Tima Hasanovic, recalls. “To be deported in a truck right after giving birth! She was bodily and spiritually broken; she was covered in blood and birth fluid.”
Muhic’ father is lucky. The Serbs let a couple of buses of men through, in order to convince the other Muslim men to surrender. “My father arrived in Tuzla, and somehow managed to find my son. But at that moment I didn’t know that, and I thought I had lost everyone. I’ll never forget the moment I saw my father again. He asked me: ‘Where is your belly? Where is your child?’ Before I collapsed, I could just about answer: ‘I don’t know. I’ve lost everything.’
This article was created with the support of Scoop, a Danish organization that stimulates investigative journalism. It was first published in the Dutch magazine HP/De Tijd.