During the fall of Srebrenica in 1995, the bodies of at least five adults and two babies were laid in a large ditch, somewhere on the base of the Dutch Battalion of UN peacekeepers — known as “Dutchbat”. Where exactly, no one knows any more. Survivors and former soldiers are now demanding an explanation from the Dutch State. “I can’t stop thinking of my lost child.”
By Eldin Hadzovic and Zvezdana Vukojevic
- Read part I: “A half hour after my delivery, they sent me away. I didn’t know where my little son was, and I’d just lost my baby.”
16 July 1995
With a group of comrades, Dave Maat rides from an area observation post back toward Potocari, where Dutchbat III is making ready for its return trip. When their truck suddenly swerves from left to right, it becomes clear to him what has transpired in Srebrenica. “A corpse lay in the middle of the road. And I saw still more people lying there. Dozens of them. Dark red bloodstains on the pavement, and an unbelievable stink. I’ll never forget that smell for the rest of my life.”
It looked as if a garbage truck had been dumped. Everywhere lay bits of clothing, bags, all kinds of personal possessions, even a refrigerator. He clears his throat. “That atmosphere … I can’t explain it. As if you’re in a movie and you’re not really experiencing what you’re seeing. All the boys in the four-tonner looked each other right in the eyes. We didn’t say anything but we all knew it: this is a bad scene.”
At a given moment he decides not to look outside any more. “If you wanted to break out of the enclave toward the north, you have to cross the road from Nova Kasaba to Bratunac. There we saw, about every ten meters, Serbs forming a cordon to watch for people fleeing, so they could mow them down later. At one Serbian checkpoint our weapons were taken away and brought into a hut. From that hut we heard gunfire. Then I knew something horrible was going on.”
The enclave appears totally empty. “All the people were gone, taken away. It was a ghost town. I felt I’d been left high and dry. We were fucked.”
Once back on the Dutchbat grounds, Maat hears the horror stories from his comrades. Some of them have seen truckloads of bodies. Behind one white house people have been executed. Maat takes photos of the mountains of clothing and passports lying there. He hears how people in the factory hall were injuring themselves with knives and scissors just so they wouldn’t have to leave the grounds. One panicked man is said to have wanted to give two babies to one of the Dutchbatters, who refused to take them. Finally the man pounded one baby’s head with his elbow, instantly killing the child. He dropped the other baby on the ground. Then he stormed away and hanged himself in the middle of the factory hall. One of the babies supposedly survived.
The most bizarre story reaching Maat’s ears, is that a colleague fished a dead baby out of a trash can. That could be the third baby laid in the mass grave.
It’s at this moment that Maat first realizes the mass grave exists. It doesn’t surprise him. “From a hygienic standpoint it was important to bury those people. Refrigerating their bodies wasn’t an option — we didn’t even have enough diesel to cool the body of our own fallen comrade, Raviv van Renssen.”
Various sources report that the grave, which then lay in full sight of the refugees, was probably moved in order to prevent panic.
From the reports it appears that the mass grave was sloppily covered: an arm was sticking out. Someone is able to tell Maat that photos have been taken of bodies wrapped in sheets, that were laid onto a digging machine before being buried. An Amsterdammer took photos. Maat: “Somebody said: ‘You can’t do that, man?!’ — He said: ‘We didn’t do this, did we? Nothing to worry about, this just proves that we had nothing to do with it. There are no signs of gunshot wounds.’”
Then the Dutchbatters hang around about one more week before returning to Zagreb. “We were broken, dead tired and beaten,” Maat says. “We had lost our colleague Raviv van Renssen, thousands of people had been taken away, and we knew that behind those mountains terrible things had happened. There’s no pen you can use to describe that. Years later I’m still busy trying to find a place for it. I think you can never explain this. Unless you yourself experienced it, then you understand.”
Fourteen years after the fall of the enclave, Dutchbatters first meet together with surviving relatives of the eight thousand murdered men. A gathering has been organized at the victims’ memorial center in Potocari. The women of Srebrenica want answers. They have photos of the missing men pinned to their bosoms. Anakotta describes hearing the hate in their voices that day. “Their voices were very low. They threw everything out that had troubled them for all those years. ‘Why did you people drink and dance with Mladic? Why did you receive citations of honor?’ We couldn’t possibly answer all their questions. ‘We’re here to listen to you,’ was all I said.”
Once outside, Anakotta gets pinned down by a woman. “Where is my baby?” she wants to know. Anakotta can’t understand what she’s talking about, and calls over an interpreter. “She explained that her dead baby was taken away by one of us. That we needn’t be afraid, because her child was already dead. She just wanted to know where she was buried.” Anakotta, by then himself a father of two daughters, is deeply touched by her story. He promises, on his return to the Netherlands, to look into what happened to the baby.
Together with Dave Maat, he goes on an investigation. Maat, meanwhile a law student, starts again with the Open Government Act filings. This time, whatever it takes, he wants to get those coordinates of the mass grave out of the Ministry of Defense, so that the dead can get a decent final resting place.
In the meantime Maat has tracked down the Amsterdam soldier who took a photo of the grave. He doesn’t want to release the photo yet. He also found the driver of the bulldozer that excavated the grave, but hasn’t yet succeeded in making contact with him.
So there are many unanswered questions. Why are the names of the victims now impossible to find, when they once stood written on a sign? And why was the grave moved? The reason cited by some sources — prevention of panic among the Bosnian Muslims — is unlikely, according to the Dutchbat interpreter Hasan Nuhanovic. “The mass murder was already in full progress. The panic among the local population couldn’t have been higher at that moment.” Nuhanovic stands by his conviction: “Members of Dutchbat knew about the mass murder that was going on around them.”
Maat finds it striking that the Dutch Military Police only makes mention of deaths by natural causes. “Someone who hangs himself isn’t dying a natural death.”
Mesud Mustafic, as chairman of ‘Drina’ (Wave), the society of genocide victims, was involved in the hunt for the grave site on the Dutchbat base. He wonders if all the people in the grave were officially declared dead by a doctor. “It looks like the Dutchbatters did that themselves, and then buried the people.” That the mass grave still can’t be found doesn’t seem strange to Mustafic. He assumes that the remains of the people in the mass grave were reburied by overzealous Serbs, in a grave they’d dug for other victims.
Another pressing question is why the information about the grave on the base wasn’t immediately transmitted to the Bosnian authorities in 1995 — or later, when an investigation was done into the fall of the enclave. There were, after all, officers’ reports, debriefings and fact sheets, and the report by the Dutch Institute for War Documentation, which mentions an ‘emergency grave’, as the Dutch Ministry of Defense calls it.
Maat: “If Defense had passed that information along right away in 1995, we servicemen wouldn’t be confronted with that question. Now we’re ‘the bitten dog’ all over again — even though at the time we made careful reports of the burials of people.”
A spokesperson for the Dutch Ministry of Defense responds: “To whom should we have passed along that information? It was war.” But with that, Defense is ignoring the fact that during the war, one was in contact with the local Bosnian authorities, even when they were one of the combatant parties.
After two years of fruitless information-procedures, Maat collaborated this past summer on a broadcast of the Dutch public affairs TV program, Nieuwsuur (News Hour). Whereupon the Minister of Defense, Hans Hillen, promised his full cooperation. “Two weeks later I got the coordinates and photos of the grave.”
But at the designated spot, there was nothing.
The fact that Maat was able to get the coordinates of the mass grave only after two years of procedures and his bringing in the press, is something the Defense spokesperson calls “a sad misunderstanding. We didn’t know that mister Maat was only searching for that location. He had filed all sorts of Open Government Act requests, and had begun legal proceedings. And once you’re in a legal procedure, you have to go the whole way.”
The Ministry says they’re in good contact with Maat about this question, but that they’re unable to do anything more for him. “What he wants, we want too: namely, to locate that grave. All that we’ve been able to do, we have done. We’ve combed through our archives and passed along the possible location. After the fall of the enclave, many graves were removed by the Bosnian Serbs. Whether that’s what happened with this grave, is speculation. The fact is that at the original location there’s nothing left.”
After the Nieuwsuur broadcast, a soldier announced himself to Maat. He said that the grave is at a different location, behind the base near a silo, in a secluded spot that’s much less visible. Together with a colleague, he was assigned to build three or four green wooden crosses. The digging of the grave — 6 meters long and 2,60 meters wide — and the burial of the remains, were done by a superior. The soldier in question wasn’t present. He also had not witnessed the covering of the grave. When he places the crosses, the grave is already covered. And when he walked by again some time later, the crosses had vanished.
Dave Maat and Adje Anakotta are still collecting information and photos from the Dutchbatters involved. Maat asks them to point out the likely location of the grave on a map. With this information he will return shortly to Bosnia, to continue the search.
Nedzad Handzic, another member of the Srebrenica victims’ group Drina, together with Dutchbatters, searched various possible locations that had been pointed out to them, with no result. “We searched within a circle of about six hundred meters around the indicated spot, but we found nothing, except for the plastic ribbon that was probably used to set apart the grave.”
Not only the Dutch Ministry of Defense has dropped the ball here, Handzic feels: also the Bosnian organization charged with tracing missing people, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), has let things slide. “The ICMP has had information about this grave since June 2009, but nobody seems to be making any effort to find it.”
Now that the former Dutchbat interpreter Hasan Nuhanovic was able to prove in court, in 2011 in the Hague, that the Dutch State is responsible for the deaths of his family members, Handzic and a number of other victims are determined to proceed against the State.
For all these years, Hava Muhic knew nothing of Nuhanovic’ legal struggle against the Netherlands. She left the country, and only gets piecemeal information about the grave when she’s visiting Bosnia. “Now I feel that I must consider the possibility of a court case, because I have the right to know where the bones of my child are. My child, who was taken away from me before I even got a chance to see her.”
After the war, Muhic went to France. “Just as so many people did in those days. I got a visa for Slovenia, and asked someone I knew, for a fee, to drive me to France.” There she and her son were granted asylum; and now they have French citizenship.
She works as a chambermaid in a hotel, and lives in a modest social housing flat. “The apartment isn’t big, but big enough for me. The worst of it is that I’m alone. My son is studying, and lives in another city. He comes to visit me as much as possible, and I have a lot of friends who help make life more bearable. But I still feel lonely. Especially when I went to the psychiatrist and started taking medicines. Strangely enough, in the last two years I’ve been thinking more about my lost child than ever before. There was a woman who, half an hour after me, delivered a healthy daughter. She’s sixteen now. Sometimes I dream that my daughter is alive and grown up. Then I wake up, and I cry.”
This article was created with the support of Scoop, a Danish organization that stimulates investigative journalism. It was first published by Dutch magazine HP/De Tijd.