'When I saw Mladic, I wished I had a gun'
A Dutch peacekeeper is tortured by the memories of having to help the Serbian army load Muslims on to buses in Srebrenica, writes Nick Meo
Published 05/06/2011 | 05:00
THE enduring memory Boudewijn Kok has of Srebrenica is the moment Gen Ratko Mladic stood by the roadside and gave him an ironic, mocking salute. Mr Kok, then a 20-year-old corporal, was one of 400 blue-helmeted Dutch army peacekeepers who were driving away after abandoning 50,000 Muslim civilians they had sworn to protect.
Serb irregulars had shouldered aside the inadequate Dutch force and overrun the United Nations 'safe haven' in the eastern Bosnian town; instead of fighting them, the young Dutchman surrendered along with his comrades, and then, in an episode of utter humiliation, helped the Serbs load Muslim refugees on to buses to be driven away on the orders of General Mladic.
"When I saw him at that moment I wished I had a gun so I could have shot him, but he had disarmed us," said Mr Kok, speaking in the pub he now runs in the quiet village of Witharen in Holland.
"We knew the Muslims would suffer, but we had no idea there would be so much killing. Mladic had reassured them that they would be well- treated. Well they weren't. The Nazis deported people on trains; the Serbs used buses."
On Friday, Mr Kok, now a father of two young children, watched on television as Mladic appeared in court at The Hague -- just a couple of hours' drive away from Witharen -- accused of genocide and other terrible crimes. "He didn't look like the frail old man who was arrested in Serbia last week, and to me he didn't look too ill to stand trial," Mr Kok said of the man he calls "a monster".
"He looked proud. When he told the court 'I am General Ratko Mladic' I could see a flash of the old general again, the man I remember from Bosnia who ordered a massacre."
The worst memory from those terrible days in July 1995 -- the one that has tormented him the most over the years -- was the feeling of helplessness when Bosnian Muslims Mr Kok had got to know were taken away. Teenage boys who had played football with the Dutch soldiers and men who had worked at the Dutch army camp were among those rounded up. The Dutch were able to take only 10 Bosnians with them to safety, men employed by the UN who had papers to prove it. Afterwards they were severely criticised for failing even to get their friends to safety.
"Our translator was one," said Mr Kok. "He wanted us to take his brother and father with us, but our officers said no. What could they do? If we took two, then we would still be leaving hundreds more and the Serbs forbade us from taking more. The translator eventually found his family members in a mass grave and he was angry with us, and I can understand that.
"If I had known they were going to be killed perhaps I would have tried to smuggle some of those boys out with us, or hide them in our camp. They didn't ask us to take them because they had no idea they were going to be killed -- they weren't fighters."
Seeing Mladic in court after 16 years, on Dutch soil, was an extraordinary moment for Mr Kok. The young man who arrived in Bosnia believing his mission was to help victims of Serbian aggression had to live for years after the massacre with the shame of Srebrenica.
He was ridiculed in the streets on his return home, accused of cowardice for standing by as genocide was carried out, and even called a Nazi war criminal -- the result of telling a local newspaper about helping refugees on to buses.
He saw old comrades sink into depression and alcoholism, and admits that it is only in recent years that he has begun to come to terms with his past and rediscovered the ability to enjoy life again.
He didn't see any actual killings, although he did see one tractor-trailer full of dead Bosnians as his convoy drove away. In total about 8,000 men and boys were hunted down around the town and murdered in Europe's worst massacre since the fall of Nazism.
"The Serbs killed so many because they wanted a greater Serbia, and Srebrenica was on the border with Serbia in an important area of Bosnia for them. They were like no people I have ever met. I looked into the eyes of Serbian soldiers and I saw death. There was no colour, no joy or life there.
"The last stages of their takeover were chaotic; there were no orders from our commanding officers, there was panic among the people.
"I helped women and old people on to buses -- they were deported to Muslim areas but not killed. When I got home to Holland people said I had helped the Serbs with ethnic cleansing.
"But I knew that if I didn't do it, the Serb soldiers would kick them and beat them to get them on the vehicles. I was trying to help the refugees. I tried to give them water but the Serbs stopped me. I didn't speak their language, but when the refugees spoke to us, it was clear what they were saying: 'why aren't you helping us, where are we being taken?'
"It was an incredibly difficult situation for a young man of 20, and a terrible humiliation for the Dutch army."
He said the Dutch soldiers discussed fighting the Serbs as the enclave was overrun, but they dismissed their position as hopeless.
"We had no air support or reinforcements from the UN. There were 10,000 Serbs and only 400 of us, and I only had 15 bullets. If we had resisted, there would have been a mass grave with 400 Dutch soldiers in it.
"I believe the UN wanted the safe areas to be ended because they were prolonging the war. I think the UN had done a secret deal with the Serbs, allowing them to take over Srebrenica.
"But nobody realised beforehand that this terrible killing would take place. I blame Mladic for that.
"One day I will take my son to Srebrenica. When he asks 'what did you do in the war, dad', I want him to know the truth of it all -- that it was mostly rotten politics."
Mr Kok stoutly defends the reputation of Thom Karremans, the Dutch commanding officer who he believes was made a scapegoat for the disaster at Srebrenica. Pictures of Karremans drinking champagne with Mladic as the refugees were rounded up didn't help his image; the colonel was vilified afterwards and now lives in the south of Spain, from where he has remained largely silent about his role in the debacle.
"I am proud to have served under Karremans," Mr Kok said. "I am sure he will appear in the tribunal to give evidence against Mladic.
"I will also make sure I am there in the public gallery. After Srebrenica I promised myself that I would one day see Mladic face justice and there are some promises to yourself that you simply have to keep.
"What I really want to see is his face as the judge tells him he must spend the rest of his life in prison."