Speech by Kajsa Ollongren, Netherlands Minister of Defence, at the reunion of Dutchbat III

Dutchbat III veterans and your families and friends,
Representatives of the Bosnian community,
Ambassador Šahović,
Mr Hajdarević Chair of the Monument working group,
Mrs Avdić member of the Committee for the 11 July Plein Commemoration,
Chair and members of the House of Representatives,

A few minutes ago, Renée van Bavel sang the words ‘Er was niets dat jij kon doen’. There was nothing you could do.  Today after 27 years we will do something for you: the veterans of Dutchbat III. Our veterans.

Because the world could have done something. But that didn’t happen. That is why today we remember the terrible genocide of Srebrenica. Under command of Mladić, Bosnian Serb troops murdered more than 8.000 Bosnian boys and men. They are still missed every day.  

That is why I intend to be in Potočari on 11 July. To look history straight in the eye on behalf of the Dutch government. But first I wanted to be together with all of you to remember your story. Many have expressed an opinion about your mission, often without knowing how things really were. Only you know the truth. But now we have a clearer picture, for instance thanks to the documentary made by Coen Verbraak. Captured by the eye of his camera, you spoke to the entire Dutch population. And we were all moved by your story. In Srebrenica, you did what the UN asked of you. What the Netherlands asked of you. The thinking at the time was that this would be enough to prevent aggression on the part of the Bosnian Serbs. That thinking proved to be inaccurate. As time went on, the situation became more and more critical. The Bosnian Serb soldiers blocked supplies and became increasingly aggressive. You lost two comrades: Jeffrey Broere and Raviv van Renssen. The moment of silence that we just observed was also for those two men. And when the attack came and the requested assistance did not materialise, you defended Srebrenica in an unequal battle: a handful of armoured vehicles with machine guns against a superior force of tanks and artillery. And 55 of your comrades were taken hostage by the Bosnian Serbs. After thousands of Bosnian boys and men had taken to the mountains, you, a few hundred soldiers, received tens of thousands of terrified people into your care. You were on your own. It became a humanitarian disaster on an unprecedented scale. 

After returning home, you were still on your own. You came home with a great need for open arms. But the Netherlands turned its back on you. For too long, your experiences were not acknowledged. Perhaps most glaringly of all, not even by the Netherlands Ministry of Defence. You were heard but not really listened to. There was not enough aftercare, not enough support and not enough correction regarding the general perception of your mission. Not enough for you and not enough for your family and friends. That has left deep scars. To this day, many of you are still dealing with the consequences of the mission. A lasting shadow hangs over many lives. 

Today, we acknowledge your plight. We the Cabinet and the Ministry of Defence feel a great responsibility for our military personnel and our veterans. If we send our people on a mission, we must also take care of them upon their return. That should have been done after the mission in Srebrenica. But things did not go as they should have done. Your experiences contributed to the passing of the Veterans Act, which provides for the care and aftercare of military pe sonnel who have been deployed. And this ensured better support for your colleagues who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali. You cleared a path for fellow veterans. But for Dutchbat III veterans, the past remains a heavy burden that you must continue to bear.

The fact that we are here together today is in part due to the camaraderie among you. And due to the people who were listening. For that reason, I would like to send a special word of thanks to Hans Borstlap and to my predecessor Ank Bijleveld. They laid the foundation for this day. 

Today, we acknowledge your pain. And we declare that we wish to support you the veterans of Dutchbat III and their families and friends. Together with the families of the victims of the genocide who have been without their husbands, fathers or sons for 27 years. Together with those from the local population who worked for us at the time, some of whom escaped the genocide. We are also thinking of them. Because of the Dutch presence in Srebrenica in July 1995, the Netherlands and Bosnia are forever connected. Many of you have already been back or will be going there again.

Close ties with the families of genocide victims have been established. Dutchbat veterans and those surviving family members are working together for a national monument in The Hague. 

Together, we are looking history in the eye. So that we can go forward together. Two years ago Dutchbat veteran Remko de Bruijne made a number of poignant remarks in the talk show Op1. It was during a discussion about the film Quo Vadis Aida which tells the terrible story of the genocide. He said: “Your first reaction is to be defensive because of the past 25 years. But the film is not about Dutchbat. It’s ultimately about the local people there.” Those words show strength, as well as growth and connection.

Dear Dutchbat veterans,

The UN mission and the genocide left deep traces of lasting powerlessness and frustration. Because you could no longer provide the protection that you had been trained to provide as a member of the military. Because you were abandoned. First in Srebrenica itself. And then again at home. That is why today I am awarding you the Medal of Merit in Bronze.

As an employer, the Netherlands Ministry of Defence failed in its duty of care to you. The veterans of Dutchbat III received insufficient aftercare following their mission of 27 years ago a mission in which the nigh on impossible was asked of them. In the knowledge that today many of you are still coping with the consequences of that UN mission, by the award of the Medal of Merit in Bronze I am expressing, on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, our permanent support for and connection with the veterans of Dutchbat III.