Dutch Srebrenica soldier testifies against Karadzic

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For the first time, a Dutch soldier has been called to testify at the trial of Radovan Karadzic, former president of the Republika Srpska. Back in 1995, Johannes Rutten was a second lieutenant of the Dutch peacekeeping force known as ‘Dutchbat’.

At the Yugoslavia Tribunal in The Hague, he found himself confronted with direct questions from Karadzic, former commander-in-chief of the Bosnian Serb army.

Dressed in his military uniform, Lieutenant Colonel Rutten listened to his own statement, read out by the American prosecutor. The case against Karadzic reached the chapter on Srebrenica, the UN-protected enclave where around 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were massacred in 1995. Rutten made it clear that Dutchbat did not have the situation under control. “We couldn’t see any further than the border that we were guarding.”

A handful of people looked on from the public gallery. Emotions surfaced when the prosecutors screened a video which showed how the Bosnian Serb army, led by General Ratko Mladic, handed out bread, water and sweets to the hungry, frightened Bosnian Muslims. The soldiers appeared to be helping the Bosnians.

The Mothers of Srebrenica shook their heads as they watched the footage. During a break, the head of the organisation, Munira Subasic, explained that the video did not reflect the truth. In the courtroom, Rutten also testified that the exercise was a sham. Once the cameras were gone, the soldiers disappeared and some even snatched the food back from the people.

Something to hide
Faced with a barrage of questions from Karadzic, Rutten testified that he took photographs of the events that ultimately led to the massacre of the Bosnian Muslims. On returning to the Netherlands, he handed the roll of film over to the Ministry of Defence. He never saw the photographs. The ministry told him something went wrong and that they couldn’t be processed.

This angered the Mothers of Srebrenica. They have brought charges against the Dutch government and the Defence Ministry. “The Netherlands should have intervened. Dutchbat should never have let the massacre of our sons and partners take place. It is their fault that our loved ones are dead” said Munira Subasic. They regarded Rutten’s undeveloped photographs as a sign that the Dutch government has something to hide.

Cosmic drama
Johannes Rutten gave the impression that he had very little information at his disposal during the dark days of July 1995. He often stated that he acted in accordance with his own conscience. He tried to escort the buses that took away the Bosnian Muslim men, but was forcibly prevented by the Bosnian Serb army. When he tried to find out what was happening, he stumbled upon nine bodies. They were still warm, the blood still running from the bullet wounds. He was unable to examine the bodies for long. He quickly came under fire and was forced to flee.

This also prompted a response from the public gallery. Jehanne van Woerkom was watching the proceedings, sitting close to the Srebrenica victims’ families. “I am an angry citizen. I think that what the Dutch government did is terrible. It’s a cosmic drama. Every year I go to Bosnia, to the funeral and remembrance service in Potocari, every year. I want to offer the victims’ families some support. I am full of admiration for what Rutten is doing here. People of his calibre are few and far between.”

Radovan Karadzic, who is conducting his own defence in court, closely scrutinized the credibility of Rutten’s account. He fired question after question at the former Dutch peacekeeper. Karadzic argued that Rutten’s position in the army was not senior enough to make him a credible witness.
The Mothers of Srebrenica left the courtroom in a determined mood. In the months to come, they will pursue their case against the Dutch state. “We are going to work as hard as we can. We are Bosnian Muslim women and we are proud of it.”

In the coming weeks, more witnesses will be heard in connection with the massacre and the fall of Srebrenica. Major Pieter Boering, who like Johannes Rutten served in Dutchbat, will give his account along with a series of protected witnesses.