PTSD in UN Peacekeepers

Among the many retrospectives published today, on the 10th anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica, is an article in the Washington Post focusing on the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders suffered by the Dutch troops under UN command who were charged with preventing such atrocities.

For days, the [Dutch] battalion had waited for reinforcements and air support. None came. One soldier already had been killed by Muslim forces. By the time the Serb attack started on July 11, the soldiers’ nerves were shot.

“All those people … screaming and crying. A truck, normally fit for 18 people, was packed with 200 refugees. We helped them from the truck and gave them a place in the factory hall,” Poortinga recalled in the book.

“It was hell. I did my best, but after a while I collapsed. The shouting became louder and louder. The shooting came close, grenades fell, dust came from the ceiling. I found myself crying like a baby. I am not a baby at all, but then I was like a child.”

Co-author Hendrina Praamsma said 40 percent of those interviewed had needed psychological treatment at some point. Some had attempted suicide. “Most of them feel abandoned, rejected, falsely accused,” she said.

A 1999 report by the United Nations said Yugoslavia’s then president, Slobodan Milosevic, bore primary responsibility. Milosevic is now on trial in The Hague.

Nonetheless, Holland remained traumatized.

In 2002, an exhaustive study by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation concluded the government of Prime Minister Wim Kok had sent ill-prepared troops on an impossible mission because it wanted to boost its international prestige. The report prompted the government, still headed by Kok, to resign.

A subsequent parliamentary inquiry also cleared the troops of blame. But Srebrenica isn’t over for Holland.

A district court in The Hague is hearing a civil suit by Bosnian Srebrenica survivors seeking $2.6 billion in compensation from the state for its troops’ failure to protect them.

One of them is Hassan Nuhanovic, a U.N. translator whose brother and father were forced off the U.N. base by Dutch troops and haven’t been seen since.

Their accusations reawakened the shame among some veterans, said Jan Burger, head of the Veterans Institute’s social services. In the past two months, with the approach of the 10th anniversary, another half dozen Srebrenica veterans have sought help.

Back in April, the Canada-resident Dutch blogger Peaktalk compared Karremans, the Dutch commander at Srebrenica, with Dallaire, the Canadian commander at Kigali.

If you google Karremans you will find lots more, but I think you get it: the Dutch commander not only failed to do anything to sa[v]e Bosnian Muslim lives, he couldn’t even bring himself to make a moral distinction between the warring parties. Of all people, Robert Fisk has a good summary with this sobering observation:

The Dutch published their own miserable, chilling account of Srebrenica. But Karremans was packed off to become Dutch military attaché in Washington, under orders not to talk. And silent he was, to the great relief of the Dutch.

We can’t accuse Dallaire of failing to see the difference between right and wrong, or, for remaining quiet. His book and the documentary of his return to Rwanda are getting ample attention and rightly so. Cynics may argue that Dallaire learned from the Karremans experience and went on a media blitz to defend his record, but having studied the man and the mandate he had, the Canadian commander comes out far cleaner than some of his critics now argue. Sure, he made mistakes and there may be braver people who would have been willing to die to take a stand against the terror in front of them. We can even entertain the notion that the post-war military of left-liberal nations like Canada and Holland has failed to produce the battle-hardened moral men that we like to see when we think of war, or when we watch an epic Hollywood rendition of some historic struggle. Heroes like that are in short supply, reality is different.

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