`Peacekeeper` moves to Srebrenica

June 12, 2009

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SREBRENICA (Bosnia-Hercegovina) Haunted for years by the Srebrenica massacre, former Dutch peacekeeper Rob Zomer hopes he can find peace on a plot of land he'll soon call home right back on the killing fields.

The pullout of his Dutch UN battalion from the eastern enclave on July 11, 1995 was followed by the slaying by Serb forces of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys - Europe's worst atrocity since World War II.

Almost 14 years later, Zomer, one of around 600 lightly armed Dutch troops stationed there at the time, said he felt the need to escape his homeland to give something back to Bosnia.

“We have decided to live here,” the 40-year-old Zomer said of his wife Renata and two daughters aged nine and 16. “The girls will go to school, learn the language.

“In the Netherlands, the media was constantly reproaching us for letting Serbs massacre Muslims,” Zomer said angrily. “That pressure became unbearable. We were helpless, the UN mandate prevented us from acting.”

The idea of making the scene of his trauma his home hatched a year ago after he visited Srebrenica on the 13th anniversary of the massacre.

“I'm moving with my family to Srebrenica to help these people in peace since I could not help them during the war,” he told a Croatian weekly, the Globus, in April.

Zomer has bought four 10 acres of land on a hill overlooking a cemetery where the remains of more than 3,000 victims of the atrocity have been buried after forensic experts exhumed them from dozens of mass graves.

A locksmith back in the Netherlands, Zomer plans to build a house on the plot and start up a tourism business.

His wife and daughters have visited the site but are waiting back home until construction is completed before moving into their new Bosnian residence.

The Dutchman hopes to create jobs in what is one of Europe's poorest countries by building an inn, raising domestic animals and planting a fruit and vegetable garden.

Recalling his time as a peacekeeper, Zomer says his mission in Srebrenica was the first and last in an army he had joined six months earlier in 1995.

'It' was haunting him everyday

“I learned about the massacre from the media when we returned to the Netherlands,” he told AFP.

“I told myself that it was not possible. I was there and I didn't see anything.”

Hajra Catic, whose son and husband were killed in the massacre, said she does not believe Zomer will be able to find any relief in Bosnia.

“He told me that 'it' was haunting him everyday,” she said without trying to hide her contempt.

“How does he think he would find his peace here while he will have to pass by the cemetery every day?”

But Muhamed Bajric, a Srebrenica hairdresser, believes his “Dutch friend has a chance to find peace” in this small, devastated town.

“He cannot live anywhere else,” said the 60-year-old.

Bajric and Zomer became friends in 2007 when a Dutch delegation came to Srebrenica for the first time since the massacre.

“I met him in a coffee shop. He was crying. The women who had survived were reproaching him over the passivity of the Dutch soldiers,” Bajric remembered.

In 2002, the Dutch government resigned over an official report that stated its peacekeepers had been sent on an “impossible” mission.

The United Nations has also admitted it failed to protect Srebrenica Muslims from mass murder, but none of its officials were held responsible.—AFP