'Haunted' ex-peacekeeper moves to Srebrenica
Haunted for years by the Srenbrenica 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 11 July 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 Crotain weekly, the Globus, in April.
Zomer has acquired four hectares (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.
Dutch locksmith and ex-UN peacekeeper Rob Zomer stokes a fire in front of his temporary home on 25 May 2009
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 that 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 every day," 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.
Last year, a Dutch court dismissed a bid by survivors to hold the Netherlands responsible for its troops' failure to protect their families, saying the "actions must be attributed exclusively to the UN".
In the Netherlands, Dirk Mulder, director of Camp Westerbork, a memorial centre and former transit camp for Dutch Jews that tells the story of World War II genocide as well as the massacre at Srebrenica, has maintained close contact with the Dutch soldiers who served there.
He said 15 percent of the 600 "Dutchbatters", as they're called here, who returned from Srebrenica officially, received some form of treatment for trauma.
"Many of them suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome... They have nightmares, their characters change, they have problems at work and often a drinking problem," he told AFP.
"The overarching emotion, also among those who received no treatment, is one of powerlessness -- having been present there with 5,000 refugees they wanted to help but couldn’t."
On the top of his hill Zomer lives in a tent while his house is being built, insisting he has won the battle against his demons.
"I'm not guilty of anything," he repeated obstinately.
AFP/ Rusmir Smajilhodzic / Expatica