Michael Dobbs

How a ‘dumb blonde’ took on the Serbs

Checkpoint It is not entirely true that the Dutch put up no resistance against the Bosnian Serbs prior to their capture of the United Nations “safe area” of Srebrenica on July 11, 1995. The Dutchbat commander, Colonel Thom Karremans, called for close air support on five different occasions between July 6 and July 11. His ...

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Checkpoint

It is not entirely true that the Dutch put up no resistance against the Bosnian Serbs prior to their capture of the United Nations “safe area” of Srebrenica on July 11, 1995. The Dutchbat commander, Colonel Thom Karremans, called for close air support on five different occasions between July 6 and July 11. His first four requests were turned down by his U.N. superiors for a variety of bureaucratic reasons.

Then, at literally the eleventh hour, the cavalry arrived in the form of two NATO F-16 fighters flown by Dutch pilots. One of the pilots, Lieutenant Manja Blok, has since become something of a celebrity in Holland, as you can see from the magazine cover above. She aimed two bombs at a couple of Serb tanks advancing into the enclave, causing some minor damage.

“Give ’em hell” shouted the Dutch ground controller, as she dived in to release her bombs. “Good luck, girl…They are all bad guys!” (An English translation of the pilot chatter, as well as an interview with Manja Blok, is available here.)

NCRV screenshots

It is ironic that the job of stopping the macho, testosterone-infused General Ratko Mladic fell to a woman. Manja later explained to Dutch TV that she and other pilots had been frustrated by the restrictive rules of engagement which pretty much confined them to fruitless patrols over the combat zone. When she returned from her mission over Srebrenica, her fellow top guns were green with envy.

“Dumb blonde!” someone yelled, as she got out of the fighter jet. “Good job!”

Unfortunately for the residents of Srebrenica, thousands of whom were systematically slaughtered by Mladic’s men, Manja arrived on the scene too late to make a difference. Shortly after she dropped her bombs from an altitude of 15,000 feet at 2:40 p.m., the Serbs threatened to kill 30 Dutchbat hostages they had previously captured. The Dutch government caved immediately and called off the air strikes. (Taking peacekeepers hostage is one of the many charges against Mladic at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal.)

Manja made clear that she did not agree with the restraint shown by her superiors toward the Bosnian Serbs. “Nobody wanted to take the lead, nobody wanted to take responsibility … People always complained about how little resistance we offered, that we were too late, with too little force, we were only there with two F-16s. That’s right, but it that wasn’t because of us [pilots]!”

NCRV screenshots

When Mladic met the British general Sir Rupert Smith in Belgrade a few days later, on July 16, he was still angry about the incident, complaining that one of the bombs had nearly hit him. “What a pity it missed,” was Smith’s laconic reply.

As it turned out, Manja’s efforts did virtually nothing to stop the Serb advance. It was a case of much too little, far too late.  The Bosnian Serbs raised their flag over Srebrenica shortly before 5 p.m. Mladic took a triumphant stroll through the streets of the town shortly afterward, as you can see on this clip. Dutchbat peacekeepers on the ground did not fire a single shot at the Serbs as they entered the “safe area.”

In my next post, I will describe in more detail why and how Dutchbat’s earlier requests for close air support were turned down, at a time when they might have made a difference.

 Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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