Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON -- By all accounts of the Balkans, the massacre of 7,500 Bosnian Muslim men and boys by rampaging Serbs at Srebrenica in 1995 should simply have been forgotten.

Cynics like to say that the Balkan region has eaten more history than it can digest, so it tends to just stash the overflow away. The Balkan peoples have also chosen to forget more of their actions than most people can afford to remember, so it's always easier to blame your lesser moments, or the small holocausts and genocides that have speckled your history, on your neighbors.

So it is surprising when anyone involved in the Balkans -- that fascinating but conspiratorial part of southern Europe that spreads across Greece, Serbia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Romania and several other equally secretive and often disreputable lands -- chooses to make something deplorable public. Yet that is just what has happened, l8 full years after the massacre at the Bosnian town of Srebrenica.

By rights, it is the Serbs, with their big, formal army and savage militias, who should be blamed for yet another heinous chapter in their history of mayhem against multiethnic neighbors. And so it has been. But at this point, we are looking not at the Serbs and their war screams, but at the Dutch peacekeepers, men from one of the most moral nations on Earth, and how they threw their morality to the winds that dark day.

In the first week of September this fall, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled, after many years' consideration, that the Netherlands was liable for the deaths of three Bosnian Muslim men killed in the Srebrenica massacre. Three may seem a tiny, almost irrelevant number of deaths, given the scope of the killing, but they were among the last that the Dutch were to protect and did not.

The Dutch peacekeepers had been sent to this area of eastern Bosnia supposedly to protect the Bosnian Muslims, who in the former Serbia were under brutal attack from the Serbs, trying to get their land. But the Dutch were under the same confusing, confounding rules of neutralism as all the other peacekeepers sent there by the United Nations. In effect, the peacekeepers could not fight back.

At one particularly humiliating moment in Sarajevo, which was under constant artillery barrage from the Serb militias, the Serbs tied most of the foreign peacekeepers to the bridges -- both to point out their uselessness and to raise the reputation of the Serbs as "real fighters."

When Srebrenica came under attack on July 11, 1995, fewer than 400 lightly armed Dutch soldiers, known as Dutchbat (Dutch battalion), stood alone between roughly 8,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslim men and the Bosnian-Serb forces under Gen. Ratko Mladic. In the end, there were the three Bosnian Muslims inside Dutchbat with the Dutch soldiers and they were sent out of the compound, where they were quickly killed, then buried with the 7,000 to 8,000 others.

At first, the highly moral Dutch people, who take their Reformation Church very seriously, tried to pretend that the situation was not so bad as it looked. After all, other peacekeepers did the same thing! Neutralism: that was the United Nations' herald -- even when thousands were being killed and you could make a difference.

Gradually, the truth began to come out. The first decision of the Dutch court was that the U.N. was responsible for the mandate and therefore the state was not responsible. Then a group called "Mothers of Srebrenica" challenged the immunity of the U.N. before the Dutch Supreme Court.

In 2002, a Dutch government actually fell over the massacre, following a damning report by the Dutch Institute for War Documentation into the events surrounding the killings. Now that the supreme court has assigned Dutch liability for the deaths of the three Bosnian Muslims sent out of the compound that day, those families are open to filing claims and receiving compensation.

All through these 18 years, there have been seemingly endless questions as to what is moral, what is ethical, what is legal and what is simply bureaucratic. Few doubt that those early years, when the peacekeepers were humiliated in every possible way, will return as they were. The men and women from all over the world working in Croatia and Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia will never put up with such insults again.

Thus, at the very least, some of the victims of the terrible Balkan wars of the '90s are winning a measure of justice for their suffering and losses. Perhaps, even after all this time, there is yet hope that the victims of the worst massacre in Europe since World War II will not have died in vain.

(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)