Last week, I had the opportunity of a lifetime-to march 60 kilometers with over 10,000 other people-along with our own group of wonderful, fun, strong, and intelligent women-in commemoration and memoriam for those who lost their lives in the Srebrenica genocide of 1995, and for those who continue through this world today after enduring a nightmare. I often experience difficulties in articulating ideas or passions through speech, but seldom through writing. Today is an exception. I am continuing to experience difficulty in articulating my thoughts over those three days; thoughts that continue to multiply and evolve.
We hiked for three days, from July 8-10, in the Peace March, or Marš Mira, a route that follows the reverse trek from the village of Nezuk, near Tuzla, to the village of Potočari, a village near Srebrenica, where the genocide memorial and the cemetery is located. Through this route, Bosniak men and boys fled into the woods and mountains from the advancing Bosnian Serb forces that already murdered thousands of men and boys in and outside of Srebrenica. Some of them made it to safety near Tuzla, many did not. The event was concluded with the memorial ceremony and burial on July 11, another moving event that was altered by manifested historical pain.
I am able to describe the intense heat of the first day, the liters of water consumed and poured over our heads, the arduous mountain hiking and burning sun, the copious amounts of applied sunscreen, all the physical aspects of any difficult hike. We endured those discomforts and laughed about them later, throughout the hikes or in our military tent at the end of the day, shelter that was generously supplied to us by the Bosnian military and through the efforts of our awesome program director Ann and her friend and wonderful colleague Hasan, a man whose own story deserves a separate blog post.
The March began with a euphoric advance onto the route, and we all fell into rhythm. The reality and purpose of the March soon followed. We were soon walking along paths that once crossed through minefields, which were clearly indicated with warning tape on each side of the trail. These stretches continued for miles in some places, for several feet in others. It was a bit surreal to think that minefields on both sides surrounded us at times. Along the way, people would stop for breaks in the shade behind the mine tape, and I never understood why people would take chances like that. I have never experienced living in a country that is still dealing with landmine hazards, and I was thankful that I could enjoy hikes in Colorado without worrying about stepping on live explosives.
Minefields were prevalent on the first day, whereas the on the second day we passed numerous mass gravesites where people were murdered. I lost count of the sites after a while, there were so many of them, marked with signs that described excavation dates and other information. I also did not want to quantify the locations. Whether there was one mass grave or fifteen of them in a certain area, quantity was not important. People stopped along the way and snapped pictures with friends or for themselves next to the sites. I also did not understand why someone would want photos of themselves, their friends or family members posing next to mass gravesites as if they were national monuments or attractions. I believe the only people who have the right to do so are the genocide survivors, and I doubt many of them were among these eager individuals. I however maintained the perspective that we all perceived this event in our own way. The third day was comprised of stunning views of the countryside, of verdant hills and vibrant fields, farmhouses dotting the horizon and mosques nestled in valleys. One could forget for a fleeting moment that this was a once a region of terror and evil. Everyone was looking forward to the final march into Potočari and through the memorial. We met many people who participated in the march every year, and they described the culmination of the March with reverence, the silent and humbling walk through the memorial in the presence of survivors, relatives of victims, and observers.
Silence describes that moment. Silence and overpowering humility. Chatter faded, gaits slowed, and flags were raised. International solidarity was reflected in the appearances of numerous flags from various countries and organizations that were proudly displayed on the shoulders or in the hands of marchers. Flags fluttering in the breeze, humbled footsteps, and media cameras were the only sounds as thousands of us passed the cemetery perimeter and then passed through the memorial area. I felt proud and humble at that moment, proud because I believed it was possible to honor those who were lost, those who are living today, their loved ones, the Bosnian people, and humanity. I was humbled, because I knew I would never understand what it was like to flee for my life, or to endure life after atrocity or continue on without a loved one who was murdered. I did this because I believe in peace. I believe it is possible.