Last week I had the honor of participating in the Srebrenica Peace March (“Mars Mira” in Bosnian) with five other women from the Bosnia Global Practice Program. The march is a reported 120 kilometer trek (some sources claim 100 kilometers, jury is still out on this one), through the Bosnian countryside from the small town of Nezuk, near Tuzla, to Potocari, the small settlement outside of Srebrenica that served as the base for Dutch peacekeeping troops in 1995. The march has been going on for more than a decade but this year was special because it was commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica Genocide where over 8000 Bosniaks, mostly men and boys were systematically killed over the course of less than a week, and subsequently dumped in unmarked mass graves, and in many cases those graves were dug up and the bodies were dumped elsewhere in secondary mass graves. The march traces back the path of more than 10,000 men that tried to escape the Serb onslaught by forming a column and escaping through the woods in an attempt to reach the Bosnian-held city of Tuzla. Many were captured by the Serb forces and executed, and the less than 3000 that did survive were left to negotiate hilly wooded terrain in the height of summer heat. Some men were in the woods for only few days before they reached safety while others wandered for more than a month to leave serb controlled territory. To learn more about the genocide I highly recommend the documentary “Srebrenica – A Cry from the Grave”, available on youtube.
The peace walk consists of 3 days of walking, starting out on Wednesday the 8th of July, concluding on the evening of Friday July 10th when the march arrives in Potocari. The march was followed by a large memorial ceremony on July 11th, when those bodies that were indentified this year are laid to rest in the vast Srebrenica memorial cemetery.
It’s hard to gather my thoughts about the march so I’ve given myself a few days to let my thoughts settle and clarify so below I’ve put together a highlight reel of sorts:
On day one we set out from Nezuk at 9am as part of a very large crowd headed immediately in the woods. The march was concentrated in clod for a bit and slowly spread out over the rest of the day. Within an hour setting off, the march was surrounded by mine fields on either side on the path, a stark reminder that Bosnia has one of the highest concentrations of landmine contamination in the world. The first day of the march was physically the hardest due to the extreme heat of the day. However there was free food, coffee, and water around every turn, which was pretty awesome. Despite the abundance of snacks and water, the heat was too much for one of our companions who ultimately had to drop out at the end of the day. It was also found that when we got to camp our sleep accommodations for the evening had not really been set in stone. However Ann made a call to friend, an important curator at the Srebrenica memorial, who made a call to the military police, who made a call to the general, and a little while later we got word that a general had personally cleared out a tent for us (aka he kicked some people out).
The Second day was the most scenic of all three, around every curve, knoll, and little wooded glen was amazing vista of the Bosnian countryside. A definite bonus was that there was significant amount of cloud cover the whole day. This day also had the most uphill and downhill, which significantly contributed to the number of blisters I ended the trip with. This day was also more emotionally difficult that the first one as we started passing by mass graves. One of the valleys we passed though had at least seven signs indicating that a mass grave was found near, most which noted that more than 100 bodies were exhumed from each grave. These markers snap you back to reality, you’re hiking and camping with your friends and sharing snacks and telling stories and you momentarily forget why you’ve committed to the march. On a lighter note, sleeping accommodation we also a bit weird that evening as well. Once again, we had no tent reserved, but Ann’s friend made another call to another general, and this time we were set up with a tent in the roped off area for the high command.
The third day we set off with uncertainty, I had heard from different sources it was longest day of the hike, others said it was the shortest day of hiking, some also said it was the easiest day of hiking. The third was a bit more difficult as the day went on as the two previous nights of poor sleep and the growing blisters were slowing my pace down. Additionally there was a lot of organized stopping of the column that day because the leaders of the march wanted the group to descend into Potocari all together. The crowd became more and more mellow as we got closer to the end of the day, and as we crested the final hill down into Potocari a hush fell over the marchers, particularly when the endless white marble headstones of the memorial came into view. Walking past the memorial a large crowd had already gathered to watch the marchers come in, along with a bike race, motorcycle caravan, and marathon that were all held that day to commemorate the genocide. After all the different groups had flowed into Potocari it was time to move the caskets of the 136 victims slated to by buried the next day. The caskets had come by truck the day before to Potocari from Sarajevo and had been laid out in the old battery factory where the Muslim refugees had waited in hopes of receiving shelter from the UN peacekeeping forces.
While the at times the march was hard, I tried my best to put it in perspective in my head. Those that originally set out on the journey we retraced we starving, ill, being shot at, hallucinating from gas attacks, and didn’t have nice new athletic shoes from DSW or the promise of a tent and blankets at the end of the night.
Another observation was that despite at the opening morning of the march there were statements by speakers that this march is is memorial and out of respect for the deceased and should “not be political”. However political statements were everywhere over the course of the march. Perhaps the speaker meant it should not be political in the sense that genocide is not up for debate, and not regards to the “anti- dayton, never forget, never forgive” shirts that seemed to be quite popular with certain groups of marchers…
For me I think the most rewarding part of the march was all the people we met, and whose stories we got to hear. We met Bosnian diaspora who were scattered around the world, including many who were living in the US and had come back to their home country just to do the march, while we met Bosnians our age that felt obligated to do walk because their father, grandfather, uncle, cousin, brother, etc had been in that column 20 years ago. We also many other non-Bosnian’s at the march who had been compelled by their love of this place to do this march, including many who had done march in years previous. After the march and reflecting upon all that happened, I think it definitely is something I would consider doing again if had the opportunity. It’s difficult to describe the experience without it all become word-vomit. It was incredibly humbling, simultaneously exhausting and revitalizing, in ways one would have never expected. I am hesitant to say I had fun given the nature of what took place here 20 years ago and the reasons for being here, and it doesn’t seem like the right word, but it will definitely be unforgettable and important to me no matter what descriptors I choose to apply to this in the future.
Part 2 of this post will cover the memorial that took place on the next day on July 11th.