The town of Srebrenica teeters on the brink of existence. It was once an affluent place, known for its metal factory and large spa. Nowadays, its streets resonate with emptiness and despair. Bosnians are quick to advise you not to visit, saying something along the lines of “don’t go there, the place is empty.” Srebrenica is now infamous for being the site of the worst atrocity on European soil since World War II. July 11th marked the twentieth anniversary of the genocide.
In attempt to pay homage to those mercilessly killed, we took part in the Mars Mira, or March of Peace. We set out in the village of Nezuk alongside 10,000 others, and ended in Potočari. The march commemorates the 15,000 men who fled to Tuzla in hopes of escaping Serbian persecution after the fall of the Srebrenica enclave on July 11, 1995. The predominantly Bosniak area of Central Podrinje was of strategic importance to the Serbs, because without it, there would be no territorial stronghold within their new political entity, the Republica Srpska. Hence, it was in Central Podringe, and other parts of Eastern Bosnia where the Serbs proceeded with systematic ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks. The Mars Mira is made in reverse order, and ends in Potočari, at the site of the former Dutch “safe zone.” The “safe zone” fell when the Dutchbat were unable to reinforce their batallion and deter the relentless Bosnian Serb attacks. Today, a large memorial is located across the street from the safe zone, and at the end of the march bodies are laid to rest that have been identified that year. According to the International Commission on Missing Persons, 6,930 bodies have been identified from 17,000 body parts found in dozens of mass graves. However, 1,000 victims from the massacre have yet to be identified. This year, there were 136 burials of newly identified bodies.
The genocide that took place at Srebrenica represents the largest DNA-identification project ever conducted, and provides unfaltering proof of the massive atrocity. Despite this, many people claim it never happened. The official ruling of Srebrenica was highly complex and took years to complete. It began with just two detectives from Croatia, who knew nothing about the area, or the extent of the events. They stated that it was like trying to extract diamonds form a coalmine to obtain the best witnesses from a complex web of information. Like Rwanda, it became increasingly apparent that the killings had been systematically planned, indicating that the cases should be treated as genocide. Eventually, Judge Theodor Meron ruled on behalf of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ruled that “among the grievous crimes this Tribunal has the duty to punish, the crime of genocide is singled out for special condemnation and opprobrium. The crime is horrific in its scope; its perpetrators identify entire human groups for extinction. Those who devise and implement genocide seek to deprive humanity of the manifold richness its nationalities, races, ethnicities and religions provide. This is a crime against all of humankind, its harm being felt not only by the group targeted for destruction, but by all of humanity.”
The Peace March was a test of physical and mental resolve, and a humbling experience to say the least. Emotions ebbed and flowed over the course of the three days, ranging from a tremendous hope in humanity to an incredible anguish. People came from all corners of the world to participate in the march, some with direct connections to those killed, others who fled Bosnia, and others simply because they had a deep love for the country. Their individual stories enriched the journey, and provided unique perspectives.
The memorial was an overflowing of international dignitaries. Back in Srebrenica, the town had been transformed into a bustling city. Cevapi stands lined the streets, the highway overflowed with cars and buses, and people opened up their homes to accommodate the mass of walkers, and dignitaries. We remained in Srebrenica the day after the memorial, and awoke to a desolate city. A few photographers and journalists remained in the local coffee shop, making final edits on their work before sending it off to their agencies. It served as an eerie reminder of Srebrenica’s future. Hassan Hasanović, the curator of the memorial, and a survivor of the march, accompanied us for most of the weekend, and in an interview with the BBC made the plea “the whole world should show that there is life here after the deaths. We need to persuade people to invest here and have their future here, especially the young people. If young people leave, Srebrenica will die. So my question is – does the world want Srebrenica to die again?”