The Peace March and the July 11 memorial were very meaningful experiences for me. It was very powerful to march with so many people from around the world to honor the victims and their familes, as well as the survivors, of the Srebrenica genocide.
Some of the interactions we had were very interesting. Most of the marchers were Bosnian, of course, and many of those who weren’t had some connection to Bosnia, if not Srebrenica specifically. The Swedish friend we made, Muhammed, had Bosnian parents but was born in Sweden. I met a number of Bosnians who had moved to the United States, either during or after the war. Interestingly, the most engaging conversation I had was with Rusamir, a Bosnian man in his twenties. He spent the war in a central Bosnian town the name of which I cannot recall. His father was a Major in the army who commanded troops in the northern part of the country. We talked a lot about our experiences so far in Bosnia and our perceptions of the country. He talked about the lingering effects of the war, in particular the lack of economic opportunities for young people, as well as the nepotism and corruption that exists in so many sectors of this country. He finished his undergraduate degree and then spent the next two years volunteering. He went back to obtain a Master’s degree, but was unable to find work outside of a job at McDonald’s. Someone I was with (either Laura or Rose, I can’t remember which) made the point that most of the people we are in graduate school with would rather be unemployed than work at McDonald’s. I think this exemplifies the difficult decisions that young Bosnians face in order to scrape together a living. As Rose said later, he was “this generation in a nutshell.” Rusamir is lucky enough to have an opportunity to work in Germany soon. I could tell that he was very conflicted. He wanted to stay near his family, and I could tell he had a great affection for his country. But, ultimately, he had to do what he had to do.
The march itself was an emotional rollercoaster for me. While there were harrowing moments in the first few days, particularly passing the markers for mass graves where people were praying, i must say that it was not quite hitting home for me. I was never naive enough to believe that this experience would actually make me understand what the men who fled through the woods had been through, but it wasn’t quite hitting home for me for a long time. I think it was very easy to focus on personal things like exhaustion, disgust at parts of the camp experience, interpersonal frustrations and never having a good sense of when our day would end. For me, the first “moment of clarity” so to speak, occurred in the wee hours of Sunday morning. I had had serious issues getting sleep, and was never actually able to get to sleep on Saturday night. I was incredibly frustrated and angry. But then I had the realization that the people I was there to honor likely did not have the luxury of sleeping because they were literally being hunted. I knew that I could make it through the next day and then have a nice meal and sleep in a bed.
I felt much more somber as I marched on Sunday. I could not shake thoughts about how I would feel if suddenly I was faced with similar circumstances. How would I feel if someone opened fire on us at that moment? What would I do? Where would I go? It is of course impossible to truly understand, but I was able to focus on those types of thoughts rather than merely focusing on my physical exhaustion, etc. I first started to get really emotional as we passed a mother who was wailing on the side of the road, about an hour and a half before we reached the memorial. As we walked down the hill to the memorial, I started to get overwhelmed by my emotions. It all came to a head as we entered the memorial to see the mothers lined up to watch the marchers come in. I finally lost it when I saw a woman would looked like my mother will in about 10 years. (Or I think she did, I was honestly so delirious that my mind may have fabricated this a bit.) It did not take that for me to empathize with the victims and survivors of this genocide, because I don’t think you need to feel any personal connection to care about victims of oppression. But it is what sent me over the proverbial edge. I am still processing all of my feelings about the march, and will likely do so for a long time to come. But I am very glad that I did it and I will remember those three days for the rest of my life.