One of the first things that comes to mind when I think of the past few days and the 2017 Peace March is overwhelmingly trivial in the context of the event – feet; how I wish I’d prioritized the weight of my heavy duty Vasque boots in my checked bag for the trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina knowing in advance that I’d be participating in the 80k march from Nezuk (Tuzla) to Potocari (Srebrenica). Not that the Keen hiking shoes I was wearing were inappropriate, but my ankles told the tale of needing some more support after day two of the event. It had been several years since I’d undertaken a trek of this magnitude and I’d somehow managed to forget how different the impact on my feet during this type of activity is from running long distances on relatively level terrain.
I knew going into the event that here would be several thousand participants, but somehow I had not been mentally prepared for the throng of over 6000 people vying for trail space and, as someone who tends to be a bit claustrophobic, I was not the least bit reticent to hold back as the masses hit the trail before embarking myself. The initial chaos of the crowds milling around eating breakfast and listening to speeches soon gave way to the quiet attentiveness of the Bosnian national anthem before the Srebrenica survivors broke ground on the trail with the participants falling in behind them. I had been a little apprehensive about accepting, from a gentleman who was kind enough to relinquish his after we had been unable to locate the source of the books that several people were carrying, the Marš Mira Planinarska Transverzala (trail guide and stamp book) out of fear that the experience may become ‘Disneyesque’ in focusing on getting the stamps from the various checkpoints rather than the solemn purpose of the march. However, the booklet became an invaluable tool in helping keep track of the distances and elevations between points and provided a much needed means of breaking the journey into mentally manageable segments.
Thunderstorms the previous night (including an almost surreal lighting show) had rendered the ground a soupy mess and swollen streams. And, aside from those brave souls who simply trudged through the water without concern for the sanctity of keeping their feet dry, passage on more than one creek was restricted to a single width foot-bridge consisting of little more than wooden planks thrown across with the resulting bottle-neck as thousands crossed single file. The path itself was generally well maintained with obvious trail improvements having been made to those locations that appeared to be susceptible to the effects of erosion and fresh, cool water available from tapped artesian springs.
However, beyond the mundane aspect to the physical tribulations of the march, or the logistical prowess of the Bosnian army as they diligently set camp for the marchers, I was struck almost immediately by the yellow caution tape along trail segments prominently displaying “POZOR” (mines) with its associated skull and crossbones marking. “Now there’s something you don’t see everyday” was my first thought, but this reaction was only indicative of something emotionally deeper that began to surface as the miles passed. A small and relatively benign sign appeared next to the trail portraying a grim picture of a latex gloved hand holding what appeared to be the decayed remains of another hand protruding from the soil. The sign read “Masovna Grobnica” (mass grave). It was here, at Crni Vrh, that 629 innocent human beings had been disposed of; their bodies haphazardly thrown into a makeshift hole in the ground and left to rot. While this particular grave dated to 1992, and was not part of the subsequent genocide to occur three years later around Srebrenica, it was the first of many the trail would wind past; the emotional impact growing more cumbersome with each passing marker. I lost count after the first two dozen sites, but the signs told the same sad story with the images reflecting the magnitude of the atrocity: the site at Snagovo, which had held ninety-four bodies, and its haunting image of a dirt encrusted skull (bits of hair still visible) staring at the viewer through empty and vacuous eye sockets; the site at Hodžići with a lone wrist watch marking the moment time stopped for its wearer and the fifty-six others dumped there; or the site at Liplje with the 191 bodies discovered there displaying the image of a decomposed arm still bound by the wire used to tie the wrists of its victim before he was executed being only a few of the many that passersby would bear witness to. On the second evening of the march, we were privileged to hear Nedzad Avdic (who, as a young boy, was left for dead amidst a pile of corpses) share his experience and describe lining up in groups of twenty-five (five abreast and five deep) in their final moments while simultaneously watching Bosnian Serb children ride past on their bicycles. I couldn’t help but think of John’s Gospel and the words penned by the author therein, “Jesus wept.” I did too.
The incredible dichotomy that struck me about this experience was the palpable anguish present in the air itself over against the stark beauty of the surrounding landscape; the green rolling hills, sunshine, lush vegetation, and seasonal wildflowers bearing witness to, and holding the memory of, the tragedy which unfolded within the very embrace of paradise itself. It was the theme of hope embodied in the timelessness of nature which spoke to me; the depth of goodness capable within the human psyche is reflective of the resilient nature of the peoples who have resided here for millennia. Just as the trail passed 11th Century stećci marking the passing of generations long since faded from our ability to recall them, it also passed the remnants of houses destroyed by modern explosives through which trees grew strong and tall as nature reclaimed the site in a refusal to yield to an agenda of hate. Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of this than the old woman selflessly providing tea, coffee, and a place to rest for the march participants as they worked their way past her humble home.