Over the course of the past week I have done things that I never imagined I would have done before. I participated in the Peace March from Nezuk to Potočari just outside of the town of Srebrenica and I never imagined my feet could hurt so much from just walking. Over the course of the nearly 60 miles, I walked past many mass graves and saw testaments to the inconceivable hate possible of mankind. And I saw some of the most beautiful vistas I have ever seen.
When I first considered participating in the march, I was seated in a very comfortable chair in Denver having just eaten a very good meal from Noodles. I initially focused on the physical dimension of the March and what it would mean if I completed it. I had never done anything nearly as long and the prospect of accomplishing that feat was very exciting. However, when it came time to committing to registration I realized that my motivation had shifted. I knew that beyond the physical trial it proposed, it was not to be a focus on me necessarily but on those lives lost and their memory.
When it came time to begin the March, people were telling me that it was going to be an emotionally and physically hard experience but that it was an important memorial to the atrocity and those affected. I was somewhat doubtful that by the end of the March I would be an inconsolable mass but I knew that there was a very real possibility that others could have a visceral reaction to passing mass graves and relating to those killed in the massacre. In any case, over the course of the three days of walking, I began to notice that during the periods of silent walking I stopped thinking about all the things that occupy normal life and more about what it musts have been like for those fleeing through these woods terrified and ill equipped. Those would inevitably lead to my own realization of my privilege. Unlike them, I was wearing hiking boots, I knew for certain that at the end of the path a tent and sleeping bag awaited me, and that there was a system of support to ensure that I made it back home.
However, I also saw that in spite of the horrors that transpired there, despite the disgusting executions and tortures, and efforts to conceal the atrocities, the mountains were beautiful, the sky was blue, and sheep calmly grazed. That isn’t to say that life simply goes on, but that despite how horrible we may be to each other, there is hope that it will end and that there may be a better tomorrow.
I got to meet some very interesting people over the course of the march. Some people seemed to have just found themselves there and others were repeat participants that had chosen to participate out of moral compulsion or because of a direct connection to the massacre or war. One of these was a woman from France that I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with on the final day. She works at an organization that helps children in Paris. She had been coming Bosnia for many years, but only recently became aware of the march. She did it first last year, on the twentieth anniversary of the genocide, and she returned this year. She was at first surprised that there were people in the US, and particularly in Colorado, that knew about the march and participated in it. To me it was a demonstration of not only our international reputation but also the relative minor significance the march may have in the international zeitgeist.
I was amused by how many people came up to us as we walked and asked us about our Colorado Flag. They would ask what country it was and we would clarify that it was one of the states. The French woman didn’t know that each state had its own flag apart from the US one. Some of us got interviewed by different press organizations and it was interesting to think that you might suddenly become a representative of an entire state or even an entire country.
When we arrived in Potočari, it felt as though much more time had passed. It had in reality been less than three full days but it seemed to have been ages since we had been in that city. The thought of it ending was strange and alien compared to a sort of normalization of walking twenty miles every day. Finally arriving at the memorial, we walked in silence into the cemetery rounded the central pavilion, and exited again to meet with the others in our program that had stayed. For me at least, I was in a sort of daze. Was it over? Was I really going to relish the shower like I thought I would? Was there a going back to Sarajevo? What was normal life again? Soon thereafter hundreds of men began to bring out the coffins of those that were to be buried the next day. To see that effort was incredible. You saw young and old working to put to rest those that had been lost, more than twenty years since they died.
The following day, we attended the prayer service at the memorial. During the prayers, the crowd bowed and raised their hands. It is unfortunate that the majority of my time during the service was devoted to thinking about how intolerant many people in the US are towards Muslims. There were thousands there taking part in the service and bowing towards Mecca and doing a call and response. To far too many back home, the very practice of the religion makes them uncomfortable and worse afraid.
The ride back to Sarajevo was interesting. I got to see the rolling hills pass by. I laughed at how quickly we traversed distances in hours what it would take days to do on foot. But when we pulled back into the center of the city, it felt more alien than when I first got here. The thought of all my needs being met in a square kilometer was weird when I was just a couple of days before concerned about having to use the bathroom in the woods.
I think I’ve changed. I’m still trying to figure out how and it may just take more time to process just what I went through. But I think that like I was told when I started, it was an emotionally, physically taxing experience, but one I would do again.