Before I begin to put down into words my reflection on the five days I spent camping and hiking in the hills of eastern Bosnia, I must offer the disclaimer that this is exactly that; my reflections. I do not claim to get every detail of history correct or to offer a comprehensive history of the events that transpired in 1995. I do, however, hope to convey how those events have affected, and continue to affect those Bosnian muslims still living in the region, as well as the countless refugees who were forced to flee, and currently live abroad. I share my experiences meeting and wallking with survivors and family members of those who perished, with the hope that we can learn how to be kinder to one another.
In my last post I briefly touched upon how the conflict between Serbs and Bosnian Muslims came about in the early 1990s, focusing mostly on the siege of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1995. By the middle of 1995 however, things were much worse for Muslims living in eastern Bosnia, many of whom had relocated to the town of Srebrenica with the understanding that it would fall under the protection of the United Nations as a designated “safe zone.” As Serbs moved in from the surrounding areas, with the hopes of creating a Serbian Republic within the state of Bosnia, they destroyed villages and slaughtered civilians. Those who did survive were forced to flee their homes. By 1995, the events on the ground in eastern Bosnia were disastrous at best, with General Mladvic becoming increasingly aggressive, and the local and relocated Muslims unable to defend themselves. When the safe haven of Srebrenica fell on July 11th, the reaction from the UN peace keepers in the area, known as the “blue helmets” was less than adequate to say the least, although some historians have argued that they were being held as human shields to prevent an air strike against the Serbs. Whatever the reasons may have been for lack of United Nations intervention, the attack on Srebrenica and the events that occurred in the days that followed are now considered to be among the worst human rights violations in the 20th century. All males, from teenagers into thier 60s were rounded up and taken away, whereas women and elderly were deported into surrounding refuge areas. The men, over 8000 of them, were never to be seen again.
The Peace March, or “Mars Mira” is an annual event held since 2005 to commemorate those who died and those who escaped the attack on Srebrenica but were later killed as they tried to escape into the surrounding hills to Tuzla. The march takes place along the same pathway as those who escaped and those who were killed, and every year thousands of people from around the world come to particpate in the event.
WARNING: The following account provides some details and history that is extremely disturbing, but also necessary to put the events of the Peace March into full context.
My first encounter with the events that were to come and haunt me in the coming days took place at the Srebrenica Gallery Exhibit in Sarajevo. Located in an indescript building just besides the main church, this one floor exhibit showcases the photography of Tamil Samarah who hauntingly captured the horrorific events that transpired in July of 1995.
Perhaps the most horrifying thing about the massacre/genocide was that the Serbs, after signing the Dayton agreement in 1995 and realizing there was going to be some form of reconciliation, tried to cover up their war crimes by bulldozing and moving thousands of dead bodies, at least three times, leading to the creation and ensuing discoveries of mass graves throughout eastern Bosnia. Because of this evil act, victims’ bodies are often dislocated and found in multiple places, leaving it up to scientists and forensic experts to piece together the remains, both physically and factually.
The mass graves, some of which are still being excavated, were discovered through the use of infrared satellite imagaery, allowing anthropologists and forensic scientists to locate and then try to identify the remains of the victims.
After leaving Sarajevo, our first stop before embarking on the peace march was in Tuzla, the home of the International Commission of Missing Persons Identification Center which continues to work over the last decade to try to identify the countless victims of the genocide and bring some semblance of closure to the families. When the bus pulled into a small, rocky parking lot, I was rather surpised by the shed-like building that claimed itself to be the home of the scientific labeling and identification process of the victims’ remains. Inside this tiny buidling, different bones and articles of clothing are collected and labeled with the hopes of being able to run a DNA test that would match that of a family member who willingly gave their DNA samples with the hopes of finding out what happened to their loved ones, or at least, being able to give them a burial.
Just across town, we were taken to the International Commission for Missing People’s DNA center, where a large data bank of DNA samples exists and is used as a reference for when new remains are found and sampled.
Our time in Tuzla ended with a visit to the memorial to the 71 young people killed and 240 wounded on May 25, 1995 while they were out celebrating Youth Day.
After this sobering day, we drove a few more hours to the village of Nezuk where we would camp for the night before beginning the Peace March the next day. When we arrived in the village, there were already thousands of people walking the streets, setting up camp in fields behind local houses. When we finally arrived at our host’s house, Muhamed, Rusmir and Nihad frantically began to set up 30 plus tents. As we all began to settle into little clusters, we watched in awe as a lighting storm far off in the mountains lit the sky an irredecent blue, with gray shadows. Perhaps it was the all encompassing beauty of the place, the emotional drain of the day, or the trepidation and excitement of what we were about to partake in, but none of us seemed to think about the fact that momentarily, the thunder and lightning we had been watching somewhat hypnotically would be over our camp momentarily. With the first drops, someone yelled “into the tents” and we proceeded to jump into our little, as Ann described “disposable tents” and cover our belongings with the hopes of not getting soaked. The miniature rain fly on top did little to keep out the water for most, and the thunder roared and lighting lit up the sky as biblical rain came pouring over our camp. At once frightened and at peace, this was a most telling way to begin the Peace March.
Peace March Day 1:
After an eventful evening where somehow I was able to get some rest, we awoke the next day to a beautiful sunrise over the mountains. As tried to dry out our belongings, we heard the shuffles and cheers of thousands of fellow peace marchers embarking on their journey as they passed us by. After a cup of coffee offered up by a local villager down the road, we too were ready to begin.
As the march began, one of the first things we came across was bright red signs warning us to stay on the path so not to accidentally walk off into the forest where there still exists mines from the war.
Although I was nervous about walking 74 kilometers over 3 days, the first day was not too bad, as we were often hiking with large groups of Bosnians and Turkish, and were continually offered coffee, fruit, and other snacks and refreshments along the way, as well as wishes of gratitude and encouragement. The sense of comradery among the walkers confirmed for me that we were doing something special, and made the hours (and hills) go by rather quickly.
Peace March Day Two:
After camping out in field by the river, behind a house and a school that was used as a prison where Serbs kept and tortured fleeing Muslims, we awoke to a beautiful sky and headed out for our second day. I’m not sure whether it was because there were so many of us, or because he knew some of us would be slow, but Muhamed liked for our group to start hiking a bit later than others, hence we were always the last.
Everyone had warned that today was going to be the hardest day and that we would have to climb up a giant hill to make it. A bit nervous, I set out at an even slower pace than normal, and myself, Meghan, and Marina took up our respective places in the back of the march, with Rusmir looking after us. When I explained to him that I was going to finish but would need to go slow, he did not seem concerned, and so we went on our happy snail’s pace.
Soon, we caught up with Nihad and Esra, and our hiking group for the day was formed. The six of us were the absolute last people marching through the path and hills, and because of this, we were able to really talk with Rusmir and Nihad about their own experiences as children during this time, as well as meet and talk to some other Bosnians along the way, whose hospitatility was beyond comparable to anything I have ever experienced abroad.
Just when I started to feel a bit drained, we came across a man offering coffee and tea to hikers as we passed his house. I was so excited, I wanted to hug him. He invited us to sit under the shade of a large tree by his house, and set up blankets for us to relax on. Shortly after, his wife came outside to talk with us and bring us trays of fruit, and invited us into her house. She began to tell us her story of when she was 8 months pregnant and walked (fled) through this same path in the opposite direction, from Srebrenica to Tuzla. With my feet thumping and my stomache turned from all the walking in the heat, I could not imagine how a woman would be able to do this 8 months pregnant, especially under threat of dying everyday. After hearing her story, I knew I would not give up this day, and remember her whenever I felt tired or unable to go on.
After about an hour, Rusmir suggested we get going, and so we said our goodbyes, and the woman began to cry. With this, we all began to cry as well, and so the six of us set out on what turned out to be one of the most amazing days ever. It was as if we had the whole path to ourselves, with local villagers coming to say hi, beautiful rollling hills in the distance, and the companionship of five amazing people I was happy to be “stuck” with for the day.
In the mid afternoon we finally reached the river everyone kept talking about, and we met up with a group of our fellow seminar participants who had been waiting there for quite some time to make sure we were okay. All along the trail, there are also EMS and ambulances, and there were many trucks waiting in this area to see if people were okay. The night before I had a crazy giant rash of some sort on my lower right calf; the size of the Soviet Union. Rusmir suggested the doctor come over and look at it. After a few words going back in forth that I didn’t understand, Rusmir turned to me and asked my age and weight, then said “are you opposed to an injection?” “I rather not” I said. But then asked if he thought it necessarily to which his answer was yes. (*Disclosure; Rusmir is currently in Medical school). After I confirmed that it was going to be a shot of Cortisone, (because they believed it to be an allergic reaction to a bug bite), I agreed to the injection, under the promise I could continue hiking afterwards. Next thing I know, Rusmir motions for me to get in the ambulance and pull down my pants, to which I realized and said with shock…”In my BUTT!?!?!?!” The answer to that was of course, yes, and so I found myself lying down in an ambulance in the middle of Bosnia getting a shot in my butt. Without being able to communicate with me in English, the doctor just kept patting the top of my head like I was a loyal dog or something. Again however, I thought to myself how fortunate I was to have this care on the trail, and was reminded of those who did not.
At the river, we met up with Yasmina, who let the others go on without her and joined her happy merriment of hikers. The 7 of us now would spend the rest of the day tackling the forested giant hill and making it to camp before nightfall, or at least that was our intent. Before we set off again however, we spent a bit longer relaxing at the river, soaking our feet and in some cases, entirely immersing into it. This would be our last chance to rest before the gruesome climb.
In the late afternoon, we climbed through the forest together. helping one another as we created a bond that could only be explained by the shared sense of accomplishment, sadness, and common humanity that we all felt for one another as we followed in the footsteps of so many who had perished. We eventually reached the top of the mountain, where we were greeted by a heard of sheep, a beatiful view over the surrounding hills, and local man who shared with us his story about hiding in the woods to survive when he was only 16 years old.
As we set off down the mountainside, the sun began to dip below the horizon, and it was a perfect walk at dusk. Although some of us were a little concerned with making it to the camp by nightfall, the serenity we felt walking in those moments kept us at ease.
Along the way villagers looked at us with bemused smirks, rather suprised that we were still walking the march at this late hour. As we approached one house, a boy kicked his soccer ball at us and a makeshift back and forth between him and Nihad ensued.
As we descended further, Meghan’s knee began to hurt some more, and we stopped for Rusmir to wrap it. At this point, Nihad told us to “prepare your lights” to which we responded that we had all left them with our stuff at camp. As we laughed at this predicament, two head lights came barreling up the side of the road, and Nihad yelled “It’s Muhamed!” With that, the car stopped and Muhamed jumped out and yelled “you bitches!”…to Rusmir and Nihad, not to us!:) He explained that we were too far from the camp to walk, and would have to take two turns with him driving us the remaining few kilometers.
When we arrived back at camp, many people had been worried and some cheered that we finished the day at all, but deep down inside, the 7 of us knew that we had the absolute best day ever; a day I will never forget.
Peace March Day 3
After our slow performance the day before, there was some concern that some of us woulnd’t be able to make it to Potocari by 6pm, when the memorial gates are opened and all the encampments march in. For this reason, a few of us headed out before the others to get a head start. The first few kilometers of the march were enjoyable, with people sharing coffee along the way. Plus, this was one of the only times we were all marching with the thousands of others who had come from all over the world to march.
As the day went on however, I split off on my own, and although I would hike with a a few people here and there, most of the time, I was left in perfect solitude, to really think about what it was I was commemorating with my footsteps. Whereas the day before had been beautiful, this third day proved to be the toughest, with continuous up hill climbs in exposed sun for over 20 kilometers. Determined to make it to the camp by 6, I pushed on in the heat, with blistered feet, and only stopped off a few time to catch my breath and find respite from the sun under a tree. At 550pm, I walked into Potocari, with no idea where anyone was or where we were supposed to meet. After I walked another 2klm looking for the camp, a very kind military man took me under his care, offering me food and rest, and told me to not to worry, they would find the group. Just at that moment, I saw Magdalena walking through the crowd, and felt utter relief.
That night, we made it to our camp a few kilometers outside of the town and rested up for the memorial service that was to be held the next day.
This year, 72 bodies were identified and buried on July 11th 2017. The day began with us walking into the town, alongside thousands of others who had made the pilgrimage here from places near and far. In the early afternoon, a few of us headed into the memorial to participate in the funeral that was being held for the victims. I have never witnessed a Muslim religious ceremony, but this might have been the most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed, at least as far as memorials and commemorations go. With thousands of people gathered throughout the memorial/cemetary, there was music and prayers before the remains of the bodies, held in caskets covered in green, were lifted down into their burial spots as the families poured dirt on top of the graves.
After the bodies were buried, Potocari cleared out like a ghosttown, with many returning to their new homes, many of which are no longer in Bosnia. We stayed the day, visiting the Genocide Memorial center which is located in the former compound of the United Nations, where were heard from two survivors who shared their stories of how quickly their neighbors turned to enemies and their friends turned to foes.
The events of these four days spent walking the peace march and attending the memorial funeral for the 72 bodies that were identified this year are not experiences that I will ever forget. The events of Srebrenica serve as a glaring reminder of what can happen when humanity turns against itself, often brought about by divisive rhetoric, fear, and anger. When people are targeted for their ethnic or religous backgrounds, it is a slippery slope to genocide and destruction, and the events that transpired in Bosnia in 1995 should serve as warning to all. Yet, in spite of the profound sadness I felt as I participated in these events side by side with grieving Bosnian families and friends, I also felt a glimmer of hope in humanity in the way people cared for one another on the march, the way people loved one another during those three days, and going forward, the message of peace and reconciliation that the events of Srebrenica have taught me most.
It is easy to turn on one another when we fear each other, but true strength and understanding comes from reaching out to those we may not understand and genuinely trying to seek out their friendship and love. It is not always easy to do, but it is the truest strength we have as Humanity, and a necessary step if we are to survive. In memory of the all those who lost thier lives in Srebrenica, I move forward with this understanding and a new found commitment to love thy neighbor, whomever he or she may be.