We arrived in Srebrenica late in the afternoon on July 7th. The town was ghostly quiet considering the memorial event which was to take place four days later; thousands descending on the small Eastern Bosnian community. July 11th would mark the passing of 22 years since the genocide committed against the area’s Bosniak population. The eleven of us from the University of Denver more than tripled the number of people who were moving around the town; a stray, mangy looking dog walked past with a sideward glance at us, feral cats could be seen scampering among the still ruined buildings, and the occasional car that passed somehow seemed excessively loud amidst the silence. That evening was an opportunity for me to take a solitary walk along a cobblestone path that led into the hills surrounding the town. I stopped at the site of an old spa, once a tourist attraction. Other than a couple having a picnic near the trailhead, it seemed abandoned; the palpable silence somehow reinforcing the area’s unhealed trauma, trauma that lingered in the rustling leaves.
I knew going into the event that there would be several thousand participants, but somehow I had not been mentally prepared for the throng of over 6,000 people vying for trail space on the morning of July 8th as the 80k march from Nezuk (Tuzla) to Potočari (Srebrenica) began 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 rest of the participants falling in behind them. I had been a little apprehensive about accepting, from a gentleman who was kind enough to relinquish his, a copy of the Marš Mira Planinarska Transverzala (trail guide and stamp book) out of fear that, in focusing on getting stamps at the various checkpoints rather than the solemn purpose of the march, the experience may become ‘Disneyesque.’ 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 streams swollen and the ground a soupy mess. And, aside from those brave souls who simply trudged through the water without concern for keeping their feet dry, passage on more than one creek was restricted to a single width footbridge consisting of little more than wooden planks thrown across. This limited infrastructure resulted in a bottleneck as thousands crossed single file. Beyond these mundane, physical tribulations of the march, I was struck almost immediately by the yellow caution tape along trail segments prominently displaying “POZOR” (mines) with its associated skull and crossbones marking. Further down the trail, a small and relatively benign sign appeared, portraying the 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 pass; 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 and the images reflecting the magnitude of the atrocity: the site at Snagovo, which had held ninety-four bodies, with 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 56 others dumped there; or the site at Liplje with the 191 bodies displaying the image of a decomposed arm still bound by the wire used to tie the wrists of its victim before he was executed.
On the second evening of the march, we were privileged to hear Nedžad Avdić (who, as a young boy, was left for dead amidst a pile of corpses) share his experience of being lined up in a group of 25 (five abreast and five deep) for their final moments while he simultaneously watched 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, set against the stark beauty of the surrounding landscape; the green rolling hills, sunshine, lush vegetation, and seasonal wildflowers that bore witness to 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 stecci 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.
We arrived at Potočari, the location of the cemetery and what had once been the home of a Dutch UN contingent that had been the middlemen in a game of inept political chess as the world watched the tragedy unfold, early on the evening of July 10th. We arrived just in time to witness the ceremonial procession of the 71 caskets containing the remains of genocide victims identified during the past year. From the abandoned battery factory, where the remains had been delivered, the caskets were carried through the crowd. Countless hands reached out to touch the smooth green cloth covering the simple unfinished wood of each casket as a final farewell to these innocent victims whose individual chapters of a larger narrative were coming to a close.
Today, a disquieting tension still hangs over this beautiful valley. There are some, including the mayor of Srebrenica himself (Mladen Grujičić), who deny the atrocity saying that the truth about it “has not been proven” despite the event being the most thoroughly documented genocide in history. Both the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia have ruled that the event was, in fact, genocide. Although Grujičić’s recent statements run counter to the internationally recognized body of evidence surrounding the July 1995 events in Srebrenica, he claims to have conducted research which indicates that some victims buried at Potočari are still alive and that inconsistency in the number of victims alluded to in international findings constitutes an invalidation of the evidence.
As Munira Subašić (the president of the Mothers of Srebrenica) says, “In a town where genocide was committed, having a genocide denier as a mayor is unacceptable.” Grujičić was not invited to the annual memorial ceremony because, according to Subašić, “anybody who denies genocide is not welcome in the memorial center. They are proud of what they did in Srebrenica, they never repented.” Nura Begović, Vice President of the Women of Srebrenica Association and who lost her husband and son in the Srebrenica massacre, reinforced these thoughts and sentiments as I sat with her in her humble office in Tuzla.
Overall, the Peace March provided an opportunity for me to experience a small piece of what the Srebrenica survivors endured throughout their flight to safety. I am forever humbled to have been a participant. The context of the event represents an important occasion to hold the memory of Srebrenica’s victims but, more importantly, it opens the door to dialogue- dialogue that can ultimately lead to healing (provided that the parties are sincere in setting aside nationalistic agendas to move forward in a mutually beneficially manner). While there is certainly much to be done in terms of transitional justice, and the elimination of the ethnic biases, which lie at the root of societal tensions, I remain optimistic. I see unlimited potential in this beautiful corner of the world. Potential which, with some introspection and critical thought as to the benefits of multicultural existence, could be capitalized on by for the benefit of future generations.
Photo by Brad Hobbs
*Views expressed in this story reflect those of the author and not an organizational stance by PCRC.*