This year I attended the annual commemoration of the Genocide in Srebrenica, in which 613 victims were laid to rest in their graves at the Cemetery in Potocari . It was the third time that I attended this commemoration (here my post on my first visit to Potocari). A few days earlier I joined the March of Peace (Mars mira), and walked for 100 kilometres alongside more than 6 thousand people in tribute to the victims of genocide in Bosnia.
The path of the march, which was organised for the first time in 2006, coincides with the one taken in July 1995 by thousands of people who tried to escape certain death when the the enclave of Srebrenica was taken over by the army of Republika Srpska, by fleeing through the woods and then walking across the hills to reach free territory. Many died in this attempt. Those who survived started to arrive 6 days later at the village of Nezuk, the first settlement under control of the Army of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and through which now passes the inter-entity line which divides Bosnia. The Peace March is done on the opposite direction, from Nezuk to Potocari, a symbolic return to Srebrenica.
I arrived in Nezuk on the eve of the departure and stayed with a friend at the home of a local family. The warmth of their reception was moving.We were welcomed with hugs and kisses, although we hadn’t met before. Our hostess explained us the meaning of the march. She said it was a holy thing, like a pilgrimage, like the hadj. Her daughter, Elvira, then commented on how beautiful it is in the morning to see from the balcony of their house the column walking away, a column that extends itself for kilometres. The following morning I would be in that column.
My hostesses, the Brzovic family
I’ve never been on a pilgrimage, but this did feel like one. The march was very demanding for the body and the mind of any healthy adult, but on the march there weren’t only healthy adults. There were plenty of small children as well, some as old as four, whom their parents carried on their shoulders or walked with hand in hand. There were also a lot of older people, and many many teenagers. This year’s march was particularly demanding because the temperature reached as much as 42ºC during the day, more when we walked on asphalt, the organisation had not enough funds to provide some food, and there weren’t many places to get water. Many were poorly prepared, had no appropriate shoes, carried bags that were too heavy, not enough water. But nobody complained and their effort was no more for them than a call for modesty, a reminder that this was not even remotely comparable to what those who took part on the original march had to endure.
This was for everyone a personal challenge, but our will was strengthened by the warmth of the Bosniak population along the way. Clearly for them this was a major event, one which reminded them that they, so called minority returnees, were not alone. The villagers prepared coffee for the marchers, gave us fresh water, invited us to take some rest in their gardens. Few things impressed me as much as the dignity and the courage of these people. Going through the mountains and the hills in a region that is now part of Republika Srpska, I had the opportunity both to observe the level of destruction during the war and the level of return of the Bosniak population. All the houses belonging to non-Serbs had been systematically destroyed, not a single house was spared. Those who returned had to build them again, and live with the sense of uncertainty about their own security. Among the returnees there were many young couples, and many many children. This contradicted the dominant perception, which I also shared, that returnees are mostly older people, who benefit from state pensions. That may be the case elsewhere, but it is certainly not in the villages in those hills. Why did so many people return ? There are many reasons, but as my friend Peter Lippman, who has been since the end of the war a very close observer of the return movement, once told me, deep love and attachment for their piece of land is one of the most important.
The beauty of this region is overwhelming, and as the evening came and liberated me from the oppressive heat and sun, I could enjoy the sun setting behind the mountains far away and the night slowly falling until the sky became totally dark and the stars appeared in its full splendour, no city lights anywhere near, and feel fortunate to be there.
The environment among the participants on the march was largely positive. There were many young people, many teenage boys, who behaved as is proper to their age. They laughed, made jokes and played tricks on their friends, and that contributed to a lighter environment. But they kept on their mind what was the purpose of this trip. A young man joined the march because his father in 1995 didn’t make it. Who could judge what was the motivation of each one of them? In this country almost everybody has a story to tell about the war, but not all feel the need to share it. “Where are you from?”, I asked a group of girls who were resting by my side under the shade. One of them said “we were born in Srebrenica but live in Zivinice.” Teenage girls born in Srebrenica, there was nothing more to ask, anyone can do the maths. “We need more girls on the March”, I said. “I agree” she replied proudly, and then her group got up and started walking.
There were, of course, problems among the crowd. Alcohol was forbidden and there was as strict set of rules to follow, but it was not easy to make people fully comply. Many were as irresponsible as getting to the woods in heavily mined areas; some behaved in a less respectful way towards the female participants, flirting a bit around; a lot of people abandoned their rubbish and empty bottles of water along the way. But the biggest problem was the attempt of subversion of the peaceful environment by a small (no more than 100 people) but very loud group of people who, displaying Islamic flags, shouted ‘Allah Akbar’ every time they passed trough Serb policemen and even louder when then knew they were passing through areas inhabited by Serbs. Most of them were Turks, members of the Turkish Humanitarian Aid Foundation (IHH), the Islamic fundamentalist organisation that behind the Gaza flotilla last year. It is deplorable that genocide in Bosnia is abused in such a way. Such attitude only reinforces the mental barriers against coexistence among different nationalities. And unpleasant as it may be for a Serb peasant or an RS policemant to hear this, this hurts above all the Bosniak minority returnees. I could observe how upset those returnees who participated on the march, some of them survivors from 1995, were. I asked a few about this, and they all were angry that these trouble makers, who lived either abroad or in the Federation, Bosnia’s other ‘entity’, came to this region only to reinforce the negative stereotypes about Muslims and Islam and thus the mental barriers against coexistence among different nationalities in Bosnia.
The third day was full of emotions. The march passed through mainly Serb-inhabited areas, through many mass graves. Around noon, the march was halted, and my friend and I walked up a hill to eat and get some rest at the shade. When we came back to the road most of the participants had already departed. By coincidence, one of our friends, who had hosted us in his house the night before, was just passing. “That hill”, he said, “was where the Serbs attacked the column which then split into two”. He made a pause, then said, “in an instant, a thousand people were dead”. It took our friend 62 days to reach free territory.
The mood was quieter on the third day, as if we were all mentally preparing ourselves for the commemoration we were to attend the following day. But in the afternoon, when our sight reached our destination, Potocari, for a moment we all felt proud, and happy, and the heat and the thirst and everything else was quickly forgotten, and people congratulated each other for having got there. In the matter of three days, a community had been forged, the community of those who did the march. Like a pilgrimage.
In Potocari, I joined a local friend, who gave us shelter for that night. When she presented me to two of her friends and said that we had just done the march, one of them said she was on that same march in 1995. “I made it through”, she said. Then a pause. “But my husband didn’t”. Silence fell for a moment and only then it really came to us what it was all about, and why it was important, this pilgrimage. She couldn’t remember the place where her column was attacked. We guessed it was the same place where we had had our nice nap a few hours earlier, but we didn’t dare say it. “I will ask those policemen”, she said, and so she did. They looked at her with surprised and asked “Where are you from?”. Serbia, she replied.
There is no place like Bosnia and Herzegovina to shatter all our certainties.