THE MARŠ MIRA
I embarked on the “Marš mira”
(march of peace) to Srebrenica on July 8th, three days before
the annual commemoration of the 1995 massacre. The trail of the march
retraces, backwards, the escape route that thousands of men and boys
took to avoid capture by Serb forces in July of 1995 as the Srebrenica
enclave fell. Out of 10,000 to 15,000, only five thousand arrived safely
to free territory.
Since 2005, people have been walking the route back into Srebrenica,
specifically to Potocari, wartime location of the Dutch UN base and now
the memorial cemetery for the massacre victims. There, each year
newly-identified remains of exhumed victims are reburied.
The march has been growing every year. Last year there were almost 5,000
participants. I have heard estimates upwards of 6,000 for this year.
Participants gathered on a hill above Nezuk, a village near Sapna, well
to the north of Srebrenica and east of Tuzla. This was the end-point of
one of the two main escape routes. The other went westward, emerging
from Serb-controlled territory near Kladanj, south of Tuzla.
There was a sense of disorganization at the beginning when the head of
the march, Camil Durakovic (deputy mayor of Srebrenica) admonished the
crowd to get in formation, and people yelled back at him. But the main
elements of the march were organized; all we really had to do was walk.
At the opening, we listened to the Bosnian national hymn (without words)
and held a moment of silence for the victims of Srebrenica.
After a while, around 9:30 a.m., we walked down through Nezuk and south
towards the inter-entity borderline between the Federation and the
I have fifty-eight years behind me. Every day I take my customary post-prandial
walk of approximately a half hour. During the weekends I engage in
rampant physical activity as a carpenter. With this regime, before the
march I gave myself a 50-50 chance of making the whole thing. A
hundred-odd kilometers in three days is not so small.
I knew members of a couple of groups of foreigners and, it seemed, all
the Bosnians. I never lacked for company in the crowd. There were the
university students from Denver under my friend Alison Sluiter’s capable
guidance. There were other scholars from Europe and the US. There was
Julia, my colleague from the outback north of Seattle, who arrived from
North America the day before without a trace of jet lag. For that
matter, there were foreigners from everywhere between Sweden and
Australia, Turkey and Canada, Italy and Poland.
Meanwhile, the majority of the march was composed of Bosnians and
Herzegovinans from Tuzla and Kljuc, and Mostar and Sarajevo, and
everywhere between. There were also participants from Croatia and a
contingent of Women in Black from Belgrade and other parts of Serbia.
We hurried up and then waited at bottlenecks in the woods where a
massive crowd simply could not pass quickly. Things moved more smoothly
after a while, as the group spread out.
Someone near me looked up at the sky and remarked on the light cloud
layer: “On these days before the anniversary, the sky should cry.”
I met Sahman, originally from Srebrenica. He had made the march out in
1995, and now comes back every year. I asked him if it was hard for him.
He told me, “There are nights when I don’t sleep.” For the march, he
said, “I take a couple of pills and that helps me keep calm.”
After a couple of hours we arrived at the first village, a collection of
just a few houses. By the time the men were trying to escape in 1995,
Serb forces had emptied and torched all the villages on the route. Now
most of them have been at least partially repaired and there has been
significant return. All the villages we passed in the first two days
were populated by Bosniaks. The region of Podrinje, alongside the Drina
River (the border with Serbia), had a majority Bosniak population before
the war. Srebrenica municipality was 70% Bosniak. Only one town, Cajnice,
did not have a Bosniak majority.
Villagers came out to greet us and to offer coffee and water. Teta
(aunt) Hanifa came from the next village over. She told me that she had
a daughter in the United States, but she could not remember exactly
Villagers sharing food
with participants in Mars Mira
I got some coffee around 11:30 and got my first wind. My old friend
Zulfo Salihovic from Srebrenica, earlier a strong leader of return and
now a member of the Srebrenica municipal council, was participating in
the march with his ten-year-old daughter. I made friends with a young
imam from Sarajevo, Mehidin. Later Alison and I fought over whether
Mehidin was her imam or mine.
Young men who traveled with ease made up a large minority of the crowd,
running back and forth as the rest of us trudged along. I met some
youngsters from Gracanica in north-central Bosnia. They were born in
Srebrenica but now displaced. One of them told me his father had been
killed in the warehouse massacre at Kravica.
I met Ruweida and others from Toronto. They sang the Canadian national
anthem, which was not as bad as the American one. Italians walked into
the forest and came back holding big mushrooms.
At another village I spotted an old man talking to a couple of marchers,
a man and a woman. The woman, Serifa, was from Vitez, central Bosnia.
Serifa wore around her neck a photo of her handsome young husband,
killed in 1993. She was marching for him. The man, Sabahudin, told me
that he had lost his ten-year-old son. The older man told us how all his
relatives were killed or else living abroad, and then he broke down,
We marched on through the hills, some of the most beautiful countryside
in all Bosnia. As we passed the dense beech forests, my friend Sarah
Wagner and I agreed that we felt reconnected to Bosnia in this way. I
looked out at the dark green upon green of Podrinje and hoped that I
would live long enough to see Bosnia a happier place.
On the first day the weather was warm, but not scorching. It was a long
day. The best estimate I heard was that we walked 35 kilometers that
day. People seemed unsure about it; the route has changed slightly over
the years. We walked ten hours. I didn’t eat much, focusing more on
getting water. I kept moving, without undue hustling. In the crowded
places, I felt carried along by the tide. The mood was supportive and
sometimes buoyant. There were pensive moments too; never much singing;
occasionally some chanting.
That night we arrived to a camping place near the village of Kamenica.
Soldiers from the Bosnian army set up dozens of UNHCR tents that held
ten or fifteen people each. Alison’s students went to sleep in a house,
but I wanted to be “with the narod” (people). I didn’t end up sleeping
much; there were presentations, then there was noise; it took until
midnight for people to settle down. At 4:00 a.m. there was the prayer
On the second day we marched several hours until we came down to a
river, maybe the Jadar, and rested there. I shaved in the river. We then
started the big hike over Udrc mountain, 1200 meters in elevation.
Somewhere on that hill, above Cerska, I heard a young man speaking about
a local legend, and I caught up with him. He was pointing to the dense
fog in the valley below. He said, “There is a legend, I don’t know if
it’s true because I haven’t investigated it. But people used to jump
into that fog, thinking that it was a pile of wool.” Adem was from
Cerska himself. He pointed in the direction of a cave that could hold
500 people, and said that he had hidden there during the war. Both of
his parents were killed.
Adem said, “Tell the world about this march and ask people to come next
I sat with Adem and a couple of other new friends at a villager’s house
along the way and drank coffee. The man of the house told me that he and
his family had returned to this village and rebuilt their house eight
years earlier. There were a dozen-odd kids in the schoolhouse. Some days
during the winter they had to walk to school through waist-deep snow.
Once or twice a day we would come up to a big truck where men and women
were standing in the flatbed and throwing out kifle (bread similar to
hot-dog buns), bottles of water, sometimes cookies, to the crowd. There
seemed to be enough food; mine was augmented by nuts and dried fruit
that I had carried. In some places the local people had made cookies for
the marchers. There were villagers who were just working all day to
serve water and coffee.
Villagers out to greet
participants in Mars Mira
Periodically we would pass a concrete fountain built by the villagers;
some of these fountains, with their Arabic inscriptions, had remained
from Ottoman times. People would crowd around them but tended to wait
patiently for their turn to get water. I figured out that where there
was one fountain, you could skip it and there would be another one, less
crowded, a little further down the trail.
I made friends with Jovana from Leskovac, Serbia. She is a member of the
valiant Women in Black. I told her that I admired her for coming from
Serbia. She talked to me in her endearing south Serbian accent. I asked
her why she had come on the march, and she said, “I wanted to be with my
friends…maybe that’s not the answer you wanted to hear.” I said, “My job
is just to listen.”
The second day was a bit shorter, maybe 25 kilometers. I was tired and
dirty that night, and opted to stay in a house with Alison’s students.
Several dozen of us foreigners gathered at Djile’s place. There, the
women of the house made us a dinner that never seemed to stop, ending
At one point one thing that upset me took place, and I didn’t really
realize how shocked I was until later.
A man asked me why I was in the march. Instead of giving the two-hour
answer, I just said, “Solidarity.” After a while he asked, “Why here and
not…” I finished his sentence: “Palestine, Rwanda, Bolivia?” I explained
to him my connection to the region. Then he told me that he had been
with DutchBat in 1995, with the UN troops that had failed to protect the
enclave of Srebrenica. I shook his hand.
I had heard that some DutchBat soldiers had been participating in the
marches over the years, and was glad to meet one of them. “Alonzo” told
me that he was there to work out his guilt and his responsibility. I
told him, “Yes, a lot of people are not taking their part of the
responsibility for the good of this world.” He said, “Maybe.” I
Alonzo had been participating in the march since the first year. I asked
him if he had read certain books about the fall of Srebrenica, and he
said that he had, and that he had participated in a Dutch-produced film
about the place.
Then Alonzo began to criticize certain survivors who were active in
preserving the memory of the genocide. Of one person, Alonzo said, “He
should move on. He’s always crying about the Dutch. He could take better
care of his family, and make something of his life. I am going to tell
him this myself.”
Here is where I was quite upset, especially later as I thought about it.
Alonzo was dealing with his own trauma. But he was not thinking
rationally about a survivor’s response. I am convinced that survivors,
especially those who have lost family members, have little choice but to
fight for the rest of their lives for the establishment of “truth and
justice” about what happened. For us who have not had to live through
this terrible experience, those words may sound like platitudes. But
they are deeply meaningful in this situation.
Alonzo was not up to the task of understanding that situation, I’m
afraid. Although he was traumatized, and although he was making an
effort to work out his feelings, still he was cushioned by his own
privilege to come and go, and to survive with much less pain and loss
than the survivors of Srebrenica.
On a lighter note, at that same dinner I met a couple of older Italians
and a couple of younger ones. Donata is a 76-year-old woman who uses a
cane to help her get through the march. This was her fifth time. Last
year her husband started accompanying her. Donata and I hit it off
because she is also a Palestine solidarity activist.
I spent that night at Smail’s house in Krke, a village near Konjevic
Polje. Smail and his wife welcomed me and the students from Colorado
with tea and walnuts, as we took turns showering. Smail showed me his
farm, full of squash, cucumbers, eggplant, and a heavenly raspberry
plantation. Up in the hills Smail also cultivated apples and plums.
There was plenty of chance to talk politics, history, and all related
things. Smail was in the Srebrenica enclave throughout the war and made
the march out with the column of men. I asked him, “Why did the army
remove Naser Oric (one of the main commanders of the resistance against
the Serb-held siege) shortly before the fall of the enclave?” Smail
said, “That is the question that never gets answered. But I know a
couple of things. Naser took a pile of gold out of the enclave with him
when he went. And the enclave had to fall. We all knew that, those of us
within the enclave as well as outside…this was all planned.”
Smail is moving on in life. His two sons are educated and one has a good
job in nearby Milici municipality, the other in Srebrenica. Smail earns
enough to live from his farming. He explained to me that there in
Bratunac municipality farming was more viable than in Srebrenica, since
the land was somewhat flatter and transportation was better-developed. I
asked him about refugee return, whether it was mostly older people who
had returned. Smail said no, there were plenty of children in the
villages along the route we had walked.
The weather got warmer on the second and third day. The terrain coming
through the hills in Bratunac municipality, between Konjevic Polje and
Potocari, was not as difficult as the day before. We walked farther,
maybe 33 kilometers. You started seeing the same people again, walking
with different groups at will, even though there were probably over
5,000 of us. The march took on the air of a roving social gathering, one
in which everyone was your comrade.
Although the march commemorated a world-class crime and a tragic event,
it couldn’t help but be light-hearted at times. I don’t think that was
disrespectful; it was simply the nature of such a gathering, with many
young people, full of energy. And those young people will go back to
Bihac and Visoko and remember the signs noting the mass graves that we
passed: Crni Vrh, Cancari, Glodi, and many more. They will tell their
friends about what they saw, and more people will come on the pilgrimage
I asked two older men from Olovo what made them come on the march. One
said, “I came in order to feel at least a little of the suffering of the
people who passed this way before.” The other said, “I came to honor
those who came out in 1995.”
A young Turkish man was scrambling around, taking many photographs. It
turned out that he was a professional photo-journalist and a member of
the IHH, the Turkish humanitarian organization that supported the aid
convoy of ships that tried to sail to Gaza in late May. This man, Sarkan,
was supposed to go on the Mavi Marmara as ship photographer. At the last
minute, work responsibilities kept him from participating. The
photographer who took his place was shot in the head by the Israelis.
I also met a couple of men from northwest Bosnia who had spent two
hundred days in Manjaca concentration camp, near Banja Luka. One of them
was from the village of Hrustovo near Sanski Most, and was the
next-door-neighbor of some Bosnian immigrant friends of mine in Seattle.
We neared our goal mid-afternoon, passing through the village of Pale in
the hills above Potocari. We stopped there for coffee. We slowed down a
bit, savoring the last part of the march. It had been an effort, but not
Villager in Pale near Srebrenica at the end of the Mars Mira
COMMEMORATION AND MASS FUNERAL: JULY 11TH AT POTOCARI
As we descended the steep last
part of the trail on Saturday night, we walked out of the hills into
Potocari, right alongside the northern fence of the memorial cemetery.
The cemetery is a large compound, big enough to fit the more than 8,000
victims killed during the massacre. Since 2003, over 3,700 identified
remains had already been reburied there. Looking through the fence, we
saw some of the pits dug to receive another 775 remains the next day.
During the massacres in July of 1995, Serb forces buried the victims in
quickly-dug mass graves in dozens of places around Srebrenica and
beyond. In the following months most of the graves were dug up and the
remains reburied in “secondary graves” to conceal the crime. The
complete skeletons often fell apart, the bones becoming mixed up with
others. The remains have been discovered so far in over seventy graves.
One victim’s remains were retrieved from eleven different locations.
We walked out onto the main street in front of the cemetery, the road
from Bratunac to Srebrenica. It was late afternoon and just then, a long
double line of men was relaying the coffins out to a field in the
memorial compound from where they had been stored, in one of the
buildings in the defunct battery factory across the street.
They are not coffins, actually. The Bosnian word is “tabut.” I
don’t know an English equivalent for that word. The tabut is a wooden
board or tray with a framework coming up from it that is covered with
green cloth after the remains are laid inside. This is part of the
Muslim tradition. The tabuts are very light, because all they are
carrying is bones.
Lining up “tabuts” (open-frame coffins) for burial
The carrying of the tabuts to the field took a long time. Throngs of
marchers and other people, mourners and visitors, sat on the ground or
milled around during this time. Eventually we were able to go settle
down for the evening.
Sunday warmed up quickly as I trekked down to Potocari from Srebrenica.
Non-stop traffic slowed down, eventually to a standstill, as tens of
thousands of people arrived at the cemetery. By late morning people had
given up on their buses and started walking the rest of the way. And by
that time it was almost impossible to enter the compound. Thousands of
people waited, seeking a little of the scarce shade around the edges of
the factory across the street.
As I entered, Haris Silajdzic was speaking about the need to prohibit
the formation of any fascist or neo-Nazi parties in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The US Ambassador, Serbian President Boris Tadic, the Turkish prime
minister, and the French foreign minister all had spoken before
President Tadic, attending the ceremony for the second time, said that
he had come “as an act of reconciliation.” Srebrenica survivors present
had mixed feelings. Some welcomed him, and others asked, “Where is
Mladic?” Ratko Mladic, the fugitive wartime general indicted for
genocide regarding the Srebrenica massacre, is believed to be living in
Serbia under the protection of supporters. About his continuing evasion
of capture, the German daily Die Welt wrote, "In a time when the
whereabouts of every mobile phone can be traced using global positioning
satellites, when satellites can take pictures of the tip of a match and
when Google records every street lamp on its maps, this sort of
disappearing act is incomprehensible. Serbia obviously still lacks the
will to accept the past. How long will they need before they find
Meanwhile, in Belgrade a demonstration celebrating “the liberation of
Srebrenica” had been banned. And in Bosnia, SDS, the party founded by
Radovan Karadzic, awarded him a special decoration (presented to his
wife, since he’s on trial at The Hague for genocide) in celebration of
the twentieth anniversary of the founding of that party. The party also
honored Momcilo Krajisnik, now serving a twenty-year sentence for crimes
against humanity. (For more on unreconstructed Serbian nationalism,
On the other side, Women in Black organized a temporary monument in
Belgrade with thousands of shoes, representing the Srebrenica victims.
Finally Bosnia’s chief imam, the Reis Mustafa efendija Ceric, spoke
before a prayer, and again at length after a prayer. The central dova
(prayer) of the ceremony was the most powerful one I had ever heard -- I
experienced it, more than just hearing it. All the emotions of the
fifteen years of waiting and the loss of one’s family members seemed to
be contained in that Arabic prayer which, as I felt it rather than
understood it, united, soothed, and encouraged, all at once.
Masses of praying men and women stood, bowed, and kneeled as the
tradition indicated. Then the Reis spoke again, longer than before. In
fact, everything about the day’s event was bigger: more people attended;
more than ever before were interred; the speeches were longer; and it
was hotter. People started fainting and being rushed to the first aid
station. Some people became impatient with the Reis as he was speaking
angrily in both English and Bosnian about the faults of the
international community. Most just waited.
Numerous Srebrenicans I talked to resented the speechifying and
politicking that has taken over the anniversary commemoration. There
have been protests against the mixing of campaigning for elections and
geopolitical maneuvering into such a solemn event. But it seems that the
political manipulation that takes place is unavoidable.
Finally around 2:00 p.m. the speeches ended and family members began
carrying the tabuts to their final destinations throughout the grounds.
Rows of the green-clothed tabuts wound through the crowd and up the
hill, each one carried by five or six men. Readers announced the full
names of each victim over the loudspeaker, one by one, as the remains
were being moved. This reading took a couple of hours.
Mothers cried for their sons at the burial sites.
Mourner at Srebrenica reburial/commemorative ceremony
As the tabuts were delivered to the gravesites the crowd thinned out.
Family members lowered the tabuts into the earth and began to shovel
soil into the pit. The work went very quickly and in an hour or so, 775
more victims rested in the Potocari soil.
(open-frame coffins) to their final burial
One of these was a Catholic; all the rest were Muslims. The Catholic
victim had been killed while trying to escape from Srebrenica, just like
thousands of others. He was given a burial at Potocari with a wooden
coffin, by a priest, just before the rest of the ceremonies had begun.
Even so, the heat and the crowd were such that the victim’s mother was
overcome and was not able to attend her own son’s funeral.
Hakija Meholjic buried his father and one of his brothers. Hasan
Nuhanovic buried his brother Muhamed and his mother Nasiha.
After the shoveling, an imam reads a prayer at each gravesite. Then the
family sits silently for a while. Never have I seen anything as quiet
and inward as that particular moment.
End of the Srebrenica
reburial/commemorative ceremony, July 11, 2010
That evening Sarah and I hired a
taxi driver, a local man from Srebrenica, to drive us up to the
war-wrecked Guber mineral springs spa in the hills above Srebrenica. The
first thing the driver said was, “My wife is Muslim,” implying a couple
things: 1, that he was not Muslim, and 2, that he was open-minded. The
first implication turned out to be true.
The driver was a local Serb. He soon began to share with us his version
of local history, saying that the memorial cemetery at Potocari
contained many bodies that had been moved from other cemeteries. That
the Serb troops who had taken over Srebrenica had only numbered 500.
That the Muslims who were killed were all soldiers, and that they had
more weapons than they could carry -- “that’s why they threw them in the
river.” And that since they were soldiers, it was legitimate to kill
them, as “they would have killed someone.”
The taxi driver told us, “I’m not on one side or the other.”
On Monday Sarah and I went to
the Serb observations of the July 12th saint’s day, Petrovdan.
This day is observed annually in the Srebrenica region in several ways.
In the Orthodox churches there are religious ceremonies starting in the
morning and lasting several hours. Local and entity-level officials also
take advantage of the day to commemorate the Serb war dead of the
“Birac” region (including Srebrenica, Bratunac, Milici, and Vlasenica
municipalities), which they number at somewhere around 3,200 for the
entire war period.
Then there have been the hard-line Serb nationalists who call themselves
“Chetniks,” who come to Srebrenica on the day after the anniversary of
the massacre and strut around in their black tee-shirts bearing the
photo of General Mladic and trying to make local Bosniaks feel bad. For
some footage of this, see the YouTube clip “Četnička orgijanja u
Srebrenici 13 juli” from 2009
(from minute 3:31). The clip is in Bosnian, but the visuals show clearly
what’s going on. The Chetniks are chanting “This is Serbia.”
I saw some of this last time I was at the commemoration, in 2006.
Someone plastered Srebrenica with posters at that time, showing war
crimes suspect Vojislav Seselj’s face (as I have recently seen in Foca).
Thankfully, this year the Chetniks were apparently prohibited from
We went to the military cemetery in Bratunac to observe the Petrovdan
commemoration there. It was posted as starting at 1:00 p.m., but nothing
happened for at least an hour. A few dozen people were huddled up
against the cemetery administration building, trying to get some shade.
We walked around the cemetery containing a few hundred graves of Serbs
killed during the war. After an hour priests, politicians in gray suits,
and bodyguards started arriving.
Participants in commemoration for fallen Serbs at Bratunac military
A dozen-odd young people (“activists?”) wore Seselj buttons. An old man
wore a šajkača, the traditional Serbian military cap. One mother cried
by a tombstone.
The suits and their assistants gathered under a long canopy, the priests
under a nearby kafana umbrella advertising Tuborg beer. Sarah pointed
out to me that some people were being refused entry to the ceremony.
After we had waited nearly two hours there was a crowd of two or three
hundred. Then Prime Minister Dodik showed up and spoke to the press for
quite a while. Finally, the ceremony began with people lighting
sweet-smelling wax candles. The priests chanted their harmonious
liturgy, and Dodik spoke.
RS PM Dodik at commemoration for fallen Serbs in Bratunac
We weren’t able to stay around much longer, but Dodik spoke about “the
legitimacy of the Republika Srpska” and “preserving the memory of the
liberation war.” He was also quoted as saying, “Republika Srpska does
not deny that a large scale crime occurred in Srebrenica, but by
definition it was not genocide as described by the international court
in The Hague…If a genocide happened than it was committed against Serb
people of this region where women, children, and the elderly were killed
As we were leaving I spotted a few of the black-shirted Chetniks, who
had been barred from attending the gathering. I asked one of them if I
could photograph him. He consented, but his comrade jumped in and said,
suspiciously, “Who is it for?!!” Another comrade, an older man with a
long beard, said, “Let him, anyone can take our photo who wants to.” So
I took the photo.
Member of the Ravna Gora Chetnik Movement
Reading back through notes and
reports on the anniversary events, it occurs to me that perhaps Dodik’s
comments were the most sincere. He is a liar and a manipulator, but he
is far less of a hypocrite than the scads of politicians and diplomats,
domestic and international, who speak much sweeter words than Dodik’s at
the anniversary events.
For example, Valentin Inzko said:
“But we should not only remember. We should not simply be passive
We have a duty too.
Our duty is to act.
First, to establish the truth and that those who participated in the
killings at Srebrenica are punished and that justice is done…”
Valentin Inzko is the international community’s High Representative
(something like a viceroy, without the teeth) to Bosnia-Herzegovina. The
international community is aware of the 800-odd soldiers, policemen, and
other government officials who participated in the Srebrenica massacre,
who are still on the payroll of the Republika Srpska today. But the
international community is not acting.
For another example, Samantha Power, advisor to President Obama,
attended the Srebrenica memorial and gave an interview to the
conservative populist daily Avaz, in which she announced that
“President Obama has created a new office here in the White House,
specifically devoted for atrocities prevention, the genocide prevention,
and what that means is - that, at least here, we have the ability to
react quickly, to process intelligence, to move through the chain of
I wonder what bombing weddings in Afghanistan is, if not an atrocity? Or
bombing civilian residences in Pakistan with drones?
And US Ambassador to Bosnia Charles English read President Obama’s
message, which in part went, “We recognize that there can be no lasting
peace without justice...Justice must include a full accounting of the
crimes that occurred, full identification and return of all those who
were lost, and prosecution and punishment of those who carried out the
genocide. The United States calls on all governments to redouble their
efforts to find those responsible…”
--I wonder if it’s possible for there to be a time when politicians
speak what they mean or else just zip it. I guess not. It’s nice to hear
about justice from Barack Obama, but beyond the wonderful words, his
policies in Bosnia (nor Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine…) don’t show any
interest in justice.