comment 12 Jul 11

Marching Back to Potocari

While tens of thousands of music fans headed for the annual EXIT festival near Novi Sad, Valerie Hopkins joined thousands of others on a very different four-day event.

Valerie Hopkins

I spent the past four days with thousands of other sweaty international campers surviving on a few hours of sleep each night.  After it was all over, there was trash everywhere, and the sunburned and sweaty participants, young and old, said goodbye until next year.

I wasn’t assembling with over 100,000 music fans for the 600-odd performers at Novi Sad’s lauded EXIT Festival this weekend. The main event for the crowd I was with was the burial of over 600 people.  

There were no stages to visit, but the rugged mountain route was lined with mass graves, some holding hundreds of dead. Unlike EXIT’s million-euro budget, this took place on less than a thousand euro.

I was covering the seventh annual Mars Mira, or March of Peace, which culminated in the burial of 613 bodies murdered in 1995 and identified through DNA analysis over the past year.  

The Mars Mira is a trek across 80 kilometres from the tiny eastern Bosnian hamlet of Nezuk through the mountains to the former UN Safe area of Srebrenica. The march commemorates those who fled from Srebrenica on foot after the Dutch UN soldiers withdrew from Srebrenica, leaving the territory in the hands of the Army of the Republika Srpska.

Sixteen years ago today, at 12.30am, between 12,000 and 15,000 Bosniaks departed from Srebrenica with the goal of reaching territory held by the Bosnian army in the Tuzla and Kladanj regions. Some survived, but others perished at the hands of the Republika Srpska soldiers who attacked them with artillery, mortars, and anti-aircraft cannons.

Over 6,000 marchers traveled this year in the opposite direction, a symbolic homecoming for those who would never be able to return. I met Seid, a 24-year-old who marched back to Srebrenica in the place of his father, who did not succeed in passing what was then a treacherous route.

Young and old marched alongside one another. Many groups came from all over Bosnia bearing T-shirts with their town names.  Some older marchers walked with canes and hobbled on crutches. 

I met people who had traveled from Sweden, Egypt, Japan, France, the UK and Cyprus to walk in solidarity. Although many internationals attended, very few came from the region or were Serbs from Republika Srpska.

The original EXIT was a protest against Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, but was not four days of fun and music.  The first march in 1995 was much longer than ours. It was not originally a protest, either, but has become one.

Muhamed Durakovic, one of the march’s organizers, walked and hid in the forest for 37 days before reaching free territory. Now he says he marches to advocate justice for the victims of Srebrenica whose bodies have never been found, and to send a strong statement to those who deny that genocide happened.

As an American who has never experienced the horrors of war, the march was a powerful way to try to approximate the bravery and suffering of so many displaced people. As we marched, minutes felt like hours and most people did not have a clue how much longer we’d be on our feet exposed to the hot sun.  Although fruit trees and fountains sporadically lined the path, no one knew when the next army truck carrying water or bread would appear to quench our hunger and thirst.

There were not enough army tents, and many had to sleep under the stars with whatever they had brought.

There was a lot of grumbling about the lack of food, water, sanitary toilets and tents this year, but the fact remains that unlike the first treacherous march in 1995, we were surrounded by friends who shared food and the burden of our heavy backpacks. There were police securing the territory, and Red Cross volunteers.  Mines along the route were clearly marked.

I have been to Srebrenica and Potocari several times but never before for the commemoration. The area is normally quiet and fairly empty, especially of kids. Seeing 40,000 mourners there on Monday shed some insight on what it must have been like when almost 50,000 internally displaced people tried to take refuge in the small town.

The march in some ways bears a striking resemblance to a music festival. Of course there is no alcohol or drugs, but the mood was open and friendly.  Strangers swapped food and stories and friends bonded because of shared experiences.  

Most of my friends from Bosnia and the region opted for EXIT instead of attending the Mars Mira. As far as respect and reconciliation are concerned, the march is a powerful outpouring of respect for the dead and for the struggles of those who survived. And EXIT, which exposes over a hundred thousand people from all over the Balkans to one another, does its part kindling the regional understanding necessary for reconciliation.

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