Home Page
 
15 Jul 10

110 Kilometres to Srebrenica

Rob Miller

The sun was blazing, drenching me in sweat and delighting the mosquitos that had covered my arms and legs in myriad, itching bites. Suddenly, limping, I crested a hill and saw below me an unmistakable sight: the uniform white rows of the cemetery at Potocari, across the road from the old battery factory.

I had walked 110 kilometres in three days to see that sight, and nothing filled me with more relief; I surged forward on a second wind, descending the hill faster than I had walked for days. When I finally collapsed onto the pavement outside the cemetery I felt more exhausted and drained than I have in my entire life, barely capable of cogent thought let alone movement.

I had set out three days before from Nezuk, 110km to the north, in a symbolically reversed reenactment of the 15,000-strong column that fled Srebrenica to the north, towards Tuzla. 5,000 were killed as the column was hounded by Serb ambushes and artillery attacks; reports of those who finally made it to Tuzla describe an ashen army of shambling, ghost-like figures, their feet bloodied and wrapped in plastic bags or paper, reduced to eating slugs and leaves, hallucinating from exhaustion and thirst and terror.

Each night, in villages along the route, as I had nursed my feet from the day's walk and relaxed in the generous hospitality of the families who had put us up for the night, I had thought of the original column.
When I did, my heart filled with a mixture of gratitude and shame; gratitude at how comparatively easy my experience was, and shame at how difficult I had found it. How dare I complain about my blistered feet and aching muscles! How dare I imagine my experience was difficult, with its first aid support and its food stations and its plentiful water!

As I sat there in Potocari at the end of my journey, I watched as a column of people assembled in silence. Standing side-by-side in two rows facing each other, they formed a long line that snaked from the old battery factory, across the road and into the cemetery. Then, slowly and methodically, they raised their hands and passed along above their heads a procession of green-draped coffins, each numbered individually.

I sat in silence, watching the numbers progressively increase. 50, 100, 200, 300. Not a word was exchanged by the members of the line: their deathly consignment said more than words ever could. 400, 500, 600, 700. I had known, of course, just how many victims had been murdered in Srebrenica in July 1995; the figure of 8,000 is burned indelibly on my mind. But seeing the coffins pass by, all 775 recently identified victims, hit me on a visceral level that no book ever could. There, right in front of me, were the victims of the crimes about which I had read so much, held aloft in remembrance by their relatives and their former community, before my very eyes.

I felt suddenly as though I was imposing. This was not my grief to share: how could I possibly stand here in sadness, as though I had even the beginnings of an understanding of what these people were going through? How could my presence possibly help assuage these unhealed wounds? What was I doing here?

My presence couldn't help, of course. I could not heal the wounds of this tortured place, nor did I in some misplaced arrogance seek to try. No, the point of the march and of the ceremony was not healing.
Only time can heal wounds as deep as these, and time's advance is inexorable; with it, the pain will, gradually but unavoidably, grow less agonising.

The danger, though, is that with a dulling of the pain comes a dulling of remembrance—that events which do not live so vividly, so sharply in our collective consciousnesses are apt to be forgotten. For as long as 10,000 people are prepared to march 110km in commemoration, though, and for as long as 50,000 people are prepared to attend the memorial ceremony, it seems that Srebrenica will never be forgotten.

blog comments powered by Disqus