This time two weeks ago, I was busy inappropriately packing my backpack for the Peace Route, or Mars Mira. I can now safely say that I am 100% physically recovered from the strenuous three-day hike. Having naively believed I would be walking on paved roads for three days, rather than through small streams, over fallen trees, and up one of the largest mountains in the Podrinja (the eastern region of BiH which borders Serbia), I failed to bring my hiking boots, and opted instead for my normal sneakers. Next year I will know better.
Mars Mira is both a physical and mental challenge for the growing number of participants who partake each year. From July 8 – 10, 2009, over 4,000 individuals retraced the route which Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) used to flee from the Serb-besieged “UN Safe Area” of Srebrenica to Bosniak-controlled territory in Tuzla. On Mars Mira, participants begin in Nezuk, a small village located in the Federation, and walk to Potocari, where the Memorial Center for the victims of the genocide is located. The route is slightly over 110 kilometers (about 70 miles) long and is completed in 30-40 km per day stretches. As Kelsey and I boarded the bus for Nezuk at 6 AM in Tuzla, we really had no idea what we were in for.
But, as is typical of my experience in BiH, we quickly found incredibly kind companions who assisted us with everything from carrying our backpacks to making sure we had food and comfortable places to sleep at night. The generosity and helpfulness of the individuals I met along the Peace Route mirrors the behavior of almost everyone I have met in this country so far.
The Podrinja is one of the most beautiful regions in BiH, but also where many of the worst war-time atrocities occurred. Littered among the gorgeous views are the red skull-and-cross-bones signs warning of leftover unexploded ordinances. For the three day march, organizers are allowed to erect small signs indicating the location of exhumed mass graves and the number of victims found within them. These sites deserve a permanent memorial rather than the flimsy paper which is tied to a plywood stake. Undoubtedly, these signs are quickly removed or demolished by the local Bosnian Serb population following Mars Mira. Large Serbian flags flew over every Orthodox church visible along the Peace Route, and on the second day, several Bosnian Serb villagers set a field of dry grass on fire in an attempt to deter the marchers.
I am happy to report that not a single participant on the Peace Route reacted in a violent or destructive manner despite obvious provocations. These actions clarified for me the extent of ethnic divisions in BiH and the apparent state of denial in which a significant proportion of the population continues to live.
I would imagine the Bosnian Serb reaction to Mars Mira is most offensive to those who participated in the original march, also known as the “Death March” from Srebrenica to Tuzla. Many of the men, even those who are very old, make the trip from Nezuk to Potocari each year to remember their deceased friends and relatives. They provide first-hand testimony along the march at the stations where breaks are taken. Hearing their stories is heart-wrenching – one young man who was 12 in 1995 described hiding behind bushes while watching his father and brother get shot point blank in the back of the head. Listening to the story was troubling enough and then the man motioned to the left with his hand. He could still identify the exact spot where his brother and father were murdered 14 years later. Both have yet to be identified and buried at Potocari.
I would like to encourage everyone interested to consider attending the genocide commemoration in Potocari on July 11th, and participating in Mars Mira if possible. It was a very meaningful experience for me and the participation of internationals means a great deal to Bosnians. You can read more about the Peace Route at <marsmira.org>.
Posted By Alison Sluiter
Posted Jul 22nd, 2009