Photo: The Advocacy Project/Janet RabinOn Sunday 11 July 2010, the fifteenth anniversary of the genocide in
Srebrenica, eastern Bosnia, hundreds of families bury their relatives in
a mass funeral. Mothers, daughters, and wives grieve beneath the
scorching sun. Politicians perform. The wave of new burials means that
approximately half of the victims of the atrocity of 11-15 July 1995 –
when Bosnian Serb forces massacred
around 8,000 Bosnian Muslim males after taking control of Srebrenica –
now rest in the memorial cemetery in Potocari. The remainder await
exhumation from mass-graves and DNA-identification.

The annual
reburial of identified
human remains has become a ritual that is taking on attributes of
political pageantry. The leaders of Bosnia’s fellow ex-Yugoslavia
neighbours, together with representatives from Europe, the United
Nations and the United States, join Bosnian politicians to express their
sympathy for the victims’ families and to declare their determination
that such a crime must never happen again.

This year’s
commemoration is in every respect bigger than its predecessors. The vast
cemetery, designed to hold more than 8,000 graves, overflows with at
least 50,000 mourners and sympathisers. Thousands of visitors who were
unable to enter the grounds upon the 11:00 a.m. start of the ceremony
seek relief across the street for a time, in the shade of the derelict
battery-factory that had once housed the Dutch contingent of United
Nations troops which had surrendered
the Srebrenica enclave to the Bosnian Serb army. Religious services and
political speeches last for several hours (three times as long as in
earlier anniversaries). And at 775, the number of victims buried is the
highest single number ever.

A single coffin had been interred
earlier in the day – that of the lone Catholic casualty. Now, after the
prayer-service and speeches, 774 coffins covered with green cloth are
carried out towards the deep pits that are their final resting-place.
These are all Muslim victims.

For more than an hour, the names of
these 775 victims are read out, one by one. Some surnames repeat dozens
of times: Hasanović, Muratović, Imamović.

The relatives who had
waited patiently through the ceremony now bury their loved ones quietly,
using shovels that had been placed near each pit. Mothers cry bitterly
for their sons, wives for their lost husbands.

No mother should
have to bury her son.

After the burial, each family – clustering
in small groups around its grave – makes a quiet prayer. Then, an
overwhelming silence reigns.

The strength and patience of the survivors,
as well as their deep sorrow, is palpable. They have fought for these
fifteen years – fought to return to their pre-war homes, to survive
financially, to find their loved ones, and to see them at rest.

The
bulk of the mourners participate piously in the religious service,
kneeling and standing according to custom, and wait for the speeches to
end. The mother of the Catholic victim fainted and was not able to
attend her son’s burial.

The domestic and international
politicians present – and the religious figures as well – are engaged in
a different kind of act; it is as if two plays are being presented in
the same scene. The presidents, ministers, and priests express the same
condolences and admonitions as they had, according to template, for the
last fifteen years.

This is election year
in Bosnia, and the volume of political declarations seems higher than
ever. The Turkish prime minister and the French foreign minister put in
appearances, as do neighbouring Serbia’s president,
Boris Tadic. The presiding member of Bosnia’s three-part presidency, Haris
Silajdzic
, calls for a resolution against atrocity-denial. The head
imam, Reis Mustafa efendija Ceric, rails against
Europe’s discriminatory visa-regime. The gathered dignitaries thus
process the vast sorrow of the bereaved. So ends the fifteenth
anniversary commemoration of Srebrenica, in Potocari, on 11 July 2010.

A march of life

Just preceding the
anniversary, a smaller group of people had undertaken another form of
commemoration: the marš mira (“march of peace”), in which for
three days, between 5,000 and 6,000 hikers walked through the woods to
Potocari, a distance of approximately 100 kilometres.

It began in
2005, to mark the desperate attempt of between 10,000 and 15,000
Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys to flee through the forests
towards free territory after the fall of the Srebrenica
enclave in July 1995. Around 5,000 evaded capture by Serb nationalist
troops and reached safety; the rest were slaughtered.

What began
as an initiative by activists to commemorate that tortuous
flight in a directly physical way has become a tradition with some of
the characteristics of pilgrimage. Each year the number of participants
increases. The Bosnian army helps logistically, setting up tent-camps
and distributing water and basic foods.

Bosnian participants –
themselves mostly Bosniaks – arrived from all corners of the country: Kljuc in
the northwest, Mostar in the south, Tuzla in the northeast. A
10-year-old girl walked, as did an 89-year-old man. There were dozens of
other countries represented, from Canada to Turkey, from France to
Australia. Donata, a 76-year-old woman from Milan, used a cane to assist
herself on her fourth annual march. Some members of Women
in Black
, the human-rights organisation in neighbouring Serbia,
came to show their solidarity.

On the first morning the sky was
slightly cloudy. A local participant told me: “On this anniversary, the
sky should cry. God is not pleased with what has been done here.”
Šahman, in his 50s, had made the escape in 1995. He said, “There are
nights when I don’t sleep.” I asked him if it was not difficult to
retrace those harrowing steps. He replied, “I take a couple of pills to
calm myself.”

We alternately hurried and waited as the crowd
bottlenecked through narrow pathways and then hustled down steep slopes
across the Podrinje hills. Amidst the vertical farms a Bosnian hiker
told me: “I am here to feel at least a little of the suffering of those
who went out in 1995.” Another said: “I have come to honour those who
fought to survive the siege of Srebrenica.”

The sparsely-settled region was
once dotted with predominantly Muslim-populated villages. Serb forces
expelled the inhabitants from these settlements and destroyed them early
in the 1992-95 war.
Some four or five years after the end of the war, villagers began to return
to this region. Now their red-tile roofs have been repaired and the
corn and squash are growing. Every couple of hours the march arrived at a
village, and the residents would line the path to greet the hikers.
Some of the villagers worked all day providing water and coffee to the
passing thousands. They photographed us, and we photographed them.

In
one village I encountered an aged local man talking to two hikers. One
of the hikers, a woman of about 45 from central Bosnia, wore a picture
of her husband around her neck. He had been killed in 1993. The other
hiker, a man of similar age, told me that his 10-year-old son had been
killed. The elderly man told us that he had no relatives in the village,
that his daughter was in Austria. Then he broke down, crying.

There
were other wrenching stories. A
teenager from Srebrenica, now living in Tuzla, told me that his father
was killed in a notorious massacre at Kravica. Young Adem, from Cerska,
told me how he had hid in a cave after his parents were killed. He said:
“Tell the world about this march, and ask them to come next year.”

The
mood of the marš mira evolved with the journey. The
participants were there to express their sincere solidarity with the
victims of the Srebrenica massacre. The shared effort also naturally
induced an air of camaraderie. By the third day, the march felt like a
rich, roving social gathering. A wellspring of life amid a landscape
that had seen death.

A neighbouring rite

On
Sunday night, after the memorial ceremony, a local Serb taxi-driver
recounted to me his view of recent history. He told me that the Serb
troops conquering
Srebrenica numbered only 500, and that most of the Bosniaks killed had
been soldiers; and that the latter “had plenty of weapons, and would
have killed someone.” He also asserted that many of the bodies buried in
Potocari had been transferred there from other cemeteries.

The
next day, 12 July, I attended a memorial observance at the Serb military
cemetery in nearby Bratunac. Several hundred men and women stood under
the bright sun as a dozen officials in grey suits assembled to remember
the fallen Serb soldiers. The number of Serbs killed in the wider region
during 1992-95 is cited as over 3,000.

A number of young men and
women wore badges bearing the photo of Vojislav Seselj,
arch-nationalist and paramilitary leader who is now on trial at The
Hague. Eight or ten Serbian Orthodox priests gathered under a canopy
advertising Tuborg beer. A mother stood by a grave and cried.

A
group of unreconstructed militant nationalists, who call themselves
“Chetniks” after the Serbian monarchist fighters of the second world
war, was blocked from joining the ceremony. After a considerable wait, Republika
Srpska
prime minister Milorad Dodik arrived. The ceremony began
with people lighting the traditional sweet-smelling yellow wax candles,
followed by the euphonious chanting of an Orthodox prayer.

Dodik’s
talk
exhorted the “legitimacy of the Republika Srpska” (one of
Bosnia-Herzegovina’s two “entities”) and declared that, while a
“large-scale” crime had been committed at Srebrenica, it was not
genocide. Rather, that “genocide was committed against Serb people of
the region.”

After the speeches, priests and mourners laid
flowers at the several hundred Serb graves and went home.

A
long wait

On the marš mira trail I had looked
out over the rolling hills of Podrinje with their dark green forests
upon green hills, and reconnected with my love for this tormented
country. I hoped that I could live long enough to see it a happier
place.

In pursuit of that goal, many talk of “reconciliation”.
This is a worthy aspiration but as the journalist Ed
Vulliamy
notes, reconciliation is not just “something that can be
sprinkled around.” Boris Tadic, Serbia’s president, announced that he
had come to Potocari as an act of reconciliation. French foreign
minister Bernard Kouchner asserted that “reconciliation is underway, in
fact accelerating”. But Kouchner and Tadic were speaking to each other,
not to the suffering
mothers still waiting for another 4,000-5,000 loved ones to be found
and identified.

The United States ambassador to Bosnia, Charles English,
appropriately highlighted one important step towards realising the goal
when he called for the arrest of General Ratko Mladic, leader
of the nationalist Serb forces that conquered Srebrenica and committed
the massacre.

After all, justice is the first step towards
healing and reconciliation, but it is a long way off in
Bosnia. Meanwhile, some Bosniak leaders exploit the pain of their
constituency for political points, while Serb leaders work overtime to
establish a false symmetry of victimisation. In a very real way, these
seemingly opposed sets of figures are collaborating to maintain their
respective positions of power and to hold Bosnia in a long-term
paralysis.

Peter Lippman is a writer and human-rights activist from the United
States who has worked extensively in Bosnia and much of
ex-Yugoslavia. This article has been republished from openDemocracy.net
under a Creative Commons licence.