Tacarra Lake (University of New Mexico) studied on SIT’s Serbia, Bosnia, and Kosovo: Peace and Conflict Studies in the Balkans program in spring 2013. In the summer of 2013, Tacarra continued her studies in the Balkans through the Summer University at Srebrenica. Below, she reflects on some of her experiences in the Balkans.
By Tacarra Lake
After three days of climbing through the mountains of Eastern Bosnia, we completed Mars Mira (Peace March) where 15,000 Bosniaks had begun a death march eighteen years before. In 1995, the Bosnian Serb army overran the UN-protected city of Srebrenica where tens of thousands of refugees had sought protection. Ahead of the advancing army, a column of men and boys attempted to escape, what is now referred to by the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) ruling, the genocide. Since 2005/in recent years, as part of commemorative practices in Bosnia-Herzegovina, every year on July 8–10, thousands participate in Mars Mira to remember and retrace the steps of the men and boys who were chased through the forest attempting to reach free territory (nearly 60 miles away).
Last spring I participated in SIT’s Peace and Conflict in the Balkans program. While I have been intrigued by the Balkans for several years, it was not until studying with SIT that I became aware of my interest in studying the genocide at Srebrenica. I learned about Mars Mira during our excursion in Bosnia and immediately wanted to know more about its reconciliatory role amidst the fragile relationship between Serbs and Bosniaks. Unfortunately, having never participated in Mars Mira, I felt it would have been extremely difficult to choose as a subject for my Independent Research Project (ISP). However, after I completed my actual ISP, I knew I wanted to base my senior honors thesis on a personal experience from Mars Mira.
The Summer University at Srebrenica offered not only the opportunity to participate in the march, but to do so after living in Potocari, attending lectures inside the factory where refugees had sought UN protection, and meeting survivors of the genocide. Representatives of the international community, municipality government, leading writers and actresses in Bosnia, Serbian journalists, and survivor organizations shared their perceptions of Srebrenica and reconciliation successes and challenges. Days before Mars Mira, our class went to the city of Tuzla where we were met by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). We were shown the skeletal remains of victims discovered in mass graves and in the process of identification. The sight of reassembled skeletal remains in the first room and the smell of the decomposition of the thousands in the largest room brought the reality of the killing to the forefront of our thoughts.
Mars Mira is something I will never forget. Climbing through the mountains in the cold rain for 117 kilometers was extraordinarily difficult. As a column of over 5,000 (mostly Bosniaks), we trekked through trails sometimes marked by nearby yellow tape warning, “Pazi Mina!” (Caution: Mines) and passed through the meadows where mass graves had been found. I observed the nervous reaction of Bosniak participants as we passed Serbian churches and memorials and entered Serbian villages. I met soldiers in the Bosnian army, a man who had walked from the Croatian war-torn city, Vukovar, to support the victims, and I was able to speak with survivors of the 1995 march. But emotionally, I have never been more affected than the moment we re-entered Potocari. At the base of the mountain were mothers holding photographs of their sons who had not emerged from the forest, most now buried in the cemetery directly to the left of the descending trail. The weight of realization was heavy. As other marchers arrived (many who had lost family members), they helped carry the 409 coffins to be buried the next day on the eighteenth anniversary of the massacre. The experience was emotional and sobering.
Studying with SIT Peace and Conflict in the Balkans prepared me to successfully complete the Summer University at Srebrenica, but it also taught me to critically examine reconciliatory events, like Mars Mira. Through teaching conflicts of three nations — Bosnia, Kosovo, and Serbia — SIT demonstrated the importance of analyzing reconciliation not from one single perspective but the many perspectives present in the communities it will affect. While I listened to Bosniak fears and concerns, I had to remind myself to hear equally Serbian hesitation as thousands of youth marched through their villages. Finally, in a region as complicated as the Balkans, Mars Mira cannot provide the reconciliation between Bosniak and Serbian neighbors, but will remain a powerful and beautiful remembrance of the thousands who did not return from the forests.