The Road to Freedom... through a deadly past.

It started as an impulse decision… a joke or a dare maybe. Not that this is a joking matter.  On the contrary. But my ability to participate in the Peace March was, or I thought it was. It might be an unknown event in the world, but living in Sarajevo, one can not avoid learning about the Srebrenica genocide, or the yearly march organised every July in commemoration.

Especially me, being involved for the past 4 months in helping the returnees' community with their post-war reinsertion, working hand in hand with Senad and Safet, our field officers. Both of whom are survivors of the Srebrenica exodus.

I have spent many afternoons after work listening to Senad's account of the events, a young man of 25 at the time who lead a group of 20 thousand men and women to the safe territories of Tuzla. And when he mentioned the yearly commemoration, I thought why not? On impulse, I told him I wanted to take part. And my colleague Edina, feeling my excitement, said she'd do it too. He laughed… or rather smiled… Senad is too polite to laugh in your face. His lined face and gentle yet knowing eyes looked at us as if we didn't know what we were talking about. And he was right; we didn't know what we were talking about.

Nonetheless, he said an old French lady takes part in the March every year since it was first organised, 5 years ago for no reason other than pure solidarity. I felt even more determined then. If she can do it, so can I.

And this is how I found myself, an Egyptian by nationality, an amateur hiker, a humanitarian by profession, carrying upon myself the vow of solidarity in this 2009 Peace March.

When I decided I will go on with the March a month before, I tried to gather as much information as I could; but somehow, I couldn't seem to be able to make my mind about it: is it hard, or is it easy? Conflicting feedback was making it impossible for me to figure it out. The only confirmed fact was that men and women have done it before, old and young alike. It will be around 100 kilometres long, across the hilly, woody landscapes of Eastern Bosnia. This meant a lot of climbing to do. These were the confirmed facts.

I briefly toyed with the idea of training for it during the month I had left. But the whole point of joining the March was to try as closely as possible to go through what the refugees did, at least the physical exercise. And I doubt these people were physically prepared to flee their homes and walk hundreds of kilometres to reach safety.  And just like that, training was dismissed.

I had to make do with the amazed glances and - yes, most of the time- doubtful expressions on people's faces when I announced I'll participate in the Peace March this year.

The only digression Edina and I were willing to make, and after a lot of convincing from Senad and Safet, was to agree to spend the nights in their homes instead of in tents at camp, arguing that the camp wouldn't offer bathroom facilities, so showers or comfortable "Nature calls" were out of the question throughout the whole 3 days. Needless to say, we agreed without putting much of a fight.

July 08th: That first day announced itself bright and sunny. Gathering point was scheduled for 8 am in Nezuk, where participants would register themselves, receive a detailed map of the walk and a registration ID. The turnout this year was much more than expected - 3500 people instead of the estimated 2500 - so much so that they ran out of registration IDs. While the crowd was gathering, I could sense people's excitement, their restlessness to begin and if you look closely enough their sadness. Yet in the background, patriotic music was blasting through loud speakers. And even though my understanding of Bosnian is limited, it didn't require much to feel the crying sorrow in the songs, understand the pain in the lyrical notes… Goose bumps. Most of the participants were humming or singing along the words, creating a feel of unity for one cause.

It is a slow and delayed take off. That huge crowd's procession was understandably slow. I felt for the first couple of hours like sheep in a queue, slowly walking in line until the column gathered speed and rhythm, those walking fast speeding ahead, others following behind, thus stretching the column a few kilometres long.

But walking among the crowd is a good opportunity to brush against the fellow participants, always eager to know where you're from and what you're doing here. And this early in our journey, we all still had a lot of energy to pass around, joking, laughing, praying or just chatting up.

We walked and walked that day; climbed hills, crossed fields, and made our way through the woods. Edina and I both complained, fussed and still we were only halfway there. We never stopped encouraging each other when tiredness threatened - a lot of encouraging. But when the first clouds approached, and the sound of thunder announced itself, Edina took that as a sign to rest. Senad, constantly concerned for our safety and well-being, picked her up in his car, agreeing to drop her off on our next resting point, 2 hours further down the road. As for me, it turned out I was just a big mouth. I was actually still able to go on and keep on walking. I didn't want to get in that car and skip some tens of kilometres until our next rest. I was on a roll, no matter what the weather was like. And so I did that portion of the March alone. The minute she and Senad left me, the sky opened up and poured out endless rain. Drops as big as glassful… I could barely keep my eyes open from the water. This did not help the road we were walking on either. Dirt road turned into muddy and slippery path, added to the worsened eyesight, and the next 2 hours of a downhill progression revealed to be more like an acrobat’s performance than a hike - the last of the Mohican running for cover. Without a hooded parka, nor waterproof shoes, my drenched body attracted a lot of sympathisers and similar cases. Yet surprisingly, the more miserable state we were in, the giddier we were. People slipping and sliding down the path on their behinds were becoming a more common sight and somehow broke whatever ice was left between participants.

That first day turned out to be the hardest day. It is not only the longest distance walked in the 3 days – an estimated 44 kilometres long -, but that day the weather changed from bright, sunny and hot, to stormy and rainy.

The obstacles we had to overcome that day ranged from minefields surrounding the designated path, streams to be crossed, and slippery tracks from the rain or narrow paths in the woodlands.

But friendships were made against adversity, sealed on that first day of hardship.

July 9th: We headed off as early as 7 o'clock on that second day - muscles out of a blender, feet like mashed potatoes- but looking forward to what was promised to be a shorter day. On that day, even though it was expected to be only a few 25 kilometres – approximately-, the path would take us to the top of a 1000 metres high mountain, climbing it all the way up and back down to finally reach the new site camp.

Luckily, we were spared from the heat of the blazing sun by walking most of the day in woods, protected by the shade of the dense trees. However, the 5 hours straight climb would take anyone's breath away, no matter how fit one is. And I had already established that uphill was not my favourite direction. The narrow path we were following gave little room to stop and catch my breath or relax my cramped muscles, unless I wanted to hold up the thousand or so people behind me. So I’m climbing, and climbing, and climbing some more, painstakingly aware of every muscle flexing and every cramp menacing. And to my dire observation, Edina seemed to be in her element that day, full of energy and stamina, reinforced by each hour we were climbing. I couldn’t count anymore on her support. My complaints sounded a lot like nagging, and so I endured my suffering in silence, comforted by the sympathising smiles of the people slowly passing me by, leaving me behind. So far behind in fact, I found myself standing beside the old French lady… Well, I wasn’t going to get offended. Never mind I’m third her age. Never mind she frequently stops to answer “Nature’s calls” when I never do. Never mind she rests at every local’s house - friends made during her past years participation - and pays her respect and exchange greetings in halting Bosnian, while I concentrated on my steady climb. Never mind all that. I wasn’t offended… I was impressed. And very very curious. Instead I took the opportunity to chat with her, understanding the reason why she’s here, comfortable with her pace of walking.

It is an excruciating exercise all through the day. But reaching the peak, you realize your effort was worthwhile. One can not dismiss the breathtaking view offsetting any inconvenience suffered. For the green hills carry on as far as the eye could see, the sinuous river Drina undulating in and out of valleys, the sound of the thousands streams lapping peacefully in the background and the smell of grass mingled with wild mint, basil and lemongrass crushed beneath your feet with every step taken refresh your nostrils. The climb down is rewarded by the generous welcome of locals cheering us on when passing through their villages. Most of them even open their homes for the participants, offering them a resting place, and a much needed hot cup of coffee.

But no matter how pleasant and scenic the view is, or how hospitable the locals are, how supportive the participants are to one another, the constant reminder of the tragedy is spread throughout our path. Minefields warning signs, excavated mass graves signaled regularly, memorial sites for the people who’ve lost their lives in that same March 14 years ago are a brutal awakening of how relatively easy our conditions are during this March.

We reach the campsite with mixed emotions. Happy to be done for the day, relatively early with plenty of time to enjoy a lazy and resting afternoon, unwearied and not too spent from the day's short labour, motivated from this energetic feel for tomorrow. But I was psychologically dispirited. It is painful to meet survivors of the Srebbrenica exodus, coming to take part in a journey they have themselves taken a long time ago, to remember. It is hard to see a man carrying throughout this hardship the burden of a flag, not to swear allegiance to a particular country or entity, but rather to display the pictures of his family members lost during the Srebrenica genocide and yet to be found, to honor them. To remember.

July 10th: After the previous well deserved rest and a full night's sleep, the third and last day of our journey started with a renewed motivation and good spirits to all participants. For my part, it was Senad and Safet’s look of pride and gratitude that gave me renewed strength for that last day.

However, this euphoric mindset did not last very long as the walk was going on, and on... and on, it seemed indefinitely that day without much shade but rather a scorching sun burning our skins. It wasn’t a challenging trek to say the least. Mostly flat fields to be crossed. But even the simplest trek was too demanding: by then our bloodied feet and sore muscle could hardly carry me, and what could have been walked in a shorter time, took us until 7 in the evening that third day to reach our final destination. Whoever came  up with “I can't feel pain anymore” was surely lying. There's no such thing as loosing the feeling of pain.

The pain is even more acute, intensified, exaggerated: from the feel of every blister crushed to the bruised toes minced with every step , or the swelling of your feet up to 2 times their size making the confinement of your shoes unbearable. Feeling every single muscle moving in your body, each with painstaking awareness. The sun beating down your back, the weight of your rucksack killing your shoulders and your lower back...

The only thing keeping me from despairing was the thought of the refugees having to endure this journey under fire, sidestepping mines every step of the 110 km way, without the warning signs clearly indicated for our benefit. Without food to sustain them except picking up Nature's gift of ripe fruits fallen along the way.

In comparison, what have I endured? I needn't worry about my survival, that a wrong step taken could be my last one, worry about food, warm clothes, the rain, the cold, worry about family members left behind and if I will ever see them again.

I don't think I realised the full extent of the effort involved when signing up for the March. Although I was very motivated and enthusiastic to participate, crossing the camp site that last day, I realised it takes more than that to carry on this journey.

And yet I am no hero for such an achievement... I see the real heroes who have survived this experience. Through their eyes, I can see their undying hope in Humanity, from their actions I see their unfailing compassion to others, their tolerance and understanding. Most importantly, I see their laughing faces. Survivors smiling at life, welcoming it still with open arms. A blunt reality check.

It was A March To Remember Srebrenica.
It is a life altering experience which I shall never Forget.