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Thousands commemorate Srebrenica massacre by marching along route taken by survivors
NEZUK, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) ' It's a grim pilgrimage to the heart of Europe's worst massacre since World War II.
On Friday, thousands of people set off on foot through rugged mountains that Muslims crossed in fleeing Serb forces at Srebrenica, reviving horrific memories of being stalked by snipers, trapped in ambushes, and surviving on berries and stagnant water.
The 6,500 marchers left Nezuk, a Bosnian village in which survivors sought shelter, on a 70-mile (110-kilometer) journey that ends in Srebrenica on Sunday evening. Among them are veterans of the original flight from the Serb death machine in July, 1995.
Himzo Hodzic, one those survivors, said first-time marchers often become overwhelmed by emotion.
"Some say they can't imagine what I'm describing," he said. "Others just walk and cry."
On Monday, Srebrenica will host a ceremony marking the anniversary of the killings. The main event is a mass funeral to be held for the 613 victims who have been excavated from mass graves and identified through DNA analysis.
Srebrenica ' with its majority Muslim population ' was a United Nations-protected area, besieged by Serb forces throughout the 1992-95 war for Serb domination in Bosnia.
But U.N. troops there offered no resistance when the Serbs overran the town on July 11, 1995. There, Serbs proceeded to round up Srebrenica's Muslims and killed over 8,000 men and boys ' the climax to the 1992-95 Bosnian war that claimed 100,000 lives. An international court later labeled the killings a genocide.
About 15,000 Bosnians fled the town through woods and marched west toward the safety of the village of Nezuk that was held by Bosnian government forces. Hundreds were hunted down by Serb troops during the march and killed; they are counted in the overall Srebrenica death toll.
In 2004, a group of about 700 survivors of the "March of Death" took the route back to Srebrenica, telling their children and friends how they dodged Serb snipers and mortars and evaded ambushes, while surviving on nothing but berries and water that collected in trenches.
The march has since become a tradition and the number of participants has grown each year. This year's marchers include 1,000 foreigners.
"The Peace March is a big emotional roller coaster. It leaves a strong impression on people and some keep coming back every year," said an organizer and survivor, Muhamed Durakovic.
Bosnian Armed Forces have provided tents for marchers to sleep in the mountains and a helicopter to watch over them along the way.
Participants stop along the way to pray at the site of mass graves and to listen to survivors' stories about execution sites.
Hodzic's comrade, Ferid Alic is leading his own group and says he will do it every year for the rest of his life. Sometimes it is difficult. But he says: "I made it back then, I can make this trip now any time."
The march also winds through remote villages rarely visited over the year, said Durakovic. Villagers cook for the marchers and often open their homes to them.
"The Peace March is not just a story about Bosnian suffering but a story about the collapse of 21st century values," Durakovic said.
Peace March website: http://www.marsmira.org/
Aida Cerkez reported from Sarajevo, Bosnia