Working in Kosovo on a participatory theatre project on missing persons

Jonathan Chadwick 24.11.05

I have just returned from working in Kosovo. I was there for three weeks and returned on 19th November. We set out to run a participatory theatre project on the issue of missing persons. We aimed to collaborate as closely as possible with the families associations that organise the families and communities of the missing. These organisations are voluntary and locally based, operating both in the Serb and Albanian communities. Like the project that I worked on earlier in the year this one was also initiated and designed by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo Office of Missing Persons and Forensics. They also provided logistical and transport support, outreach work, rehearsal and office facilities, research infrastructure and other elements that you would associate with a producer , for example, script development guidance. Like earlier in the year they were working in partnership with CCTD, an Albanian Kosovar theatre company that had up until now focused on work with young people.

Because the OMPF could not plan with any certainty for the period beyond the end of the year our original project that had a development time of 12 months had to be delivered within a few months and much sooner than we had planned for. The talks on the status of Kosovo as an independent state are beginning to take place and the role of the United Nations in Kosovo will change. This change is the context for the OMPF’s Memory Project of which our theatre work is a part. This initiative aims at articulating the broader psychological and social implications of the plight of the families of the missing. The Office is mainly concerned with the process of identification of mortal remains and the matching of these remains with ‘pre-mortem’ information about missing people. Through the Memory Project it will create public access to the information produced by its work and provide a way of giving recognition to the experiences of those crucially affected by the disappearances. Alongside our theatre work there is an oral history project which is videoing personal accounts of the incidents of missing people.

I was consulted about the design and implementation of the project, working closely with Andrew Zadel an outreach worker for the OMPF and in overall charge. Our working title for the project is VOICES. We called the presentations in the community, theatre forums. Our aim was to engage the communities of the missing in a participatory creative activity. We wanted to use our work to assist the process of ‘devictimising’ the victims, the underlying aim of the Memory project. By staging presentations of their stories and experiences in a series of participatory forums we wanted them to recognise and see more clearly what these experiences were and we wanted them to be able to alter the way these representations characterised their stories. Some basic need is being met when you are able to watch a portrayal of your own situation. The families of the missing suffer an enormous sense of isolation and abandonment. The process of grieving is suspended by the lack of a body. They are in a kind of limbo and have no ritual or procedure to express their situation. They are powerless and feel subject to the inadequacies of the international agencies who are responsible for tracing their loved ones. Their response is often expressed as rage and anger against the representatives of these international organisations. This rage renders them even more isolated and powerless. Beyond the dreadful physical pain which organised violence and war exacts with its destruction of human bodies, the agony of the families of the missing is the centre of another kind of pain, the destruction of the human spirit, psychological disintegration. The families are isolated from the communities that surround them, both locally, nationally and internationally. This process of isolation is a drama in itself. Undischarged grief eats at the soul and corrodes the ability to see the suffering of others. You feel that no-one can feel your pain. The sheer quantity of pain, its endless daily course, is incomparable. Certainly the pain of anyone in the ‘perpetrating’ community, though they may objectively share your plight, is immediately cancelled. This is another severe form of isolation. The deathly truth of the situation in Kosovo is that there is far more collaboration between the armed gangs who are linked to the established political structures on both sides than there is between the families of the missing. Yet the families of the missing would turn more readily to their own communities ‘armed heroes’ than to their homologues in the ‘opposing’ community. This makes the situation of the families of the missing like an open wound upon which politicians are able to throw salt in a public display of righteousness. This story of course reduces the pain of the families to the fuel for future violence and grief.

To create images and representations which are open to change and negotiation invites an involvement in a basic symbol-making activity. The exercise of a capability to move from from recognition of the specific details of your situation to perception of the archetypal human situation which is embodied in it is something that is essentially theatrical. Theatre has the capability of allowing us to see something that is fearfully familiar at the same time as being able to see that it is piteously unfamiliar. To be able to give form to painful experiences is like a blessing. It is a kind of holding and a relief.

In some instances, due to the limitations of time and capability, our forums would provoke discussion but no active participation in altering the course of the representations. However this is the beginning of an active response. In our conversations with members of the families associations we emphasised our desire for them to collaborate with us in ensuring that we were telling their stories as they would wish. We emphasised the benefits to them of creating truthful portrayals and described the role these portrayals might play in communicating to an wider audience the experiences of the Kosovan people and how they had coped with their situation. We made clear that the video we would create from the forums and the book, including extracts from the forums and the scripts of the scenes, would be available for the communities and also for the world at large.

We were told the story of a man who went through agony in the search for his son. He was subject to an extortion scam that ruined him financially. Finally the remains of his son were discovered but he denied until he could deny no longer that his son was dead. Finally he buried his son and received the condolencences of his neighbours. A few days after the funeral he turned up at the offices of the families association telling them that he needed a photograph of the him at the funeral. He needed it, he explained, because otherwise he was unsure that he would believe that it had happened. The family association published a magazine designed to offer a memorial to these experiences of shared grief. They were able to give him the image that he needed.

Another man we met had seven brothers who had been ‘disappeared’. Six had been returned one by one. There had been be a gaps of months between the successive returns. Each time he insisted on looking at the remains of his sibling although they were unidentifiable. Why? We learnt that often people could not remember anything joyful about the missing person. The image of their life had become obscured by the pain of their disappearance. There was one last image which etched itself into their minds: the image of the last time they saw him alive. This image had become surrounded with pain and had become fixed like an obsession which gripped them during the period of their search and waiting. They would come back alive and this image would unfix itself and the life of the man would come flooding back. If they came back dead the image of the body could serve a comparable function. The final image of them dead could release the memories of the man and replace the frozen painful image of his last appearance. The man assured us that it was very hard but the right thing to do. He was still waiting for the seventh brother.

We attempted within the limits of time and capabilities to gain the participation of the families associations and the families of the missing at each stage of our project. It was evident that participation at the forum would be false without this commitment. We worked with two companies each of which included a writer, a moderator/joker and three actors, two women and one man. We had given both the writers the videotapes of interviews already collected by the OMPF memory projects. Inevitably the scenes were based on these interviews. They were the primary research resource. Early in the process I went along with the Serbian actors, writer and moderator to read the scenes to members of a families association. When the reading started there was what I can only described as something like a tidal wave of emotion as the realisation dawned on the listeners that it was their experiences which were being given voice to. One or two people had to leave the room. People wept but stayed with it. I find it difficult to describe the tone of the feeling in the room and how it changed as the reading continued. Some basic grief and agony was being worked on and worked out. When one of the mothers looked across at me and told me our scenes were the truth I may have been deluding myself but I believed that she was not just talking about the documentary nature of the truth but that the scenes were truthful to their collective experience. This was a very strong experience of the power of the art of theatre.

We commissioned two writers. The Albanian writer worked on ‘The Longest Winter’ project and is one of the CCTD staff. Doruntina Basha found the work hard. She had watched the videotapes of the interviews and had become very apprehensive about the response of the audience to work which was based on their accounts. She felt an enormous burden of responsibility. Any artist can become overwhelmed by subject matter especially when the experiences and stories are dangerously close to their own. Everybody living through the war suffered the trauma of violence and disruption but some lost family and friends and others were left with a more lasting legacy of loss. A writer has to find themselves in the material they are writing about. This connection between the experiences of the community and the impulses of the writer had to be sought out. It was very important to us that the writer digested the research material, that it went through their creative system and that they then produced a dramatisation of the stories and experiences. Obviously if the material is very close and comes close to one’s personal experience then there’s a danger that the writer’s own impulses will be swamped. During one of our sessions Dori started talking about her own experiences of the war. One of the Albanian actors said that when they thought about talking about the war their stomach started churning and they felt their skin go cold. They were not ready to talk about these experiences. In this situation I became more acutely aware of the physiological nature of the writing process, of how the writing came out of something which moved through you physically. Dori eventually produced her work but I always had the sense that it was painful. Marina Madjarev, the Serbian writer, is the Dramaturg of the Yugoslav Drama Theatre in Belgrade. The interview material also had a powerful effect on her as well. Although she had made it quite clear to us that the scenes were based on the interview material it was only during the course of rehearsals we realised how closely she had borrowed from the documentary material and had used real people’s names in the text. We wanted the scenes to be based on real experiences but we did not want the stories to be individually recognisable. We wanted them to be collectively recognisable. This realisation threw us into a crisis. The actors had to look through all the interviews to check the details and we had to change the text accordingly. This whole process raised a profound question about what we were doing. It emphasised the need we had to move the individual stories towards collective or typical truths. The writing process was the first step in this exploration of more general human truths. What exactly is this movement about? One way of describing a traumatised human being is to say that their magical imaginative fantasy capability is completely cut off from their real everyday life. When there is no fluency and play between these two aspects of life there is great suffering. It is as if the individual becomes internally isolated. As a psychiatrist friend of mine described this state as being one of inner homelessness. This relationship between specific human suffering and general human suffering is evidently something we were preoccupied with. We were looking to the writers to make this first act symbolisation and to open the door between these two realms. This would be the first moment of giving form to the experiences of the traumatised and isolated victims of disappearances. What are the dimensions of this movement? As you move along a theoretical line from individual human suffering towards the suffering which characterised the experience of a whole community you move towards a more archetypal human suffering and the figures of the drama are illuminated by a universal perspective. This is reflected in the dialectic between the mythic and the real.

One of the Albanian Kosovar family association activists told us that s/he would not approve of our project if we made the suffering of the Serbian families and Albanian families a part of the same story. While s/he could recognise the individual grief and suffering of a Serbian family s/he told us that the Serbs brought the suffering on themselves and that the suffering of the Albanian Kosovar community were victims of Serbian state actions and the two situations were incomparable.

One way in which being involved in the project had changed Marina’s outlook was that it had broken the belief that if you were a good person then nothing bad would happen to you. She was struck by how many of the accounts repeated how good and innocent the missing person had been. We talked a lot about the business of goodness and its relationship to passivity and victimhood. We concluded that being good was not good enough.

What stories did we tell in the scenes? 1. A woman and her son arrive in their ruined house just after the war and she is strengthened in her resolve to rebuild her life despite her husband’s disappearance by the encounter with her friend who had lost and buried her whole family. 2. The dilemma of the same woman 7 years later when the same friend is persuading her to permit a blood sample to be taken from her son to identify a body likely to be her husbands since it was found in a mass gave with other people from her village. Her refusal to do so is holding up the communal funeral. She will not admit her husband might be dead but her son decides to take the initiative. 3. A woman gives details of her missing husband to a Red Cross worker only to realise that the questions she is being asked presume him to be dead. Does she carry on with the interview and what does she tell her daughter waiting outside? 4. A young childless woman from a village comes into to town to meet a woman representative of a family association. Her husband is missing and his family do not wish her to leave her home. The woman from the Family Association offers her work in a sewing group and the young woman realises she is not alone in her suffering. 5. A woman inconsolable after the disappearance of her son exhausts all the possibilities of looking for him and her daughter explains that she must leave to go away and study. 6. A family who have lied to the wife of a ‘disappeared’ man to protect her pregnancy and who have given a blood sample for DNA identification without telling her, face a dilemma when the body is returned some years later and the wife tells them that she will not let her son go to the funeral. 7. A lorry driver turns up at a house of a missing person claiming to have seen him. The mother falls for it but the daughter suspects he is an working for an extortionist. The sister finds a way of sharing her mother’s hope. 8. A doctor decides to go to work despite his wife’s anxieties about the prevalence of kidnapping. 9. A woman who knows the identity of her husband’s kidnapper tries to get an investigator to investigate the suspect but she is talking to the wrong branch of the justice system. The investigator discovers that the suspected kidnapper is unassailable and later discovers that he had been killed in an accident and expects this will bring some peace of mind to the woman. It doesn’t.

Nobody from outside Kosovo area could distinguish which stories are from the Serb community and which from the Albanian. This is not deliberate. It’s just the way it turned out. The writers read each others scenes and exchanged ideas. There were a few correspondences in the texts that came from this interaction but only at the level of detail. Similarly the two acting companies worked separately and came together for two working sessions. There was a higher level of interaction between the two moderator/jokers a number of sessions were organised at which they could share their work.

We emphasised from the conception of this stage of the project the crucial role of the actors. The initial image we had of the work was the interface between the actor and the victim/audience. We believed that if the actor could successfully portray the pain and the dilemmas of the victim/audience then in some small way the vicious circle of the isolation of the suffering could be broken. The actor could present a mirror of a very special kind for our audiences, one in which they could see themselves but see themselves from a distance. Within the dynamic of the presentation we relied on the ‘double’ role of the actor. We required the actor to accurately characterise the audience’s dilemma and then to join the audience as a member of the forum. We estimated that this change in the actor’s role would be in itself expressively liberating. This capability of the actor to change roles and in addition to undertake other characters in different scenes was a part of our dramaturgical strategy in asking the writers not to write a play but a series of discrete scenes. I decided to stage all the scenes in the round with four entrances into the circle. This permitted the audience and the actors to be a part of the same circle. We designed a role for a fourth performer who would play no character and would play a role modelled on the ‘joker’ in Boal’s forum theatre. This fourth performer would be like a bridge between the actors and the audience, allowing the audience to actively enter the stage space and to activate the audience’s ideas. Because we were working with very emotionally charged material it was important to have a presenter/performer standing outside and inside the performance at the same time, reminding the audience of the theatrical nature of the experience.

The actors work was to imaginatively explore what it was like to be these people. This is a way of creating a dynamic knowledge. I am reminded in this respect of a therapeutic situation in which the doctor or therapist gives themselves imaginatively to the pain of the patient. As the patient describes the pain, the doctor will say: ‘yes, I know, yes, yes I know’. The importance of believing that someone else can know your pain is the first step towards cure. I am aware that the medical situation is a metaphor but there is nevertheless a parallel design in our work. If the audience can recognise its pain being expressed by the actor then the actor through the work of identifying him or herself with the character has begun to break down the isolation which the victim feels. Acting is an elaborate and thorough form of feeling what it is like to be somebody else. Since the work of the actor involves not just identifying with the character but distancing him or herself from it, the actor can become a vehicle or conduit for the audience’s ability to see their situation as being capable of change.

We were told by a representative of a family association that one great difficulty was how to assess the impact on young people and children. Although the community might wish to deny that the children would remember being separated from their father or relative, this woman believed that the children’s memories were clear. When we read a scene to her there was a moment of gratification for her in the inclusion of a description by a boy of the impact of seeing his father dragged off.

In another session the audience found frightening the portrayal of the woman who refused to accept the body of her husband. They said that the portrayal was truthful and that when it was played in front of women who had had those feelings they thought it would help them.

When I embarked on this work my aim was to discover through the creative participatory work some underlying story, some mythic shape that would underpin the work and give it an underlying form. When you took all these stories and absorbed their truth was there one significant story which could act as a common symbol or image? This connection with myth and with the collective unconscious was a crucial perspective for me although I may have had no immediate objective success. The circumstances in which we were producing this work were limited. The scripts were written in the three weeks prior to the three week rehearsal and preparation period. There were five presentations of the Serbian work and twelve of the Albanian. The work is ongoing.

Az Theatre is planning a collaboration with CCTD as a part of its Alcestis project. This is the latest stage in Az’s WAR STORIES project. Focusing on stories of recovery, Az will be producing an international tour of a theatre spectacle based on Alcestis by Euripides created through a series of participatory workshops in the UK, Palestine, Serbia, Algeria, France and Italy as well as Kosovo. The work in Kosovo will be a development of the work on the VOICES project. We will go back to the audiences we have worked with in THE LONGEST WINTER and VOICES and we will run a series of participatory workshops with actors, young people and the communities surrounding the families associations. As with all the development workshops Az will be working for an effective programme of youth theatre participation but in Kosovo we will look specifically at the question of the impact of the issue of the missing on young people. The Alcestis story will help us to shape this work and give it a broad human dimension.