The Longest Winter

The Longest Winter and post-conflict theatre in Kosovo

Photos: 1. Collecting stories: First phase of the project. 2. Albanian poster 3. Serbian opening show 4. Albanian opening show

In April 2005 Jonathan Chadwick, Az Artistic Director, was invited to direct THE LONGEST WINTER as a consequence of contact with Az Theatre’s WAR STORIES project. Here is his account of the work. The United Nations Office of Missing Persons and Forensics have expressed a wish to continue working with theatre.

Jonathan Chadwick
24th June 2005

I directed a play in Kosovo in the early Spring of 2005. It addressed the issue of missing persons, of which there are approximately 3000 in that region.

What story did the play tell? A seventeen year old girl is about to chop down an apple tree for firewood. Her family’s resources are depleted. Her father disappeared 6 years before. Her mother is stuck, frozen, living for the day her husband will return. The girl’s attempt on the tree are forestalled by a young man who talks to the tree as if it was his missing father. The tree for him is a sacred place where his faith that his father will return is affirmed. He falls in love with the girl. He forges a letter from the girl’s father. The mother thaws a little and the two young lovers can meet. At the same time an extortionist/ business man turns up at the house and persuades the mother to pay money for information about her missing husband. The family is vulnerable and the girl’s little 9 year old brother sees a father figure in him. The girl is horrified when she discovers that the young man has written the letter and runs off to the nearby city to see if she can get more definite information about her father’s whereabouts. The young man follows her and, at an information centre for missing persons, discovers that his father is dead. Meanwhile the little brother has run away from home and spends a night in the forest coming to terms with his demons. The young lovers return from the city, rescue the little boy and hinder the businessman’s attempt at extortion.

THE LONGEST WINTER was written by an intercommunal team brought together by a partnership between the United Nations Office of Missing Persons and Forensics (OMPF) and CCTD, a Kosovo-based young people’s theatre development agency. I directed two parallel and separate productions of the play simultaneously, one in Albanian and the other in Serbian. The set and costume design team was the same for both plays. The staging was similar. It was accompanied by workshops and discussions, led by outreach workers from OMPF.

The Office of Missing Persons and Forensics (OMPF) is a section of the United Nations Department of Justice. This in turn serves the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) which is the governing authority and is there as a consequence of the armed intervention by NATO in 1999. OMPF aims to uncover the whereabouts of missing persons and to return the remains of those identified to their families. Large hoardings punctuate the roadsides, declaring ‘We are all missing them’. Outside the Kosovar provisional government building in Pristina photographs of the missing are displayed on the railings. The Serbian authorities across the border from its erstwhile province are holding hundreds of unidentified bodies. While I was rehearsing a cave was opened from which a considerable number of Serbian bodies were being exhumed. Each day as rehearsals progressed, news of what was happening in the cave emerged. So the work of OMPF rolled on.

OMPF undertook this theatre production as a part of a wider programme called the Memory Project, the aims of which are to provide the communities with ‘an opportunity to commemorate the missing in their own way’ and ‘to address the broader psychosocial ramifications of disappearances by demonstrating that the experience of loss is common to all ethnic groups’. This is impelled by a need to complete its work and hand over the information and materials it has collected to the community which it has been serving.

The processes of repair are complex. The relationship between individual reconciliation and collective affirmation is uneven. Feelings of revenge, of justice and of recovery jostle against one another. Forgetting and remembering are selective processes moving sometimes mysteriously between the conscious and the unconscious. How can people move individually and collectively from a locked and immoveable sense of victimhood with all its accompanying isolation and impotence? ‘Devictimise the victims’ is the phrase often found on the lips of the Peruvian anthropologist Jose Pablo Baraybar who heads OMPF. It is clear to him and others that a deeply rooted sense of victimhood can become the basis for future violence. The circle of abuse wherein the victim becomes the perpetrator is current at a micro and macro level. The act of burying our dead, of memorialising them, is well known to be one the significant factors in our species history. What kind of open wound is created when you have no remains to bury? At a collective level this can become a potent image of ongoing unresolved conflict. The processes of recovery from a wound are simpler than the spiritual recovery from the trauma of violence. The OMPF are at the sharp end of this process of resolution.

At one point a key element in the Memory Project was the building of a centre which would be a collection point of all the information and materials relating to the missing. There would be public access. One part of the plans was to bury the unidentifiable remains of missing persons under this building. It would be a memorial, a museum and an information centre. Now a decision has been taken to construct a web site instead.

What can theatre do? From Aristotle’s catharsis to Boal’s equally therapeutically oriented practices we are familiar with a primal relationship between theatre and healing. The main theatre sites of ancient Greece were dedicated to the god of medicine, Asclepios.

It was of crucial almost symbolic importance that the same play could be produced successfully in and for both communities. Up till now it has only been members of the acting companies, and then not all of them, that have seen the ‘other’ production of the play. During the rehearsals the companies did not meet each other.

On my arrival to work on the project I had a meeting in a cafe in Gracanica, the main Serb enclave near to Pristina. We met a group of actors. There was potential work on offer. None of these people ended up in the play and when I met them subsequently there was a great deal of warmth and friendship in our greeting but as I looked round the table at which we sat that evening there was a palpable sense of them having been hurt or wounded. This feeling is difficult to describe. It is not grievance which is possibly momentary or grief which has its own formal expressions. Later the same group came into the UNMIK building. For some of them it was the first time in years that they had set foot in Prishtina, a town of which they were former inhabitants. On this occasion there was a kind of hysteria, something joyful but uncomfortably infantile, in their demeanour. The situation was very raw. Fear was an ingredient in the situation but as the sharing of overcoming that fear bonded them it turned into a kind of delirium. We have forgotten how as children our space is constantly limited. We are allowed to go some places but
not others in a way which makes no subjective sense. This limitation of space and lack of freedom of movement provokes a fearful and primordial response.

In that first encounter at the cafe they were told the plot of the play as it stood at that point. They immediately pointed out that the story line which had been developed of the extortionist/businessman not only being involved in the sale of bogus information about the missing but also wanting to buy the land on which the family’s farm stood could not be credible to the Serb community. Anybody buying land in the Kosovo area would have to be Albanian.

The play had to be rewritten. An expression which was used by the extortionist when he showed the grieving mother some official papers which appeared to be about her missing husband was :’In my sweet shop you can look but you’re not allowed to taste until you buy’. It turned out that even though this expression was metaphorical it would be impossible for a Serb to say this. All the sweet shops and pastry shops in Kosovo were owned by Albanians.

The whole process of translation was at times problematic as also were the connotations of costume choices. The production process was punctuated by countless incidents exemplifying this. How could the Serb company accompany the costumier to search for items in Pristina? Why was Kosovo spelt in the Albanian way in the Serb contracts? And so on.

There was only one place where the relationship between the two communities was sufficiently good for the play to be produced in the same venue though, of course, even there the audiences were different. It could only be by some process of sympathetic magic that the impact on one community of the same play being produced in the other community could be effective.

I was uncomfortable being an ‘international’. I was employed by OMPF as an expert consultant and I carried about my person an UNMIK THEATRE PASS ID card. The ‘theatre’ referred to was, of course, all the facilities which had been commandeered by the UN. I cannot explain in detail what intuitively I sensed was the role of the UN in this situation. Many of the functions it was carrying out, particularly the work of OMPF, were vital and necessary services for the people of the area. Police from all over the world were collaborating in the development of an indigenous police force. There is a joke poster which shows lines of 4X4 police vehicles and proclaims WELCOME TO UNMIKISTAN. Indeed there is a street in the centre of Pristina which is glutted with these vehicles. Sometimes it was difficult to get into the OMPF building because of the tightly parked 4X4s.

On the road there were military contingents from all over the world. You saw different army bases. The French had a Cordon Bleu restaurant and invitations there were much sought after. However, the most powerful military force in the area was, by and large, invisible. The United States had commandeered a hill the size of a mountain, flattened the top and built a massive base there. Apparently there was a humvee for every two soldiers and a fleet of attack helicopters. The only non-United States citizens who went there were the local staff servicing the Burger King and similar outlets and also doing other menial tasks. In Kosovo you thought what you were looking at was plain enough and then you saw something behind it only to realise that there was something lurking behind what had been revealed.

In the years following the conflict there was a major influx of peace makers and conflict resolution experts and the vestiges of this activity still remain. At one point there was a phenomenon described as ‘war tourism’, a coachload of charitably minded delegates would arrive in a badly destroyed community, the inhabitants would tell their painful stories and the visitors would get back on their coach and disappear. In her wonderful book called KOSOVO: HOW MYTHS AND TRUTHS STARTED A WAR Julie A. Mertus gives a breakdown of the various kinds of approaches undertaken by Western organisations.

What kind of institutional mentality is generated by constantly driving around in these high wheel-base vehicles? Maybe this is emblematic rather then real. In one conversation with a Kosovar Albanian who proclaimed the KLA to be heroes he also was keen to show me a text message which said two words: Call me. He explained that he would never communicate in this way even with people with whom he was most familiar. The message was from a UN employee. He said he would keep this message as a reminder or as evidence. My view is not scientific. There are many more stories I could tell of local people’s reaction to the UN. Ironically the Albanian word for friend is ‘mik’. What UNMIK means when it is your postal address and is the key word in your travel documents is difficult to imagine. The Kosovar Albanians welcomed the NATO intervention but now the UN could be considered to be an obstacle to developing an independent state. The relationships of dependence are highly complicated.

The family associations represent the communities of the missing and are a unique grass roots structure. I asked a leader of one of the most active organisations how he envisaged the process of moving out of victimhood. I believe when confronted with this question by a stranger that he found it difficult to hold down his emotions. He described his child’s recent trip in a police vehicle. This was important he said because his child had an image of police associated with the Serbian police force which had carried out such brutal acts six or more years before. How do you start to re-imagine your life?

What can theatre do? Talking to one of a few Serb politicians who were working within the framework of the Kosovo Provisional Institution of Self Government, I was warned not to make these issues of the missing and of recovery subjects for theatre. People, he explained, were primitive. The need for revenge had to be addressed. Justice and judicial proceedings had to be instituted. The theatre was considered to be entertainment and fun and if we mixed things in the wrong way then our lives would be endangered. He was speaking sincerely and gently. I learnt later that he himself had recently been a target of a car bomb.

I went back to Kosovo to review the work on THE LONGEST WINTER and this gave me more time to talk to people. OMPF is interested in another theatre project which addresses more directly the process of recovery and repair. What might be the elements of a future project?

The theatre is a space in which we can see ourselves as the other. Theatre stretches identification as far as it can go. What happens when you put the actor in front of the victim and the victim in front of the actor? One of the significant consequences of an experience of trauma is the reduction of the world to an intense bipolarity. All experience is interpreted according to a fierce division between good and bad, between us and them, between friend and enemy. This utter simplification of the world which is expressed in various forms of fundamentalisms and in statements by political leaders like: ‘You’re either for us or against us’ is connected to the state of victimhood. It is infused with fear. It affirms itself through nationalisms. In a shattered and violated world this reduction must feel like a relief and a comfort. The vulnerability which gives rise to the need to identify and destroy the enemy derives from a feeling of being endangered. Ironically an obsessive holding on to this reaction can render people insensitive to real dangers. One of the key features of a process of recovery in the individual is the ability to hold within oneself more than one emotional viewpoint, and to recognise the other within oneself. This work of sympathy and compassion has been a part of the great human story replayed in numerous epics, poems and stories. The actors work is based on the creation of the character. This is like stepping across the border of one’s subjectivity to inhabit the world of the other. This process of creation is dynamic. The actor will move between identification and non-identification with the character. In the act of performing the actor holds the self in a powerful oscillation with this created fictional element. This is acting’s source of energy.

Is there a way of putting this capability more immediately in front of the experience of victimhood? Rather than through interpreting a text which has this experience as its focus, is it possible for actors to work directly with victimised communities? What kind of exchange might take place? For theatre to do something in this context, it is necessary to consider the actor in the role of the victim and the victim in the role of the actor. All theatre has a participatory element but this element can be extended. In order to stimulate or simulate this process of recovery, of moving beyond victimhood, it is necessary to make the audience active in sorting out and solving the problem. The theatre allows us to do things and see ourselves doing them at the same time. This is connected to the double role of the actor described above. Can the work of the actor become emblematic and functionally powerful in the release of the victim from the isolation and trauma of victimhood?

Another man I spoke to in my recent visit to Kosovo and to whom I posed the same question about how people become ‘devictimised’ told me about how there was bound to be a period of stasis. You are in a state of shock and you don’t know what to do. He was from the Serb community and he described the beginning of the process of building a new residence for the Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church. At first the new reality was unacceptable. After the upheavals and displacements of the war the traditional home of the church was far away from the main Serb population. The Patriarchate had to move. There was a time when nothing seemed to happen but as soon as the building work started a massive positive energy was created. Other people in the community started to build. Skills were passed into the community. Suppliers were given access. He used an intriguing expression. He told me that significant numbers of the Serb community decided to stay and at the same moment they decided to move on. The image of rooting and changing is a natural one. The business of building is practical. The creation of space is vital.

Theatre is immediately associated with a defined physical space. That is its original meaning: a place to see. In order to carry out the theatre work which has been described a space has to be created which will make it possible. All transformations of the sort we are talking about are carried out in both an outer space and an inner space. This is the essential alchemy of theatre. The outer space in alchemy is the alembic. In the theatre it is the place where the audience and the actors meet. Essentially the actors create the space for the audience. If the theatre is participatory then the audience joins the actors in creating the space. The creation of a space which makes possible the processes we wish to stimulate has become fundamental to my thinking about how to generate this project.

Can the theatre really be effective? The whole of the free male population of Athens could be accommodated by the theatre. The division is significant. What proportion of the population of Kosovo could participate in our project? This has to be marketed very precisely and creatively. Any theatre project will be operating at a micro level. What are the conduits which can make this activity have an impact at a macro level. The established theatre institutions do this by means of marketing and media. These channels may not be effective since our work will take place in unprestigious local venues generally considered by the theatre establishments as being marginal. For this reason I have recommended the setting up of an editorial board of guardians, guides or advisers, people who have key contacts and influence in their communities. This board would come from the diverse communities of Kosovo and would include theatre practitioners. The creation of a image and title for the project would be one of the responsibilities of this group of people. This image would have to be given publicity. It would be important to give the project as much status and prestige as possible. This would represent an ongoing drive to create as much access to this project as possible, while the actual participants might remain a relatively small percentage of the population.

There is little knowledge of participatory theatre techniques in the Kosovar theatre community either amongst Serbs or Albanians. One of the first phases of the project would be a training programme which might involve a wider group of performers and practitioners than would be directly involved in the final stage of the project.

Az Theatre’s WAR STORIES project after its presentations in Belgrade and London last year has turned its focus towards this question of repair and recovery. Continuing our partnership with companies in Serbia, Palestine and Algeria we have enjoyed the enormous creative benefits of working internationally. Our involvement in Manchester University initiative IN PLACE OF WAR which brings together so many theatre practitioners from post conflict and conflict zones reminds us that exchanging experiences can bring about a context in which many of the processes we are envisaging for work in Kosovo are given a wider perspective and support. The Kosovar company CCTD, one of the partners in THE LONGEST WINTER project, is in the IN PLACE OF WAR network and maybe the prospect of some kind of international festival of post-conflict theatre in Kosovo would help to give a new dimension to the work there.

Web sites for reference:


For United Nations Office of Missing Persons and Forensics in Kosovo:

For University of Manchester’s theatre and war project:

Kosovo: how myths and truths started a war by Julie a. Mertus
isbn: 0-520-21865-5