Log. Kosovo. 1999. Clowns Without Borders

by | Jan 24, 2013 | Clowns Without Borders


photos by Phillipe Martinez

Kosovo 2000. Payasos Sin Fronteras/Clowns Without Borders project in Mitrovica, Kosovo
Two Clowns, 70 Kilos of props and costumes. 12 shows in 9 days.

This trip to Kosovo was in conjunction with a two month cooperative project between the Danish Refugee Council and Payasos Sin Fronteras. The main thrust involved two PSF animators, a circus artist (Leo) and a social psychologist(Maria Jose), conducting workshops with teachers and activists in two divided towns, Mitrovica and Pea ( in Albanian or Mitrovice and Pec in Serbian). Tortell Poltrona and Moshe Cohen (the clowns ) travelled for the last 10 days of this project to perform in various communities of Kosovo/a. The clowns performed in Albanian, Serb and Roma/Hashkali (gypsy) communities, almost always separately. The performances took place in cultural center theaters, collective centers (refugee camps) , communities and once in between immense olive green tents serving as schoolrooms in Cabra.

The expedition relied on the cooperation of several humanitarian groups : Danish Refugee Council, The American Friends Service Committee, Triangle Generation Humanitaire and Enfants du Monde. These groups organized the shows, transportation and logistics. The clowns just showed up with their props and were whisked away in a variety of new 4 wheel drive vehicles to the performances.


November 2000. Mitrovica, Kosovo. The town with the famous bridge that divides the town into two ethnic enclaves, Serbian and Albanian citizens of Kosova (Albanian)/Kosovo (Serbian).

By 4 pm it is dusk this time of year in Kosovo/a. It is Kosovo in Serbian and on the maps, but Kosova in the hearts of the Albanians, 90 % of the country’s inhabitants. The roads are full of white SUVs, Military vehicles, tons of European luxury cars, often without license plates (stolen), tiny farm tractors pulling wooden trailer beds, sometimes horses pulling. The driving is a little calmer than last year when there was no police force out, but there is still something of a destruction derby attitude dominating the local drivers’ actions. The UNMIK police, in their red and white SUVs are now setting up radar traps on the major roads and fining people 80DM (German Marks-the currency in use) for failing to wear seatbelts. They are cracking down on drivers without licenses. Vehicle owners are being forced to register their vehicles and somehow the UN is registering most of the stolen vehicles and giving them new license plates.

We enjoy good weather the entire time although winteresque temperatures start appearing late during our stay. Our apartment, rented from an Albanian woman, faces what is called the “Confidence Zone” in Mitrovica, a strip of land on the South side of the bridge with several highrises that are mostly full of United Nations and UNMIK offices. The bridge is heavily guarded with checkpoints and zig zag barricades. We show ID’s to the camouflaged flack-jacketed French Marines whenever we cross, first upon entering the confidence zone, then a more scrupulous check when one arrives at the bridge checkpoint. Strangely they want to see your Humanitarian agency ID badge more than a passport, yet all the humanitarian agencies laminate their own badges. So much for security. Our Clown badges have a PSF logo clown face instead of our photos, but only once during our stay does a soldier even notice that.

The first show that we play is in the House of Friends, right near the bridge in Mitrovica, run by a staff of 4 Albanians and funded by the AFSC. This is a gathering place for Albanian kids living in the North, a lot of whom live in 3 20-floor round high-rise apartment buildings just on the other side of the river. The kids are transported in KFOR armored bus to school at 7am and back home at 7pm. So they spend the time out of school at the house of friends.

The shows are a little rough theatrically speaking but the kids don’t notice and there is plenty of laughter and excitement. There have been several rehearsals at Tortell’s house near Barcelona a few weeks earlier. We have put together a Ukulele/ Saxophone version of my ‘I’m Going Down the Road” song as well as an adaptation of the Colombiani’s Shakespeare routine. Tortell plays Mark Antonio and I play Julius Caesar. My crown is a huge funnel, my cape a towel and my scepter is a broom. It is a funny routine with Tortell spraying water in my face when I ask him how is the weather. It is raining, he says, ‘Shum shi’ in Albanian. We get volunteers to play the roles, and then we reverse roles and the whole thing ends up with us shooting spurts of water at each other.

Wednesday Nov 8

Working with Julien from Enfants Du Monde, we travel to two collective centers, one in a Northern Serbian province, Leposavic, housing a group of Hashkali refugees; and one in the Albanian South: Plementina, where a large group of Roma people live. We have been told how they are disliked by both sides. The Serbians consider the gypsies as second-class citizens and the Albanians believe that they collaborated with the Serbs, and some did. In any case they are sequestered and living in refugee camp conditions. The first show we play in the local cultural center for both the Hashkali kids and the local school kids. Later after the show the Hashkali kids are the last to leave, only a small fraction of the 500 plus crowd and I go down and shake all their polite hands amongst earnest smiles.

We decide to eat lunch in Leposavic and tumble into the never ending country cafe wait that has us on the road at two for a three O’clock show with more than an hour’s drive ahead.

Plementina collective center, a real refugee camp right past the Norwegian KFOR headquarters, is on a small country road nearing Pristina. Just before the camp we pass a village of destroyed crumbling houses. These are where the people in the camps used to live. For some reason, mainly because they are gypsies, no one is rebuilding these structures. We arrive to an already assembled crowd waiting in a temporary schoolroom. Tortell has brought a Taraf de Haidooks (Romanian gypsy) CD, and rushes into the room where he puts the music on the CD player. They are all excited by the music. We get ready to do the show. We play this schoolroom, a darkened low ceilinged box. There are a good 250 kids and adults behind the school desks, a sea of faces glinting out of the dark. Electricity cuts are frequent in Kosovo and we play that show with the light of one outdoor halogen light powered by generator. We are very well received. The real show though took place in the tiny one-desk Enfants du Monde office that Tortell and I turn into a dressing room. Juggling prop preparation, costume changing and no electricity. Tortell has the miner’s lamp backpacker’s special, I’m using a taped mini-mag flashlight held in my mouth until the emergency fluorescent lamp thankfully shows up. Apart from a few tiny kids who get scared by Tortell’s makeup, the show is magical. A parent thanks me afterwards telling me that it is the first joyful activity to reach them in the 16 months that they had been there.

Thursday Nov 9 and Friday Nov 10

Working with Phillipe from Triangle Generation Humanitaire for two days. The first in the towns of Cabra and Skenderaj. This area is the birthplace of UCK movement and thus suffered greatly under Serbian repression. Indeed, the village of Cabra (pronounced Chabra) was not only burnt down but then bulldozed to the ground. There are no remnants or bare skeletons of former houses, everything has been leveled. We see maybe ten new houses in varying phases of construction, red brick and cement, two story houses eventually with tile roofs. All across Kosovo/a the landscape is full of houses in various stages of reconstruction.

This is the show we play in the lot in between the two temporary classrooms. We share the stage (actually a dirt lot where Tortell puts down a large circle of red and white striped tape on the ground to define the playing area) with a whole production of local talent and a local girl’s folkloric singing group; 20 girls in traditional white costumes with brocaded gold vests. The local school kids have learned songs. There is a dramatic performance involving five actors who thrust the microphone between them like relay runners with the baton.

The afternoon show in Skenderaj is in the cultural center theatre, one that holds 500 people. We play however to an overcapacity crowd, stacked and squished standing room both on the main floor and the balcony. The show is open to the public and has been well advertised. Like this morning, local kids will perform after our show. The stage is frenetically full of mostly jittery high school kids all preparing their cool moves for their big moment on the stage. There is a constant frenzy to the backstage that makes it more than difficult for us to concentrate getting ready for the show. It is a wild one as far as crowd energy, so many people and most of them teenagers. Tortell and I keep tight reins on the audience making sure that there is always enough momentum to keep the ship rolling. It is relatively smooth sailings and there are some incredible outbursts of laughter. Tortell does his flea jumping into the bag routine, a classic routine where audience members throw the flea to him on stage where he catches it in a plastic bag with a big snapping sound. He finds the flea on my head as I end my sponge ball and volunteer magic number. He keeps going into the audience with the flea than rushing up on stage to catch it. About the fourth time it doesn’t make it and Tortell goes rushing into a hair inspecting lazzi searching for the flea. In Skenderaj they are just wild to want to throw the flea and when it gets lost and Tortell starts climbing over people in the audience it is that wonder roar of laughter lighting up the whole place. By the Shakespeare number though we can sense that hormone excessiveness reaching it’s capacity and we are quick through the routine and turn the stage over to the local kids. The traditional singing group from the morning are backstage too and adjust into a long wait stance as a lip-synch number gets started. A big chance to express for the local teens and cheering friends..

The next day we switch sides to play in Serbian Zubin Potok, in a separate Northern Municipality, only ten minutes and a big fat roadblock from Cabra. We play in a well kept Cultural Center theatre. It took Phillipe over ten months to negotiate the use with the CC director. Phillipe has since made an unused part of the Cultural Center into an extremely popular youth center. This is the second event that he has organized there. We are honored by the presence of Rade Radovich who is one of Serbia’s most famous musicians, who has written many of the popular melodies and turns out to be a great accordion player. He has come back to his native town to help out as the music teacher. Tortell plays his Sopranino sax with Rave as I do a preshow butoh dance improvisation warm-up, a nice cultural injection into the theater. Tortell invites Rade to play music for us with the phrase “Please Maestro.” WE do both shows together and eat lunch along with the UN head of culture, Svetlana Pancheva, a warm Bulgarian woman who insists that if there is one thing that we must do before we leave Kosovo, we must see the nearby lake. We never get the chance.

Saturday Nov 11

Mette, from Danish refugee council takes us to perform at the school in Klina, near Pea, an Albanian area of great destruction and rebuilding. The town is full reconstruction projects, of KFOR and UNMIK vehicles and activity. We perform behind the school but as it is Saturday, school is not in session. Due to miscommunications and a lack of informed public, our afternoon show becomes more of an informal session on a small stage in front of the cultural center.

Sunday Nov 12

We had received a copy of the e-mail that the director of the Pristina theater sent to Leo. How the steps are blocked by the demonstrators, and that our show on Sunday night will be cancelled. So instead, Phillipe from Triangle is taking us to perform up at the Rom camp in Zitkovac, right next to the lead mines north of Mitrovica. We welcome the opportunity, and are actually glad to be playing there instead of the big-city theater As we drive out past the bridge, through Northern Serbians side of town towards the camp.tortell.bus.kid.zitkovac.lo Phillipe briefs us on the situation at Zitkovac,noting that the rations that the WFP (World Food Program) give out are far from adequate to last the month they are supposed to. Anything and everything that is given to them they sell on the open market for food.

We play in an ocean of open dirt next to the road that joins on one side, a huge white inflated World Food Program storage tent, the size of a small airplane hangar, gated and locked down.  On the other side 50 meters to the right is the refugee camp, a large grouping of UNHCR winterized tents with smoking stove popes popping through the slants of UNHCR stenciled canvas. There is a constant procession of women with Jerri cans from the camp to a water spigot coming out of the WFP compound.

Our backdrop is a graveyard of rusted buses planted in the ground at odd angles and in various stages of decomposition.  At 3pm the sun is already dipping behind the nearby mountain peaks and the air is turning frigid. We perform for a very enthusiastic grouping of 70 or 80 Roma. Many of the kids are barefooted and few have warm clothes in evidence. There are signs of malnutrition in the kids skin, and later, Maria says that she saw several infants with distended stomachs.

They were bright, engaged spectators with sometimes mischievous smiles soaking up our antics.  After the show, after we had surrounded by a crowd of children demanding money, specifically asking for German Marks. Perhaps, since they have seen me throwing stacks of coins into the air, they think I am rich man. Despite my best good humored efforts, I am unable to convince them that I used Portuguese 50 Escudo coins, not Deutsch Marks, and that they are virtually worthless here.

Tortell and I are shocked by the rather aggressive demanding not-so-little voices. We are used to shaking hands, greeting smiling laughing kids with great warmth surrounding us. But here there is a sense of urgency in their demands, and we have the feeling that we can’t get out of there fast enough. We had been warned to be vigilant with our props, and as the show ends, everything is quickly loaded in the back of the jeep. In retrospect, one can’t blame them at all.  They are taking this golden opportunity of rich strangers in their camp to ask for their fair share.

These are the roughest conditions that we encounter. Tortell and I find it difficult to stomach and leave a little shell-shocked and quite surprised. They live all of ten minutes away from the cafes of a well-stocked humanitarian economy. The next days we are telling every humanitarian group that we encounter about their situation.ztcovac.yoowho.cigarbox.lo

Monday/Tuesday Nov 13-14

WE are sunk into a demonstration quagmire that grinds our clown operation to a halt. It turns out that the Danish Red Cross’s security procedures are about the strictest in Kosovo and when we meet with our contact on Monday morning……

It is a very strange feeling watching the demonstrators leaving their positions on the bridge. The soldiers in riot gear with transparent shields on one side of the barricade and the dispersing crowd on the other.  As they walk underneath our apartment window, Tortell and I scan the crowd, a generally young and jovial bunch full of adolescent bravado humor.  The general strike had been called for noon to three. It feels more like a national celebrative holiday than the call for the release of the Albanians still being held in Serbian jails, reputed to be around some 800 people, the great majority men.  We spot plenty of name brand American dress styling and the shaved haircuts, young men parading amongst friends, jovially calling out as they spot each other.  Groups of teenage boy flirt with the girls as younger school kids play running around in chaotic fashion.  The older generations are more somber, purposeful in their walk, group discussing as they head back to the main highway blockade.

Both Tortell and I have lingering feelings of sadness and frustration following our performance in the gypsy camp yesterday. It was a difficult show in a difficult place. We had no idea of what the situation there would be like, and it was far worse than any place we had visited in Kosovo.  It seems that the Rom population are the most neglected of all, disrespected by both the Albanians and the Serbs.  The conditions of the camp certainly suggest that.

It all seems to be galaxies away the day after, as Tortell and I stand on the balcony of our little apartment, overlooking a sea of stolen luxury cars in the streets. The cars are mostly Mercedes but a fair portion of Audis and BMWs.  Tortell counts the number of sunroofs, avidly discoursing on how his car at home doesn’t have a sunroof even though he does have air-conditioning.  But these cars all have sunroofs, “they don’t just steal, they steal the best.”  The word is that all the cars have been stolen from the wealthier European countries.

It’s already late afternoon and we are both on edge, having spent the day doing not much at all. Motivated after what we witnessed yesterday, wishing to go perform, knowing that there are a dozen places that would love our visit but we are stuck spending the day idle because ‘the security situation’ makes any movement beyond our little enclave “too risky.” Ironic because everywhere one looks, there are unused police and UN vehicles parked on the streets and in lots. WE are stuck in a demonstration quagmire that has ground our clown operation to a halt.

It all started this morning when the Danish Red Cross’s Sevin, our contact person from Pristina is a half hour late to the 10am rendezvous at the internet cafe. She is to take us to today’s 2 shows. This is the first time that anyone has been late for an appointment so we are a little concerned.  She’s on the phone as she gets out of the big Toyota jeep and puts down the phone just long enough to introduce herself before walking away continuing her conversation on her cell phone. Not exactly a great beginning. Not a word about the delay, a “Hi, nice to meet you, or a ” sorry I’m late” or anything else.  Tortell and I look at each other in surprise. The driver, Mustapha, seems caught in the middle.  He can no doubt read our faces, so he comes over to talk to us. He doesn’t say much, expressing regret about being late, before walking away and getting back into the jeep.  I have a bad feeling and remark on the brevity of Mustapha’s interaction to Tortell. He replies that is not the driver’s job, but that clearly the driver feels our unease.

Sevin comes back and insists on going into the restaurant to discuss “the news” about some unexpected situation.   We go inside Pinocchio’s, which is completely empty except for a table full of waiters smoking cigarettes.  The place has a very cheap Casablanca feel as dim shadows light the place. Power outage. Sevin calls over to two other waiters standing by the kitchen talking, and he gives her a ‘be right there’ hand signal.  Then she starts explaining that she is sorry about being late but that everything is backed up today. The waiters have not come over as promised, and Sevin turns towards them and shouts “waiter” with militaristic macho that has my mouth flopping open in surprise at her sudden ferocity. She literally barks at the waiter.  When he tells her that he can’t serve her food because the cook isn’t here yet, she berates him to a degree that I find embarrassing.  She puts the macho Albanian men we have encountered to shame.  Tortell privately suggests (in Spanish) that maybe the big city girl thinks herself superior to the provincials.  In any case it does not bode well for the morning.

Then she tells us the news: there are demonstrations scheduled for today from noon to 3 and then drops the bomb with a foreshadow as strong as her makeup: That we must postpone the shows.  There is a barrage of power, a boss-like attitude in how she addresses us that is extremely irritating. Tortell and I, but mostly I, with my native English, demand explanations.  She tells us that the demonstrations might start early and might go later and that they (her and Mustapha) can absolutely not take the chance of missing their five pm Pristina curfew.  I try to argue for at least one show, as our first show is scheduled for noon, but she says that her boss has told her to cancel. She again explains how the demonstrations might start early, and might end late, which would prevent her from returning to Pristina by her 5pm curfew.  We are caught in a bureaucratic web, or perhaps just hers, it is hard to tell.  But it is clear that she is just doing her job and our mission is a task, a job to be done, like repairing a water pipe

We clearly express our displeasure after which Sevin apologizes, declaring her delight at the prospect of the children’s joy, and how she has gone out of her way to buy food for the kids in the schools. I don’t know what to think anymore, but I am sure that she did not buy the food with her own money.  We make one last desperate attempt to remedy the situation, explaining that we are leaving on Thursday, that there will not be another chance go to the schools.  Evidently there is nothing to do, she refuses our request to call to her boss to discuss the situation. It turns out that the Danish Red Cross’s security procedures are about the strictest in Kosovo

I inquire about tomorrow, as we are supposed to perform in two other schools that they, Danish Red Cross, support. Sevin says that demonstrations are called for tomorrow as well, but that she won’t know anything for certain until this afternoon.  We exchange phone numbers.  She insists that we call her before 4 pm. She does not offer to call us to let us know.

Tortell and I decide to take a long walk through Mitrovica with the Triangle office as the eventual destination.  I am feeling a little powerless, stuck. We scan the market for presents to bring home but there is really nothing of interest.  We walk down the main street towards the Triangle office.  We pass a photographer’s shop that has patriotic photos in the window.  There is even one of an UCK soldier at a party with a huge dagger out in the action of stabbing a Serbian soldier.  It is of course a staged photo in celebration of victory, and strange enough for me to want to take a picture of it.  As I adjust my camera (pre-digital days,) the woman inside the store rushes to stick another laminated photo in front of it, a much tamer photo of two UCK soldiers with their arms around a woman.  The camera clicks as the photo slips in.  I am unsure of just which photo I got.

We have a discussion at the Triangle office with Florence, as Phillipe is not there.  She is leaving Kosovo soon and we get off on a tangent about the Saharan refugees as she is discussing a potential contract there.  That has Tortell’s attention as he has been there several times and has great contacts there.  There is even a group of Saharan clowns that Payasos Sin Fronteras has trained.  The atmosphere in the office is far different than this morning’s discussions with Sevin, which puts us in a better mood.  Florence tells us to drop by later if we have nothing for tomorrow as surely they can organize something locally.  I recall and mention a contact with a disabled school that we had made our first day. An alternative work plan for tomorrow is potentially established.

As we walk back to the center of town towards the bridge, we see all the shop and restaurants closing up for the demonstration.  We watch the action from our balcony that looks out towards the police station and the bridge.  A parade barrier has been established across the road leading to the bridge.  A line of soldiers positioned behind it.  Another group of soldiers with riot shields sets up a second line of defense.  Twenty feet further back, the road is barricaded by a line of tanks.  A camouflage helicopter hovers overhead.  A stream of Albanians are walking below our balcony in the street headed for the bridge and soon a crowd of at least 1000 people are against the barricades.  It is a quiet standoff as the crowd talk amongst themselves for fifteen or twenty minutes.  Nothing threatening is happening; no shouting, arm waving or sloganeering.  After an unseen signal, they start dispersing, some lingering, a great deal walking down the street below the balcony, past the bakery under our feet.  They are heading back towards the blockaded intersection further down the main street on the road to Pristina.

Tortell and I decide to head out to lunch.  Most everything is closed tight including the Internet Cafe and adjoining restaurant, Pinocchio. The Elita behind it though is open and full of lunching United Nations officials and other humanitarian types.  They are deep in their own worlds solving problems over well-garnished plates.  We decide to do the same and Tortell wants wine. Lunch or dinner, he says, “what’s the difference, I will be ready for a good siesta.”  We try to figure out our logistics as to what is possible for tomorrow.  It is hard to make any calls without knowing whether there will be demonstrations or not tomorrow and whether we will be working with the Red Cross. Things have been pre-organized.  We have our hands tied.

At 2pm I use Tortell’s cell phone to call Sevin in Pristina.  She tells me that she won’t know anything for sure until after three o’clock and asks me to call back then.  She doesn’t offer to call me when she finds something out. I try to concretize telephone logistics with Tortell as he is planning to take a good nap.  He retorts in slight anger that if they want us to do anything in their schools then they can damn well call us. Then he adds that it is his personal phone, not that of Payasos, that it costs a fortune to use in Kosovo, and slips it into his pocket.  I cannot blame him for feeling that way, not to mention that he has a good bit more of the wine bottle than me.  We agree to figure things out later, and as I write he is still asleep in the room next door.  The sun has left for the day, and the blue sky is lightening towards transparency. White fluff clouds suggest the possibility of a nice sunset.

The bridge has reopened and the soldiers have gone back to their barracks.  Security remains a good deal heavier than in the past week but they are still moving at the same lackadaisical pace.  While Tortell naps, I am typing this story, and just now, I hear the loud sounds of a never-ending column of tanks rolling down the asphalt.  We have seen all kinds of strange armored vehicles today: camouflage jeeps, a variety of humvees and tanks that look full of soldiers inside the open back doors. There has also been massive police presence.

There could hardly be a more international gathering of police forces then is present in Kosovo, men from Morocco, Zambia, Nigeria, The Arab Emirates, Poland, and this morning’s Jordanian duo. This morning, as we waited for Sevin standing on the quiet steps to Pinocchio’s patio, a pair of policemen approached me.  One has a big belly sheltered in the customary blue sweater uniform, the other man bigger and trimmer in blue camouflage costume, the full suit and big black boots.

The fat one, the boss, asks me ” Where is restaurant?” in a rather demanding tone.  I scan their faces and take in the country flag badge with the country name below: Jordan.  I hesitate for an instant, so he asks me again even more insistent “ Restaurant, restaurant.  Eat food!  Eat!” adding sign language with hands stuffing invisible food into his mouth.  He treats me as if I were an idiot, incapable of understanding the word restaurant.  If they used a different word in Kosovo/a, then I might understand his attempts to spell it out so clear and quickly.  There is certainly no hint of politeness in is manner

I find it a rather bizarre moment. My hesitation in answering is motivated only by seeking the most polite way to point out the obvious. Is the policeman that oblique?  Getting out of his car, he had to at least walk some 20 or 30 yards to reach me. Or even ten. Wouldn’t he look around?  I am literally standing right under a sign, a 4 foot wide wooden sign that clearly says “restaurant” in white letters. It’s less than two feet above my head.  If one looks behind me, beyond the steps, there is a cafe balcony full of empty chairs and tables.

I answer him in English and point up to the sign and tell him that there is another restaurant, the Elita, right next door.  I say it in a matter of fact manner looking right at him.  He looks past me and then to the left where I have indicated the Elita.  He harrumphs off.  He does not bother to thank me as he walks away. I try to catch his expression, what is his reaction??  Either he masks any surprise that the restaurant is right there or else he is living in a very different world than mine.

I look up from my laptop. A quick sky scan from my window yields two thin layers of pink amongst masses of grey clouds over honking horns.  The writing has gobbled up the last of this day.  The street has gone back to normal near quiet and it is time to take a walk, go to the internet café, and if there is electricity, check my email and see if anyone has won in the US elections yet.

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