Tortell Poltrona and Moshe Cohen @Zitcovak. Kosovo. Nov 2000

by | Dec 9, 2011 | Clowns Without Borders

story:Moshe Cohen. photos. Phillipe Martinez.

Mitrovica, Kosovo Thursday November 9, 2000

The security precautions on this trip are: Do not talk Albanian to the Serbs, or Serbian to the Albanian audiences.  Don’t use Yugoslav Dinars in Albanian sections, only in Serbian.  Deutsch Marks work on both sides.  Showing the Albanians that you work in the North with the Serbians is a potentially disastrous idea.  And vice-versa.  This is so different than last year’s “Asphalt” where mines were the major concern.  It seems that all the mines if not removed have at least been located.

But the Serb-Albanian enmity remains strong.  Reminders are around us constantly.  KFOR checkpoints and soldiers on patrol everywhere, the Serbian nationalist paraphernalia on sale in the kiosks and boutiques in Northern Mitrovica blaring at me each time I pass by.  I imagine that there are similar stores in Albanian sector; I just haven’t run across them yet.

Yesterday, the Gypsies in the morning spoke Serb but those in the afternoon Albanian.  As I understand it the Northern Gypsies are referred to as Hashkali and those in the south as Roma. I am not sure as I have received several other conflicting views. The UNICEF report ‘Youth in Kosovo’ simply refers to them as Hashkali/Roma/Egyptian, grouping them under one title consistently, never explaining the distinctions.  Perhaps I have to find a different report. No one I ask seems to know where or whom the Egyptians are.

Saturday November 11

Today’s story started yesterday afternoon.  Just back from the shows in Klina, Tortell talked on the cell to Leo in Pea.  The show in the capital tomorrow is cancelled.   The show in the National theatre, the big deal lights and sound, the full whamboozle of Kosovar and foreign dignitaries. There was a definite non-mission status to the event, no refugees there. It was a compromise that we had made, agreeing to play to a ticket paying public in the big town, in exchange for full cooperation in the field. Oh well, we can let that go now.  When we mention the cancellation to Phillipe (Triangle Generation Humanitaire) he suggests that instead, we go perform at Zitcovak, a Rom camp in the North, right past the lead mines.

Tortell and I both react with big smiles.  That makes big sense to both of us, to play in a gypsy camp instead of a sumptuous theater.   We are glad for the opportunity. We agree and arrange with Phillipe to take us there tomorrow. A momentary sense of the doldrums turns into a celebrative mood….

Sunday November 12

Zitcovak. Roma/Hashkali camp next to lead factory

100 kids and adults

This is by far the worst spot we’ve been to yet.  Situated next to a defunct factory building and a graveyard of decomposing buses.  The encampment is a collection of the green UNHCR refugee tents in the shadow of a steep mountainside.            We are on a tiny country road and turn onto a gravel driveway.  We pass a big brick factory building full of small broken windows.  It appears to be completely deserted.  We drive through a gate into a big empty gravel yard.  On one side of the place is a huge white hangar, an inflated tent with big letters etched in the side WFP  (world food program).  It is totally fenced in.   At the end of the empty lot is some kind of abandoned wall and gate and behind that are a large grouping of tents, the light faded khaki green, kind, with the little pointed roofs that lead out to a squared design, with UNHCR etched in black in several places.

Coming from under the fence to the food depot is a long clear hose and there are several women filling up large jerry cans with water. Kids are running around.  We are quickly spotted and they start coming towards us.  While still inside the car, we quickly figure out where to do the show and where to park the car.  As we pull into the far corner, Tortell directs Leo how to park it just so, with the back facing the playing field so that we can make it into a mini backstage.

The kids crowd around.  It is beautiful in a way, how excited and lively their spirit, and yet it is clear they have nothing.  Some of the kids are barefoot and their clothes are near rags.  A good number of the kids have some kind of skin problem and none look like they have washed anytime recently.  As we get out of the car, there is an aggressive curiosity amongst the kids who gather around, small wiry bodies crowding in to see what we bring.  Tortell hits the ground running pulling out his red and white plastic construction site tape. Using a bunch of rocks he sets the tape on the ground to describe a large semi circle playing area.

I jump into action pulling out and setting up props.  Soon though my camera finds its way to my hands.  I can’t resist their innocence masked in their weathered faces.  There is a small sense of despair hidden beneath their pride, mischief, and playfulness.  There is a sense of resourcefulness that is well beyond their ages.  One girl perhaps 8 asks for me to take her photograph.  She is maybe 8, with her young brother in tow, maybe 3 at most 4, who looks questioningly at the whole interaction.  It is all foreign to him.  But she has it clear in her mind that she wants me to take her picture, I can see it in her beautiful dark eyes.  I lead them to the edge of the gully where we set up the stage. It is full of rusted hulks of buses.  One of the buses is somehow buried, with its face in the ground and its tail staring up at the sun at a slightly oblong angle.  They stand in front of it.  The girl goes into a classic flamenco pose holding her dress out with one hand and bringing her other into the air.  And she gives me a proud stare. Her brother stands there a little bewildered and lost looking off to the side as she stares into the camera, the bus standing up, a rusted skeleton as their backdrop.

They live at the foot of a high hill that has the sun disappearing close to 3pm and the temperature dropping intensely fast.   We watch the shadow fly across our hard gravely ground stage.  Tortell throws the Taraf de Haidouks music onto the turntable and the Rom are all thrilled.  I start doing a little dance to the music, there are chuckles egging me on.  I try a few less than gracious moves which starts the laughter a bubbling.  Then I delve into slow motion flamenco, parodying the form to everyone’s delight.

Tortell and I check in with each other before starting the show.  We both comment on how glad we are to be here sandwiched between a food depot and a bus cemetery rather than in the confines of the theatre. Watching the sun moving fast, knowing that it will be getting cold quickly once the glow disappears, we agree to keep a tight rein on the show There is a sense of fun, but also one of challenge.  Though the audience is a little thin, and takes a little convincing to let go, there is fun in the air, and they all have a good time. Little smiles, big smiles and laughter are populating the grim surroundings.

After the show, Tortell and I are quickly surrounded by little faces, and to our surprise, they start are asking for marks, for money. I tell them, in sign language, that we aren’t here for that and that we didn’t bring money. But evidently, they want the large 50-escudo coins that I used in the show.  I explain that they are Portuguese and near worthless, but they are convinced that they are German marks, even after I show them the coins.  Maria Jose, who is part of our crew, translates an elder woman’s remarks, that they should have better brought food than clowns. Tortell and I look at each other in dismay. We are missing the usual after the show glow of celebration that we share with the kids. How could we have known?

As we get ready to leave tiny grinning 6 year old comes in from the outside, gate dragging a huge tree branch about 10 times his size, proud as can be.

Brilliant face blazing in winter sunlight.
Defiant teeth glimmering in conqueror’s grin.
Barebacked heroes pose for the camera.
One foot upon his prize,
a tree branch ten times his size.

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