Moshe Cohen Dharma Talk: Trip to Kosova

 

Report on Trip to Kosova

by Moshe Cohen (Mr. Yoowho)

Hello Everyone,

Here is the report on my recent trip to Kosova. In a nutshell, lots of good work in a desecrated landscape with hopeful people bracing for a tough winter. The details are below.

Kosova Expedition – Aug 13-Sept 3 1999

Through Payasos Sense Fronteras(PSF), in conjunction with Save the Children and Medicos SinFronteras(MSF(Doctors Without Borders))-Spain

Activities

19 shows (4 with Pepe Viguela) in schools, newly opened safe play areas, collective centers, the Prizren open air cinema, and the Gjakova Palace of Culture . 6 Doctor Yoowho visits, 5 to Gjakova Hospital and one to Prizren Hospital. 3 Workshops with teachers on using Qi-Gong, Mime and Clown Expression Movement to relieve post-traumatic stress. 3 Resulting Workshops with Teachers and Students. Near-Continuous Informal Clown Nose presence.

The Situation

Kosova ( Albanian for Kosovo) is a country currently full of a sense of liberation, pride and optimism amongst the Albanian population, as well as a physical reality full of destoyed houses, extensively mined territory and continued effects of the war including Serb house burnings, blockades of Russian army units and continued hatred expressed in both directions.

The level of destruction of houses and stores is most extensive in the Pea and Djakvica region, the statistics are in the 60% range and the entire historic old town of Gjakova(a UNESCO historic site) is now a skeleton of former shops and homes. Reconstruction aid desperately needed before the upcoming winter is not arriving due to many factors and word was out that humanitarian assistance and food deliveries would slow down too before the onset of the extreme Balkan winter. It is generally agreed amongst humanitarian groups that aid will not arrive before 2000 due to a combination of factors :burocratic elephants in slow motion, financial blocks on USAid prior to the new fiscal year, and extensive difficulties at the Macedonian border where supposed thousands of trucks are waiting to cross into Kosova. Other entry points are not viable, Albania because it is unsafe, rife with mafias and bandits, (I met several people whose cars had been hijacked at machine gun point) and Montenegro as it is still part of Serbia.

Prizren was not destroyed at all by the war whereas Gjakova was heavily hit by the Serb paramilitary units. Almost the entire old town was burned to the ground the same night that the NATO bombings began. The population was chased out and told to leave. Many refused to leave (60%) and hid in their basements living in terror that the Serb paramilitary units might be knocking on their door next. Reports from the villages that I performed in were similar with paramilitary choosing new targets most every night. In Gjakova there were UCK(Kosova Liberation Army) reports of 500 cases of reported rape by Serbs. Woman were rounded up whenever they left their homes and brought to this one house. The Serbs when done would hand their victims over to a group of gypsies for similar treatement. AS this information came from the UCK (KLA) information center it may be a little tainted but probably not by much. There is little doubt however that victims rounded up nightly both in cities and in the country were murdered. The Serbs also undertook a heavy anti-personel mining campaign that included mining and booby trapping places such as wells and schools. The level of cruelty, terror and fear that the children have suffered through is extreme. Many have seen cadavres and often much worse including decapitated bodies of other children.

The repression has been going on actively for the past ten years as Albanian activities were severely limited by the Serbs. Secondary schools were closed to Albanian children resulting in private home schooling. Albanian men traveling outside the country for work (Germany, Austria, Switzerland…) were not allowed to reenter the country. References were made to Albanians being unable to farm their land although I did not get more information on that score. References were also made to restrictions on use of Albanian language and celebration of religion but I do not have accurate information. I was told that wearing the traditional white Albanian felt hat was asking for serious trouble.

The country is a United Nations/military protectorate and KFOR(NATO) tanks, lorries, soldiers and conveys are present everywhere , in the towns and highways with checkpoints all over. Curfew is in effect from midnight to daylight. Some of the Italian soldiers wear feathers on their helmets, the German army seemed obsessed with washing their trucks, jeeps and tanks. Travel on the highways is slow due to numerous potholes on many sections requiring extensive zigzag piloting skills. There are no police, many cars have no license plates, many underage and unlicensed drivers leading to some concern for traffic safety. Probably a good thing that no-one is fixing the potholes.

There is no intercountry or international telephone service nor any postal offices or services. The only form of communication is satellite telephones although word was that mobile phones were working again in the Pristina area.

My visit occured during a window of time when the Kosovars feel empowered. The political realities are not simple and it remains unclear if Kosovo will become an independant Kosova or remain part of Yugoslavia/Serbia, if Kosovar-Serbs will return and how the relations between Albanians and Serbs can or cannot improve. While I was there, the Yugoslavian Dinar (currency unit) was officially decomissioned leaving only the DeutchMark (german currency) as legal tender. Nothing dramatic is likely to occur before the elections planned for next April.

The Mission

The expedition was divided into two sections reflecting that PSF is cooperating on two projects in Kosova, one with Save the Children in Prizren, and the other with MSF-Spain in Gjakova. The first 8 days were spent in Prizren followed by 12 in Gjakova. The project in Prizren focused on bringing shows to various areas and incorporating mine awareness sketches into the performances The project in Gjakova with MSF is focused on relieving post traumatic stress in children as part of MSFÇs mental health project. The six month program involves two occupational therapists from PSF(Salvador and Nina) working within the MSF structure to use all forms of occupational and art therapy to help the children work through their fear, hatred, anger and other resulting wounds. 4 groups of clowns will visit Gjakova and perform in schools and areas where the program is in action and will offer workshops within each groups abilities. I was the first clown to visit Gjakova as part of this program. Pepe Viguela a great clown from Madrid, who does routines with a guitar, a chair and a stepladder, came to Kosova a week after myself and arrived in Prizren just before I left for Gjakova and then showed up in Gjakova a few days before I left for home. In that short time, we were able to perform four shows together, two in Prizren and two in Gjakova, which was great fun.

Personal Report

Kosova had to be the most demanding conflict zone that I have visited, and much more intense once centered in Gjakova. The first segment in Prizren involved much travel to perform in different parts of Kosova. We often traveled in the Payasos Sense Fronteras truck (RichardÇs lorrie that has been painted with PSF logos) that had traveled from Barcelona originally to the refugee camps in Albania. Both Richard, an English Circus artist (trapeze, acrobatics) and Paco, PSF logistician, had been working together first in Albania and then in Kosova for the past two and a half months. Together we worked hard all week under extreme heat wave conditions to the joy of many people. Certain shows bordered on complete chaos due to the extreme excitement of the kids. Other shows were warm and tender. When we traveled to the inauguration of several ‘safe areas’, schoolyards generally that had been demined, we were part of a ceremony that included incredibly fervent speeches by kids full of words like massacra and victima followed by strong patriotic singing. The security measure given to me the first night was ‘asphalt’ and for three weeks beautiful rolling hills and the steep inclines of Albanian mountains beckoned but remained off limits. Prizren however was safe and in town life seemed quasi normal and the small oldtown was very full of young adults in the evening bars , cafes and the streets full of conversation.

Gjakova provided a very different experience as the MSF office and house, an oasis, was right in the destroyed old town. The destroyed rubble had been cleared out of the houses and all that remained standing were the side and back walls of the structures, rows of once white walls lining the streets. Blackened holes where windows once lived constantly punctuated the landscape. On market day, Monday, some of the merchants returned setting up tables in front of their shops and selling. This was a great contrast to Prizren which was bustling on market days and all the stores on the main street were full of merchandise for sale with displays and mannequins set up on the sidewalks. Working under the umbrella of the Medicos sin Fronteras(Spain) was a very different experience from the usual PSF expedition as MSF is very well equipped. A fleet of 6 Toyota land cruiser and other 4 wheel drive vehicles, plus a local staff of drivers, secretaries and translators to support the ‘team’ of seven. Everyone uses big fat walkie talkies, radios, with a 20-40-kilometer range to keep in touch. I was driven to all my gigs and called on the radio to get a ride back. As opposed to the week in Prizren, while in Gjakova I never left the city. The work in Gjakova (pop. 40 000) proved very fullfilling and demanding. The shows were in the elementary schools that were yet to be in session. Therefore annoncements were placed on the local radio to tell where the shows would be taking place. In some schools I played for maybe 100 kids whereas others I would be overwhelmed by 300-400 kids. My last show in Kosova was a show at the municipal theatre with Pepe. It was free to the public and standing room only (605 capacity) . The show was very lively and well received despite being mobbed on stage by kids just as the show closed with Pepe and I singing my “Going down the Road” song at double time rocker speed with Ukulele and Guitar. (Pepe by this time had lost one string to his guitar and was unable to find a replacement string in Kosova.)

Hospital Visits

The visits to the Gjakova Hospital as Dr Yoowho were greeted with great enthusiasm by both hospital staff and patients. Regular visits were established every other day during my presence in Gjakova. Dr. Yoowho visited both the pediatrics ward and the rehabilitation clinic. In pediatrics, I did performances in an open space with the children sitting on nice little wooden chairs and relatives and nurses created a circular standing audience. Pepe Viguela accompanied me one time and together we created a wonderful show for a large group of patients, parents and nurses. After the show I would then conduct room visits to both the small two person rooms as well as the larger eight bed units, focusing on the rooms with mothers and younger sick children. I also visited the rehabilitation clinic with both mine victims and broken limb type patients. The children and adult patients were in mixed rooms, 4 to a room thus I found himself working with both several young kids and several young men with revolutionary clothing hanging on the chairs by their beds. The situation worked rather well although the last day an agressive new male patient with a foot amputation (mine) made the energy on the edge and slightly threatening. I slipped in occasional side conversations of non-verbal nature to the men to indicate that the purpose of his visit were for the children . Aside from the show elemet of the visits, Bubbles, music and magic were the big successes. Due to the depleted physical condition of the hospital( the Serbs stole most medical equipement and destroyed the rest), the clown doctor visits seemed essential to the mental health of the young patients. There was no apparent child-life program established at the hospital. Note that due to severe shortage of any hospital equipement, some typical clown doctor material was elimated ( such as blowing up latex gloves).

Workshops

As part of the mental health program established between Payasos Sense Fronteras and MSF-Spain, I cooperated with occupational therapist Salvador, and created a series of workshops designed to relieve post-traumatic stress and work with children in mental health prevention. The focus of the work was a combination of Qi-Gong style exercises, corporeal mime work, and clown movement expression exercises developed by Moshe. The work was first taught to the teachers in a series of early evening sessions in the MSFoffice/house garden. The work stressed developing safe methods to express some of the difficult emotions resulting from the conflict with both physical and verbal expression. Mime techniques were taught to allow teachers to conduct storytelling sessions with the children. The program emphasized physical balance and with the Qi-Gong, a sense of harmony. I began and ended the sessions with circle rituals. The teachers and Moshe then cooperated to teach three sessions to the children at one school on the large outside playground. The children were eager and fully engaged in the workshop. The sound of 120 children being wolves howling at the moon brought many neighbors running to peer over the school fence to see what was happening. The teachers expressed the opinion that this work was very important and directly touched the children.

Conclusion

The presence of clowns in Kosova was, is and will be an asset to generating a positive environement for the children and their parents. The longterm project in Gjakova, the first in PSF history, is a very strong new direction for PSF in finding ways to relieve the psychological tensions that stem from conflict. One wonders when and if humanity will ever find a way to create harmony on the planet. For the moment it seems like a farfetched dream. Yet I have no doubt that pushing toward light and laughter remains the best pathway available, bringing humor to the forefront of the moment.

Moshe Cohen

Clowns Without Borders

4/18/2014