Bridging Balkan Rapids

Of all the things a war-ravaged country needs, theater isn’t high on many lists. But in a Bosnian town, theater is re-forging links, re-membering a dismembered community, and helping youth play again.
faruk kaymak.jpg

Image by Faruk Kaymak / Unsplash

Of all the things a war-ravaged country needs, theater isn’t high on many lists. But in a Bosnian town, theater is re-forging links, re-membering a dismembered community, and helping youth play again

In the Bosnian city of Mostar, the Stari Most (old bridge), a 500-year-old stone structure arching over the Neretva River, once united the older, Muslim east side and the newer, more ethnically mixed western areas of the city, and the people who inhabited both. This union ended 10 years ago. After fighting together against the Bosnian Serb army in 1992, the Croatian Defense Council turned against Bosnian Muslims, beginning a campaign to divide the city through eviction, deportation, and murder that was completed in late 1993 with the destruction of the Stari Most.

As the bridge collapsed, so too did marriages, friendships, and families. Teenagers in particular suffered difficult choices, sometimes having to move in with one parent or another, fight on the front line against former friends, and witness death. In this desperately intimate war, violent divisions between neighbors were suddenly erected upon distorted history. These divisions had particular personal resonance for me. I had grown up visiting my father’s family in Croatia, but had not returned to the country since 1986 because of the increasing conflict in the region. I stepped back into the Balkans in 1995, back into my grandparents’ musty apartment in Croatia, forging a link to my past through a dismembered present.

Standing in the decaying backyard of my recently deceased grandfather’s home, amongst the rotting plum and cherry trees, so much seemed suddenly past in the suddenly former Yugoslavia. As I walked across the new make-shift wooden bridge swaying high over the rushing Neretva River, the ruins created by a multi-fronted war seemed beyond reconstruction. Yet I returned again and again, drawn by a possibility and a question: could theater help to re-member the Balkans? The country had been so rapidly dismembered, its people cut off from each other and from the recollection of a more unified past. Could performance suture this past, unsupress history, even stitch together people’s memories?

The idea seemed ludicrous to my father, who—though he had lived in the United States since 1960—maintained a bluff authority about what Balkan people did and did not need. Topping the list of Things Balkan Youth Clearly Did Not Need was theater. But I had a different view. I had just completed a residency in Watts, Los Angeles, with the community-based Cornerstone Theater, a company dedicated to the art of bridge building. I had seen the ludicrous succeed in a city riven by economic divisions, where African-American and Latino residents overcame their suspicions of each other to create theater together.

Theater of Reconciliation

As in Watts, theater in Bosnia offered a site of reconciliation and bridge building, a place to overcome fears of what had so recently been named “the other side.” In 1995 Cornerstone’s choreographer Sabrina Peck and I developed a collaborative piece with Bosnian and Croatian youth in a refugee camp. I grew obsessed with the Balkans, attending lectures, joining Students Against Genocide, and roaming the web for resources or information about theater in the region. That’s how I met Scot McElvany, who became my artistic partner.

McElvany had arrived in Mostar as a volunteer youth worker in 1996, only a few years after the city’s disastrous division. Over the course of the year, he developed a series of theater projects, many supported by the youth center where he worked, aptly named Mladi Most (Youth Bridge). The center tried to bridge differences among youth of various religious affiliations within the city. Mladi Most functioned as a safe house for youth who had been friends until the war had suddenly placed them on opposite sides of a violent divide. That summer of 1996, Mladi Most collaborated with a German youth organization to create a theater camp outside of the city, designed to provide further opportunities for Mostarians to intermingle in a safe space and to expose German teens to the reality of the Balkan war.

Unlike the Mostarians, the German youth had paid to attend the camp. Most had heard of the war only through newspapers and television, and a rift between the groups emerged. (Both sides complained that the other was completely incapable of making decent coffee.) Some of the Mostarian participants were initially skeptical about the theater project, and stood with arms crossed as they watched an early performance, developed mostly with the German youth in the camp.

Then McElvany initiated a second performance with visiting UN peacekeeping soldiers on the theme of waiting. The refugee camps and the peacekeeping forces had this in common: both spent most of their time in lengthy and tedious waiting. Waiting for the war to end. Waiting to return home. As the work delved into complex issues of the past several years, the skeptical Mostarians’ arms began to uncross; then a few Mostar teens approached McElvany about creating a project of their own. One of the first was Supa, a Bosnian Serb who had wanted nothing to do with theater-making.

“We like what you’re doing, and we want to show we’re involved too,” he said, after watching the performance. “We want you to help us make something of our experiences in the war.”

It was McElvany’s turn for skepticism. Having worked for several months at Mladi Most, watching teens surfeit on pirated Sylvester Stallone movies, he worried about creating a testosterone-fueled action theater that ignored the complex impacts of the war. Typically, youth at the center would either avoid memories of the war or transform moments of violence into scenarios featuring themselves as braggart heroes. So McElvany proceeded cautiously, with exercises that approached the war through daily experience rather than moments of intense threat.

McElvany invited participants to think of questions they had asked themselves during the war. Participants combined the questions with an exercise in which they used water to mime simple daily activities.

Supa crouched down over the water bowl and slapped water to his face in the gesture of smoking. He looked up, paused, and asked, “Why did I lose my brother . . . do you know why?” No one moved for several moments. Then Ersan, a Bosnian Croat now living on the west side of Mostar, rose, threw water in the air as a soccer ball, kicking it angrily, and bellowed, “Why do I live here?” A charged stillness reigned as Ersan sat down and murmured that he couldn’t continue. Here suddenly the teens were asking explosive questions, closing in on the pain and rage of the war.

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McElvany stopped the workshop. In a reversal of the common rhetoric of community–based theater, the participants had to empower the facilitator. Ersan looked to Supa, the acknowledged leader of the group. With a nod from Supa, and reflection amongst themselves, the youth decided they wanted to continue. “This is the only way we’re going to do this together,” insisted Supa.

In the Basement

Over the course of several days, the group developed their performance. Called Podrum (Basement), the piece depicted the dual senses of confinement and comfort offered by the basements to which Mostarians retreated during the shelling of their city. In a final scene, Hajdi, a Bosnian Muslim living on the city’s west side, told of her time in the basement:

“During the shelling of the town, we had been sitting in the basement and we hadn’t seen a single spot of light in the dark of the war. We heard only screams, grenades, and crying. One of my friends took out a guitar and started to play, and we sang so loud that we did not hear the noise, grenades, screams.” She then turned to the rest of the actors, huddled together in a circle, and together they sang a song popular during the war, Volim Te (I Love You), just as the frightened teenagers had done in that crowded basement.

After the group performed the piece, the German youth stood in stunned silence, feeling for the first time something of the Mostarians’ experience of the war. Then Supa gathered the spectators and participants together for a group “howl” in peace. Something had broken through. The Germans and Mostarians stayed up late into the evening, sharing songs and talking far into the evening, even drinking each other’s coffee.

The Podrum cast’s next challenge arrived quickly, in the form of an invitation to perform the piece back in Mostar at an international youth theater festival. Within the camp, far away from Mostar, Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim), Serb, and Croatian youth could work together as Mostarians. But the city itself had no neutral space. The festival would take place on Mostar’s east, “Muslim” side. The non-Muslims in the group, who rarely crossed into this side of the city, were afraid to traverse the bridge from the West. The group pondered together their fears. Many had been beaten up or verbally abused for crossing sides. After the war, when a group of Muslims marched to a west-side graveyard in a parade of mourning, Croatian soldiers shot marchers in the back and riots broke out in the city. Even venturing next door could be dangerous; one Mladi Most worker, a Muslim woman, was attacked and dragged by the hair when she entered her neighbor’s yard to retrieve a soccer ball. But Ersan announced that he would perform, and most of the others followed.

The group returned to Mostar to present Podrum in the broken remains of the bombed-out Hotel Ruza. Once an opulent tourist destination, its shell stood as a reminder of the city’s devastation. Podrum played inside this broken shell, subverting its symbolism of decay and fragmentation, turning it instead into a site of unity. For the first time in four years, a group from both east and west Mostar performed together publicly.

What did it mean for these traumatized youth to create these performances together? For Arijana, it was a chance to turn away from fear. But the strongest testimonial came from Mesha Begic, a self-described Bosnian Muslim atheist who performed with us in several shows and who risked his life to participate in a workshop with us in the Serbian Republic of Bosnia. After participating in workshops throughout Bosnia, Mesha reflected, “You wanted us to improvise and be free. I didn’t get it until the very end. I was too much in the borders. You wanted us to play with the people around us. I guess that’s theatre.”

Back in Mostar, which remains divided despite plans to rebuild the Stari Most, youth continue to reconstruct their personal relationships and to perform together. Towards the end of one play, the Bosnian Croat and Bosniak performers turned to the audience to repeat a line introduced earlier in the play. “It’s true that the city is being reconstructed. But bridges, buildings, and parks never made a city. What made it was the people living in it.” Ludicrous though the task may initially have seemed, the art of bridge building in Mostar succeeded in part because of its ludic nature, its playfulness. It is an art that continues to help re-member Bosnia.


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