Performers make peace in war zone

By on June 1, 1999

Entertainer Eric Nagler takes his music to children in the Balkans on a tour to help them deal with the trauma of war.

IN THE BALKANS, instru ments of war have been demolishing neighbourhoods, friendships, livelihoods and families – soaking the soil in blood and the people in grief and fear. But there are those, with instruments of their own, who choose to engage in another kind of activity: peacemaking.

Imagine the scene: Fifty Kosovar refugees in a room, from toddlers to grandparents, trying to sing a children’s song called Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens. The 50 people speak Albanian. One translator speaks Albanian and Bosnian. Another translator speaks Bosnian and English. It’s mayhem until they get to the refrain in another language altogether: chicken squawks.

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“It was great,” said Canadian children’s singer Eric Nagler. “Everyone got the joke. Everyone laughed and clucked. These people live in very poor conditions. They have food, shelter and clothing, but nothing to do. They are cut off from society. But for a brief moment, they forgot about the war and remembered how to have fun again. It’s a way of saying to them, ?you’re still part of the human race.'”

With the tools of his musical trade, Nagler joined forces with Philip John Kuntz’s Roots & Wings Company on a one-month tour of Bosnia in April called Day of Joy. Together they worked with World Vision’s Creative Activities in Trauma Healing teams in schools and community centres around Bosnia, singing, entertaining, showing movies and laughing with children who have very little to laugh about.

Roots & Wings Company is a Toronto-based, action-oriented think-tank of artists committed to exploring creative arts in public service. The group formed in 1997 and toured Bosnia that November.

With a troupe of eight, including three members of Montreal’s Clouns Sans Frontiere, they reached more than 4,000 Bosnian school children and their families living in isolated, war-ravaged villages. The Bosnian Mental Health Authorities identified the majority of the children as trauma victims.

The aim of the tours is to promote co-operation and begin breaking down the emotional and psychological barriers people erect when they live in a chronic war zone. The hope is to open “windows to the world” for children, so they can see what they have in common with others, rather than what divides them.

“Children are the same everywhere,” said Mr. Kuntz. “They adapt to whatever environment they’re in. We want to catch them early and provide them with new, positive and exciting experiences that will help them heal and provide them with building blocks for a peaceful future.”

This year’s tour, funded by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, was designed to bring people together – Croats, Bosnians, Serbs and Muslims – for a day of joy and music making.

The entourage also brought with them more than $75,000 of video equipment, donated by Century AV of Mississauga, Ont., bringing giant screen video to communities largely cut off from this form of media. Films such as Dinner for Two, Neighbours, The Cat Came Back and Fantasia brought a world of wonder and the message of co-operation to eager eyes.

Plans for the tour began before the NATO bombing started March 24, but visits to centres where Kosovar refugees had gathered in Bosnia were added as the opportunity arose.

One stop on the tour was a school near Tuzla, where more than 400 children were separated into two buildings – one for Croats, the other for Muslims.

“These two sides of the school never mixed,” recalls Mr. Nagler, “so we set up in the courtyard between the two buildings and started playing. You could see the look of horror on the faces of the teachers and parents as this started happening, but the kids were amazing. They just joined in and started singing. You could see it in their faces – they were thrilled. And you couldn’t tell them apart once they were all together. It was magnificent – a very fulfilling experience.”

Mr. Nagler calls it active peacemaking. He laments at the disparity between the tour’s shoestring budget and the billions spent on armies and armaments in the Balkans. “Imagine what could happen if all that money was spent on conflict resolution.”

Roots & Wings connected with World Vision’s Creative Activities in Trauma Healing teams to work in Bosnia. These teams have been working in more than 60 primary schools in Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zenica and Gorazde since 1996, providing psychological and social support to children and their families suffering from the scars of the wars they have survived.

The program focuses on children who lost one or both parents, became refugees, or who experienced the violence of war.

Sometimes the wounds are obvious. In a schoolyard full of kids, it’s not uncommon to see a child missing an arm or a leg. But for the most part, the wounds are hidden deeper. Some children have difficulty concentrating in school; some can’t learn how to communicate with others or interact properly with their environment; others have behavioural problems. Many of the traumatized children are sidelined by peers and considered “crazy.”

Each trauma healing team has four members who specialize in a different area of therapy: art, sports, music, and drama. They are in schools every day working with traumatized children, providing them with tools that help them deal with their wounds. Teachers and parents attend workshops held on the weekends.

Through songs, games, drawing, dance and theatre, the healing teams raise issues associated with war in ways that children can understand. And the children learn to express their feelings so that they, in turn, can be understood.

In one exercise, children in a group are given pieces of paper and instructed to start drawing whatever they like. Not long into this, the children are told to stop and pass their picture on to the next person, who continues the drawing. This happens a number of times until the drawings are complete, compilations of a number of hands. The children are encouraged to talk about how they felt when they had to give away their work and what it felt like to add to someone else’s drawing. Then they look at the end result to see what they accomplished when they worked together.

Activities that bring children together like this are the stepping stones out of a childhood marked by fear and loss.

“The idea,” says Mirza Topic of World Vision Bosnia, “is to provide children who have gone through the hell of war with better experiences on which to build their lives. These kids are going to be running our country in 30 years. They need to learn how to express themselves in positive and peaceful ways. Through the CATH teams we are hoping to give children positive energy to replace their fear and anger.”

The recurring theme between Eric Nagler, Philip John Kuntz, the trauma healing teams and people on the front lines of the current refugee crisis in Kosovo is this: we are all the same.

The ethnic Albanians who streamed out of Kosovo lived in once-proud homes, went to school and university, ate well, and drove cars – just like us. They were once doctors or lawyers or teachers or mechanics. Their pride and dignity were stripped away, like their license plates, at the border.

Now the vast majority of the estimated 1.2 million people uprooted by the conflict in Kosovo are living in refugee centres. Beyond their need for the basics – food, shelter and clothing – their greatest plague is boredom and a sense of uselessness. Just like us, they want to live in peace in a place they call home.

Against all odds and because we are all the same, Roots & Wings, Eric Nagler, the healing teams and thousands of other people working for governmental and non-governmental organizations in the Balkans believe that it is possible to make peace, even in the fields of war.

Ellen Ericson Kupp is managing editor of publications at World Vision Canada, based in Mississauga, Ont. She recently returned from a trip to the Balkans with WVC.

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