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"Balkan performances prompt discussions about past atrocities" - Mott Foundation

After performances, actress Thembi Mtshali-Jones joined fellow cast and crew members in informal discussions with the audiences. But the “Talk Backs” in the Western Balkans were markedly different from those held in other countries.

“Here, everybody is suffering on their own,” Mtshali-Jones said. “Nobody is talking with anybody else about what has happened. Victims are not even talking with other victims.”

As an award-winning actress, playwrite and singer, Mtshali-Jones was one of two dozen people who traveled throughout the Western Balkans on tour with the widely acclaimed Truth in Translation project; the five-week tour ended in Sarajevo on Oct. 20.

The group has performed in four countries—Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo and Serbia—where buildings are still physically scarred with bullet holes, and lives remain emotionally scarred with pain from the violent conflicts of the 1990s.

Recent conflicts in the Western Balkans

A musical drama, the production is based on the lives of those who heard horrific testimonies of torture and murder while working as translators in the mid-to late-1990s for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Although the performances includes graphic descriptions of physical abuses committed during the nation’s apartheid era, audiences in other post-conflict countries—Northern Ireland, Rwanda and Zimbabwe—have also connected with the show’s powerful content, Mtshali-Jones said.

In the Western Balkans, the response has surpassed all expectations, she said. Residents of rural villages and major cities flocked to the production and stayed afterward to participate in lively discussions. Audiences have included hundreds of high school and university students, elected officials, embassy personnel, plus local citizens – those who stayed during the war and those who have returned since its end.

While each performance was a bit different because of the varied venues in the region, Mtshali-Jones said, the show that stands out most was an outdoors performance on the banks of the Neretva River in Mostar. Known as “the most divided city in Bosnia,” Mostar drew patrons from sidewalk cafes, couples out for evening walks, and young adults curious about all the commotion.

Separated by a bridge that was built to replace a historic one destroyed in the war, Croats (predominantly Catholics) watched from one side, and Bosniaks (predominantly Muslims) from the other. During the show, the actors’ dialogue was translated from English to the local languages and projected on the sides of the bridge, along with huge projections of the actors so those without a direct view of the stage could also see the show.

Near the end of the first half, Mtshali-Jones sang a song as Mrs. Mtimkhulu, a mother consumed with anger and pain after discovering her son was murdered.

“There has been a lot of feedback here in the Balkans to that song because it touches people. It evokes a lot of sad experiences because some of the people they love are dead; some are still missing,” said Mtshali-Jones, a 59-year-old South African mother and grandmother.

One of Truth in Translation’s producers, Yvette Hardie, said all eyes were glued to the stage when Mrs. Mtimkhulu was asked if she could forgive those who killed her son.

“When she replied, ‘not today,’ her answer resonated with the audience. It gave them hope. While it might not be today, forgiveness is possible. It was as if the crowd really needed to hear what she would say.”

Allowing time for responses through “Talk Backs”

In addition to “Talk Back” sessions, the cast and crew held workshops so they could meet the local people and hear their personal stories, Hardie said.

The discussions that accompanied the shows were viewed as physically and emotionally safe places for people of different backgrounds to be together, she said. As unlikely as it sounds, in some places, it was the first time that many of them had interacted with “the enemy” since the war officially ended 18 years ago.

Several countries in the region were involved in the armed conflict from 1992 to 1995. They included Bosnia, Croatia, and the then-Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (known today as the countries of Serbia and Montenegro). Researchers estimate that between 100,000 and 110,000 people died as a result of the war and 1.8 million were displaced.

“At the start of the workshops, people sat divided; at the end of some workshops people started crossing the room to meet those from the other side. We saw human-to-human interactions,” Hardie said.

For her, the questions asked were often as telling as statements made, even if the questions were the same ones posed by cast members earlier. The questions seemed to gain intensity when asked by audience members, such as the one repeated by a young Serbian man.

He asked: “Is there really any way you can see someone without their history – without seeing them as coming from a particular group but just as a person?”

Those are the kinds of breakthroughs the cast and crew hope for, Hardie said.

The same is true for the play’s creator/director, Michael Lessac, who always intended to bring “Truth in Translation” to the Western Balkans, but he didn’t want to do it until the timing was right, she said.

Region “ripe” to view performances

In early 2008, Lessac and Walter Veirs, regional director of the Mott Foundation’s Central/Eastern Europe and Russia program, toured the area and talked with leaders of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) who regularly address human rights and justice issues.

“We didn’t want the performance to be done in isolation, but to be tied in with the broader cultural context, and what’s happening locally on issues of transitional justice. We wanted it to relate to dealing with the past – issues of truth telling, justice and empowerment for victims, and documentation of past crimes in the region,” Veirs said.

Discussions also included leaders of the dramatic arts community whose goal is to use their medium for social change, he said, adding that those conversations wouldn’t have been possible without the help of local NGOs, including Mott grantees, who organized workshops, provided logistical support, and identified target audiences.

Since 2006, the Foundation has provided three grants totaling $329,820 to make it possible for “Truth in Translation” tours throughout South Africa and also several cities in the U.S., including Mott’s home community of Flint, Michigan. Additionally, the Foundation made two grants totaling $420,000 to help support the Balkans tour through the Transitional Justice Issue Area of the Civil Society program. Some of the latter funds were used to pay transportation costs to bus young adults and others to the performances, Veirs said.

Mott funding partners for the Balkans tour include: Balkan Trust for Democracy; Humanity United; King Baudouin Foundation; Oak Foundation; Robert Bosch Foundation, and Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

Veirs said: “People in the Balkans are familiar with the concept of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but the personal experiences of South Africans is perhaps not as well known,” he said.

“One of the strengths of the play is that it makes space for audiences to talk with the actors afterward. They are South Africans—real people who had to come to grips with the horrible things that happened in their society. Consequently, the play connects with audiences on a human level, which makes it so powerful.”