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An Albanian Tale
by Roland Sidler

Expressive arts, such as theatre, are a highly effective form of communicating key messages to the young and old alike.

Crossing the Land of Eagles is not an easy undertaking. The landmines planted in the region of Albania bordering Kosovo and Macedonia are an ever-present danger both to travellers and to the local population. Roland Sidler of the ICRC accompanied an unusual troupe of actors on their journey through these parts. Here is his account.

Ido not know if you are like me, but each time I travel I like to establish reference points. It makes me feel more secure. Albania is no exception. More precisely, the region I am going to is in the north-east of the country which, from 1945 until the fall of the communist regime of Enver Hodja ten years ago, remained completely cut off from the outside world. I feel instantly at home. Here, the countryside resembles that of the French Haute-Savoie where I live between missions, and the Franches-Montagnes of my native Jura. The ICRC Landcruiser traverses wild gorges carved by raging torrents. The rocky walls, still bearing the last vestiges of snow, throw misshapen shadows onto the verdant pastures. The small, cobalt-blue mountain lakes reflect the majesty of the age-old trees and towering evergreens. I heave a big sigh: the terrors of civilization are behind me. I have no desire to return. Ahead in the distance, we spot the corrugated iron roofs and grey tiles of Novocey, an isolated hamlet situated a half-hour's drive from the regional capital of Kukes. There my journey ends. I park the car on a verge between two piles of manure. It would be hard to do otherwise. There is one in front of every ramshackle house. The chickens and birds live off them, as they do back home.

Spillover from Kosovo

I am here to film a video documentary about a travelling theatre. The troupe, made up of professional actors from the capital, Tirana, moves from village to village in the area along the border with Kosovo and Macedonia, performing a play inspired by La Fontaine's fables. The aim of the play is to warn the rural population - especially children - of the dangers of the anti-personnel landmines and unexploded ordnance scattered throughout the 120-km-long zone separating Albania from its two neighbours. Although not directly involved in the conflict in Kosovo nor in the Macedonian crisis, Albania has nonetheless suffered the consequences. In order to cut the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) combatants off at the rear, the Yugoslav army rendered the terrain impassable by planting thousands of mines. NATO planes, too, polluted the border area by dropping fragmentation bombs.

In these villages, there is hardly a family that cannot claim at least one landmine victim. At best, the victim would have lost an eye or a hand, but mostly they end up having a leg amputated. The distance from hospitals and the lack of adequate health facilities do not help. Nor is livestock spared. Dependent mainly on agriculture, the local population has been obliged to restrict the area under cultivation in order to minimize the risk of further incidents. But how do you protect children? You can always try to explain to them the risks of handling unusual objects they may stumble upon in the area, but you cannot stop them running through the fields or taking a new short cut between school and home.

Albanian kids are no different from other children. Adventure beckons and young people aspire to explore their environment and new horizons. Although in Kosovo the demining process is almost completed, similar action has only just begun in Albania and will come to a halt as soon as the first snow falls.

A bear approaches from afar....This game intends to heighten mine awareness among the civilian population.

The moral of the story

With the support of the ICRC and Albanian Red Cross, the travelling theatre aims to meet the challenge of prevention. On a rudimentary stage set up in the school yard, the actors are dressed up as familiar animals. The fox is trying to convince the bear to take a new route to reach the bank of a river where fish abound. Beforehand, he has removed all the signs indicating the presence of landmines. He has his eye on the bear's den and garden and would happily see his rival "accidentally" disappear. But the rabbit and the silkworm get wise to the fox's evil machinations. With the help of the children in the audience, who throw themselves eagerly into the spirit of the show, they try to guide the bear through the minefield to safety. Their mission accomplished, the three "good" animals then try to trap the fox, who believes he has got rid of the bear and is about to take possession of the den, considering it now to be his property. Surrounded, the fox has to admit defeat. Caught as he is in the act, he expects to receive no pity from the bear's friends. Called to witness by the rabbit, who is blessed with good and noble sentiments, the children agree to pardon the fox. But they insist that he promise never again to remove the danger signs for the landmines. The play is over. The actors remove their masks. The children mingle with them amid the adults' applause. The stage props are quickly dismantled and loaded onto a four-wheel-drive vehicle. The next performance will be in three hours, in another village in the region.


A moment of respite

Hardly have I packed away my cameras, tripod, microphones, mini-disc recorder and notepad, than I am grabbed by some of the village elders. There is no question of me sneaking away like this. They have their sense of hospitality to uphold. I am prac-tically frogmarched to the half-open doorway of the hamlet's grandest farmhouse and led indoors. I find myself in a tiny room, barely lit by the daylight seeping through the cracks. A few villagers are installed on old stools. They indicate through sign language that I must join them in a drink to our new friendship.

A few friendly thumps on the shoulder later, I manage to tear myself away from this warm and convivial atmosphere, and from the people who in the company of visitors forget their daily cares. For now, I have to catch up with the theatre troupe, already on its way to its next performance.


Roland Sidler
Roland Sidler is ICRC's audio-visual press officer based in Geneva.

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