This is a story about a journey across three decades, about a country on the borders of Europe that no longer exists, and about what (if anything at all) was learned along the way.
“We are all neighbours. But we are all different” they said.
I first travelled to the Balkans in 1988. That was the year that for us school wasn’t just out for summer, it was out forever. I remember the freedom, the endless sunshine, the cheap beer…and the exoticism of travel through the Communist bloc, when the Cold War was yet to thaw and the Berlin Wall was still very much intact. Of all the countries we travelled through, Yugoslavia didn’t fit my sixth-form stereotype of Eastern Europe. It seemed stylish and Mediterranean, a seemingly harmonious and cosmopolitan mix of cultures: the perfect backdrop, in other words, for turning 18.
Three years later, we watched the news as Yugoslavia disintegrated before our very eyes. Front-page images of tank battles, civilian bombardment and sniper fire, mass incarceration, torture and execution felt utterly anachronistic: how had the clock been turned so far back? By then, I was at University. I found what I saw on television impossible to reconcile with the memories of my first summer in the Balkans only a few years before.
Of course, we now have some explanations for the origins of mainland Europe’s bloodiest and brutal conflict since World War Two, with nationalism and populism shattering the compromises, unleashing decades of resentment and bitterness. The rest of Europe – and the international community as a whole – couldn’t prevent the bloodshed. Instead, it tried to deal with the aftermath by sending in peacekeepers and administrators, setting up courts to prosecute a few handfuls of war criminals.
And so I returned, 15 years after my idyllic first Yugoslavian summer. The fighting had finished but many of the buildings were still in rubble and the hatred still raw. I had been hired as a war crimes prosecutor for the United Nations in Kosovo, the job description specifying how I was expected to ‘conduct investigations and prosecutions into serious criminal cases of genocide, war crimes, organised crimes etc., to provide legal support and advice, to develop international human rights standards and to establish the rule of law in Kosovo.’
There was always some part of every day of the 14 months I lived there when I felt as though I’d accidentally walked through the wrong door and ended up on stage in front of a packed house, in an unfamiliar play, the lines of which I didn’t know.
2018 is the 100th anniversary of the founding of Yugoslavia: it’s also the 30th anniversary of my first visit back in 1988. Re-reading my diaries of the time in Kosovo, looking at all my old photographs, I’m left with more questions than answers.
What does it mean to be different? Does a strong identity inevitably lead to conflict? How do we connect with people that (we think) are not like us?
Black Birds / Blue Helmets is a reflection on these and other questions of identity and conflict – and how the passage of time alters our interpretation of experiences imperfectly remembered.
See it at Marchland Season on:
- Tuesday 20th February at 1:15pm http://marchlandseason.co.uk/calendar/alex-bates-matinee/2018-02-20/ & 7:30pm http://marchlandseason.co.uk/calendar/blackbirds-and-blue-helmets-and-fran-and-flora/
- Wednesday 21st February at 1:15pm http://marchlandseason.co.uk/calendar/alex-bates-matinee/2018-02-21/