Un-Earth . A Theatre Production in Birmingham
Unearthing the horrors of war July 16th 2004
The seeds of Un-Earth were planted years ago and lie in witness testimonies to the horrors of Bosnia and the role of Birmingham in offering refugees asylum. Mac-Productions joined forces with Birmingham-based theatre group ‘The Restrictionists’ to combine the two and develop a large-scale community project. First they put the call out for people who had escaped the horrors of Bosnia and moved to Birmingham to tell their stories. Once these tales were collected they were developed into a show which featured more than 150 professionals, community actors, and children from local schools.
“There are four strands to the story,” says development director Graeme Rose. “There is the mother’s story, inspired by a Bosnian woman in Edgbaston, a soldier’s story from a UN peacekeeper who lives in Smethwick, a journalist’s story which we developed from talking to BBC journalist Nick Thorpe and the Good Serb.
“We have actors aged from nine to 64 and while some of them have quite extensive experience of acting, others have never done anything like this before.”
And the show will also directly involve the audience as it takes place at different locations in and around mac, the Cannon Hill Park Arts Centre.
“We are using spaces that mac audiences are not used to seeing and moving around so it is very much an experiential piece,” says Graeme.
“We are creating a piece which operates on many different levels. We want it to be exciting, disturbing, scary but also beautiful. It is a very relevant aspect of the whole experience that we also look at what is happening in Bosnia now.
“There are survivors spread across the world but many of them are missing loved ones. There is a project going on in Bosnia to try to link these survivors with remains of the 8,000 missing people. It is a long and difficult process but it allows people the chance of reconciliation with the past and with themselves.”
Our early research for Un-Earth centered around the testimonies of individuals who had lived or worked in the former Yugoslavia during times of War, but who are now living in Birmingham.
We are enormously grateful to the contributions made by everyone who helped us in our research. Below are brief thumbnail sketches of some of the extraordinary men and women who survived to tell their stories.
Case study One – Milenko
As a young man forced to flee his village in Croatia in 1941 after Nazi-sponsored militia murdered neighbouring peasants. As a Royalist Serb fought against Axis troops during World War Two and then the advancing Communist armies (of Stalin and Tito). Made to dig his own grave at gunpoint. Then released. Taken as a P.O.W. to Italy, then England, where he was placed in a labour camp after the War.
Many fellow soldiers who returned to Yugoslavia were executed. His father was imprisoned for 10 yrs for being ‘a Capitalist’. In England became an Orthodox priest. Established the Community and Church of St. Lazarica here in Birmingham, which he and the community built, using materials imported from Yugoslavia. Has not returned since 1947.
Listen to Milenko’s memories of 1941 (mp3 file, 675kb)
Case study 2 – Mirsad
13 years old when the War broke out in Kozarac, northern Bosnia. Retreating Bosnian Serb militia murdered many of his villagers and relatives. Almost overnight, he and his school friends were separated by a policy of ethnic segregation.
From that moment onwards his community was destroyed. He and his family spent time in a concentration camp and a number of relatives were murdered, whilst he himself was tortured by a man he had previously respected as his teacher.
Mirsad’s family were flown to England, where they have lived ever since.
Case study Three – Semsa
When Semsa’s husband was critically injured by a sniper’s bullet, she and her two daughters were rushed to Sarajevo airport to see him evacuated for medical attention little knowing that they themselves would be hurried onto the military plane and flown to Germany, later Birmingham. They had no possessions or money with them. For over two years Sarajevo had been under siege from Bosnian Serb snipers and artillery.
She had been separated from her young daughter, her sister-in-law killed in a grenade attack and her brother and father ‘disappeared’ from the family home, their bodies still not recovered ten years on.
Himzo owes his life to the 12-month medical attention he received at Heartlands hospital. Semsa would like to return, but her family and their history was wiped out by the aggressors.
Listen as Semsa remembers (mp3, 489kb)
Case study Four – Anthony
British Army soldier, found himself at the age of 23 serving in Bosnia as part of the UN Peacekeeping Force. The memory of what he saw and experienced stays with him nine years after the war ended.
Hear Anthony talk about The Farmhouse (mp3, 481kb)
Refugee’s personal nightmare from Birmingham Post July 16th 2004
Jul 16 2004 Mirsad Solakovic was just 13 years old when he arrived in Birmingham as a refugee from war-torn Bosnia. Bringing little more than the clothes they were standing in, Mirsad and his family were escaping torture and concentration camps. Initially, they saw the visit, organised by the Red Cross, as a short respite in which they could recover from their experiences and go home. But 12 years later they have made Birmingham their home.
Now aged 25, Mirsad is a professional actor who jumped at the chance of being involved with a drama project based on the experiences of Balkan refugees in Birmingham. Un-Earth, which is staged at mac next week, was created using stories from people who found asylum in the city and features professional and community actors alongside Birmingham schoolchildren.
“We came here because we needed urgent medical treatment,” says Mirsad. “When we landed we didn’t know any English and it was all very strange. We thought we would stay about five or six months to recover and then go back.
“We sort of clamped up together. It was very difficult to fit into life here. My family was actually in the Evening Mail at the time talking about our experiences and when you look at the photo you can see the war on our faces.”
But gradually the family did settle. Mirsad was a pupil at Moseley School where teachers encouraged him into drama. Here he found an outlet for his experiences.
“This allowed me to get everything out that was stuck inside,” he says. “You can relive experiences in drama and that allows you to face them. I know people who have not found a way to get these things out and it has destroyed them.”
Mirsad, who lives in Selly Park, studied drama at University and took an MA at Birmingham School of Speech and Drama and now works as an actor while also training as a drama teacher. When he heard about Un-Earth he was keen to take part. Some of his own stories appear in the drama and he is also playing a role – the Good Bosnian Serb Soldier.
“I find this role extremely interesting,” he says. “I always try to question and this makes me remember that there were good Serbs.
“I remember that we were in the concentration camp and we were being separated – the women on one side and the men on the other. My father and I were put with the men. But there was a Serbian man who said we should go with the women. When my father looked up, he knew this man. This saved our lives.”
And Mirsad is hoping Birmingham audiences will fully understand the magnitude of Un-Earth.
“It is trying to find answers and this is heavy stuff,” he says. “I think any Bosnian who came here and watches it will re-live their experiences. But I hope it will make British society question what this all means. It is about hatred, discrimination, sadness, sorrow and revenge, all negative things.
“I think people will ask whether it could happen here. What would my next-door neighbour do? I see people here in this country and I wonder what they would do if they had the opportunity to do these things – would they do it?
“There are people here who are filled with anger and hate and what would they do if they had the opportunity?”
Un-Earth is a new piece of music theatre which draws on stories from the fractured former Yugoslavia – particularly from those who have now made their homes in Birmingham. The material of Un-Earth has been assembled from the interviews and testimonies collected by the BBC journalist Nick Thorpe from people involved with the war in Bosnia and its aftermath. He spoke to men, women, and children who had lived through the siege of Sarajevo and to forensic anthropologists engaged in the identification of the victims of genocide. Many of these people now live in the Midlands.
The play is performed by a large cast of professional actors and singers with 150 people from local communities including an 80-strong choir, at different sites in and around mac. Movement is a key part of this production. The audience is taken to different parts of the building to experience different elements of the survivors’ stories. The audience will be immersed in the atmosphere and emotions created by the stories and an original score inspired by music from the Balkans.
Ewa (Eva) Klonowski is a Polish – Icelandic forensic anthropologist who has worked in Bosnia-Herzegovina since the end of the Bosnian War in 1996. She directs grave excavations and the exhumation of the mortal remains of those victims – mostly civilians who were caught up in the conflict.
The International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP) was set up in 1996 to help survivors of the conflicts trace the whereabouts of their loved ones whose bodies had not been and are yet to be recovered. ICMP statistics suggest that as many as 29,000 persons are still unaccounted for throughout the former Yugoslavia. The majority of those persons are Bosnian and of Bosniak (Muslim) origin (perhaps 90%)
Bosnian Nationals have spread across the globe in the aftermath of the War. For many, the prospect of returning is impossible, either emotionally or economically. Bosnia itself is still reeling from the impact of War, nearly 10 years on. Unemployment is very high and the infrastructure is still being rebuilt.
The shattering of communities, particularly in the more remote rural areas of Serb-administered Bosnia (Republika Srbska), and the separation of family members, means that it has become very difficult to piece together the truth about what happened during the War, or even identifying the remains of those discovered in the mass graves.
A worldwide DNA programme has been developed to try to connect living survivors of the Bosnian genocide (which claimed 250,000 lives – about 1 in 20 of the pre-War population) to the mortal remains located by Eva and her colleagues.
This pioneering programme is helping to develop systems and technology which can be used elsewhere around the world – in Iraq, for example, where it is suggested that a million or more innocent people were ‘disappeared’ by the Saddam Regime.
Further information about the work of the ICMP can be found on http://www.ic-mp.org
In February 2003, a team from Birmingham University, led by prof. John Hunter pioneered new radar technology – as a means of trying to locate
After countless meetings and innumerable forms, we got the funding. Now we had to make it happen.
A script and libretto had to be written, music composed, a team of designers, builders and technicians assembled.
But first, we had to go to Bosnia.
Steve, the director, and Peter the writer had already been to Eastern Europe, meeting journalist Nick Thorpe and listening to his sound archives.
We had begun to talk to people in Birmingham and record their stories: refugees from this and previous conflicts; soldiers and UN observers; now Steve, Graeme and Peter went to the place itself.
We took the night train from Budapest to Sarajevo, crossing three borders where there used to be one. We saw the scarred beauty of Sarajevo, experienced the gut-wrenching reality of the morgue at Tuzla where the unidentified dead are stored; standing among the shelves and shelves of bagged remains, our nostrils and lungs stinging from the stench of death and decomposition.
We watched the meticulous process of reassociation – putting together the skeletons. We talked to forensic anthropologists and people from the ICMP. We drank Sarajevan beer with Bosniaks and Serbs and listened to their jokes – the famous Bosnian sense of humour. All this had to be represented.
We decided to split the play into two halves – then and now. The first half would be set between 1992 and 1995 and deal with the war as it was happening. The second half would be set now, in 2004, and would be concerned with the aftermath of the conflict: the unearthing of the mass graves, the identification of the dead and the effect on the people that were involved.
In the first half, the audience would see the war from the perspectives of 4 characters: a journalist, a woman who lived in the besieged city of Sarajevo, a UN soldier and a Serbian man. In the second half, the same people appear 10 years later along with a forensic anthropologist who is working on the identification process. The effect the war has had and is having on them forms the subject matter of this section.
For part 1 the audience is split into 3 groups who rotate around three different locations. These are: a cellar in a besieged city, outside around the marketplace, inside the theatre where a string quartet is rehearsing. This means that the audience experiences the same events in a different order and piece together the narrative of the war and the individuals depicted for themselves. For the performers, this means that they have to do each section three times. In the second section, the whole audience is brought together in the Arena where the excavation of a mass grave and the identification of the bodies is taking place. This section is performed by the entire cast.
Un-Earth is music theatre based on the experiences of real people. The stories, characters, and incidents depicted are based on the testimonies and anecdotes of people we met.
The libretto has been created to be sung by professional singers and a choir of school children. The resultant theatrical form attempts to fuse realism and imagistic representation. Each location in the first half is linked by the stories of the main characters and a musical and sung form.
In the theatre we see things from the perspectives of Adrian, the journalist:
On the 7th May 1993 hope flickered briefly for the terrorised Moslem population here when they were woken by loud explosions. It was not, however, the American or NATO airstrikes for which many had been praying, it was the sound of the destruction of The Ferhad Pasha Mosque that had stood since 1583. The rubble was then carted away to secret dump sites. History too is being “cleansed”
And also from the perspective of Bica, who is Serbian:
And some history is not so long ago you know? There are people who were alive in 1941, who remember the massacres of Serbs by the Ustashe. You can understand how they can be made afraid of this happening again.
Musically the section contains a pastiche of a Serbian “Turbo-folk” song and a string quartet who are practicing for a concert and swapping war jokes.
The cellar is linked by Alijena her time in the besieged city:
I knew just how much wood it took to boil a cup of water. We’d burn roots and all kinds. Foraging took you up close to them, to the front lines. There were parts of the city where you could hear them singing. And swearing.
The musical element comes from a mother singing to calm the children:
Take me somewhere quiet where the grass has not been bruised
to a place where I can listen to the whisper of a spring.
I need not fear the woodpecker or hide when branches crack
I will drink untainted water
and my sleep will be unbroken
I shall sleep like a lamb in the grass
In the outside world Timpson the UN soldier talks to his driver about the difficulties of being an observer:
I know, I know. And to be fair, I’ve seen blokes with the blood still dripping off them and I’ve felt like cutting their throats. But you can’t. So you take a step back. Keep remembering the mandate: monitor and report, monitor and report. The incidents in this section are punctuated by a song that refers to the appalling events happening throughout the country:
These are not soldiers but thieves
these men who trample on our land.
We shake like leaves to hear them come
shouting curses through the village;
forcing entry to our houses,
bloody footprints on the rug.
Forcing entry on our sisters,
bloody footprints on their wombs.
Piling mothers into trucks
our fathers into graves.
Music runs through the whole of the last section, the unearthing. The stories told by the characters as they try to find their relatives or the answers to their nagging questions are punctuated by the lament of the unidentified dead and the repeated questioning of the choir of school children.
What must we make of this?
Until we are
untangled and identified
they cannot move.
What must we make of this?
Purvin the designer and Vicky the costumier worked with a team of builders and makers to transform areas of mac into a war zone. They are building guns, puppets, market stalls, skeletons and finding costumes for 150 characters, both living and dead!
Un-Earth is a piece of theatre that puts great demands on the performers – the professionals and the community actors who are putting themselves through this voluntarily. There are 35 people from local communities who are giving up their Sundays to be shot at and shouted at, bullied and terrorised.
And that’s just in the warm-up.
The youngest performer is 9, who came along with her mum expecting to sit in the corner with a book but is now taking part in a harrowing scene of separation. The oldest cast members are in their sixties and we have representatives from every decade in between. Each session begins with a warm-up, playing children’s’ chase games and singing daft songs and then on to the serious business of representing people caught in a war.
Every one of the cast has responded magnificently to the challenges set them by the director. They have immersed themselves in their characters and the concentration level in the rehearsal room is amazing. We are frequently rehearsing three scenes at once, with characters who are in more than one scene flitting between them.
The depth of the piece will come from the honesty and integrity that these people are bringing to their roles.
Despite the harrowing nature of much of the material, there is a sense of fun in the rehearsal. People are enjoying this.
Last Sunday we ran through the whole of the play for the first time. For the creative team, it was heartening to see that we have the skeleton of a piece and that it is beginning to stand up. The community actors could see where their hard work and commitment is leading.
This project has been made possible by the very generous support of Youth Music, The Learning Skills Council, Arts Council, Arts Council England and Birmingham City Council