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© Sarah May 2003

Sarah May

The road to Llojane is long, and in some places there is no road, just a dirt track. Which gives the illusion that the distance travelled is far greater than the kilometres on the map show (even given the cartographer's inconstant scale). Surrounded by mountains on all sides, Llojane is a small Albanian village in northern Macedonia, a stone's throw from the borders of Kosovo and Serbia.

When Llojane used to be in Yugoslavia its two main features were a copper mine and a cinema. The cinema, like the mine, is no longer in use, but inside it still bears all the trappings of a proscenium arch theatre, as well as an intact projector. To the right-hand side of the auditorium an old stove's been lit, and sitting around this stove is a group of young people with an Albanian translation of Romeo & Juliet on their laps.

It's the responsibility of Balon, the 'village idiot' and stage manager, to keep the stove lit, and when the temperature outside falls to -20 degrees centigrade, the village idiot is possibly the most useful member of the group. Balon also acts as an impartial go-between for both the actors in the old cinema and the Macedonian soldiers stationed in another disused building next-door (a lot of arms were brought over the border to Llojane by the KLA during the crisis in 2000 ?). The young people around the stove are waiting as the man in the Fiat Punto with Skopje number plates makes his way into and out of the craters on the road to Llojane, just as he's done for the past four months, against all odds. On the seat next to him is a copy of Romeo & Juliet, in English.

Like I said, the road to Llojane is long: 42 kilometres from Skopje (the capital of Macedonia), in fact, and it took theatre director Benjamin May twelve months to travel it. The journey started in November 1998 when May visited a disused Coca-Cola factory outside Sarajevo, which had been converted into a refugee camp for the first wave of Kosovar Albanian refugees. It continued back in London where, whatever was happening in the unreal world of Governments (national and international) and Local Councils, in the real world Kosovar Albanian refugees (as well as some Albanians and Roma) were arriving illegally on the shores of Britain and spilling, literally, out of the back of lorries at night.The next stage of the journey took place from January through to May 1999 in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham where May started to attend the refugee community meetings held there on a weekly basis under the forbidding auspices of Community Nurse, Sarah Savigar. As a result of time spent with refugee communities both in Sarajevo and in London, May decided to stage five inaugural performances of Philip Ridley's play, Brokenville, using local Kosovar Albanian refugees. Voluntary donations were taken at the door for Kosova Barking & Dagenham Cultural and Humanitarian Association for Kosova Aid.
Every day for four weeks, the group of actors (only one of whom, Arbnesha Graborei Nixha, was a professional) turned up at St Agnes' church Hall, Beacontree, in spite of unwanted interruptions from local youths, to rehearse Brokenville, to be performed in English. All abilities were taken on board, from Muhamet Osmani, who barely spoke any English, to twelve-year-old Besart Krasniqi, who spoke fluent Barking English.

The characters in the play are the survivors of a nameless war, and come together in a ruined house whose sole remaining occupant is a child. They recount their experiences before and during the war by telling each other fairy stories. Brokenville is a story about homecoming, a homecoming that is only ultimately possible after everybody has told and therefore exorcised their story, allowing spiritual regeneration to take place. What made the five performances of Brokenville, which took place at the beginning of May 1999, so raw and unnerving was the fact that the personal histories of the cast were the same as those of the characters they played on stage. Audiences who came to St George's Church, Dagenham sensed that they weren't watching the play so much as witnessing it. After seeing a performance of Brokenville, Ariel Wosner from the humanitarian aid organisation, CARE International, decided that the play's themes of homecoming and regeneration were just what the remaining refugees at CARE-run Cegrane Camp in western Macedonia could do with. Following this chain of events, by July 1999 May found himself back in the Balkans working with refugees once more. Brokenville officially became The Swallow Project, so named because after migrating south, swallows always return home. By the time him and Atlanta Duffy (the set designer on Brokenville in London) arrived there were only 6,000 refugees remaining in the camp, and the village baker was only turning out 6,000 extra loaves a day (as oppose to 55,000 at the height of the crisis). The team, including Albanian translator, Rijat Abdullai, were given an old circus tent in which to realise the project's aims. The Swallow Project was, and still is, the only post-emergency project of its kind being undertaken by any humanitarian aid organisation in Macedonia or Kosovo.

The Swallow Project's responsibilities covered the interests of children and young adults living in the camp who had seen things nobody should ever have to bear witness to. The workshops, which were held on a daily basis for two months (July 1999 and September 1999), helped combat the camp's two great evils: the burden of history and boredom. Nobody wanted to talk about what had and was happening to them, but by coming to the circus tent (word soon spread), they spent day after day addressing this without ever having to directly talk about it. The Swallow Project's work culminated after two months in a show that used comedy to talk about tragedy, which May felt was a more appropriate and humane way of telling the truth.

In November 1999 UNHCR closed down Cegrane camp, three months later than anticipated, and everyone went home. Many NGOs, CARE International among them, stayed in Macedonia to continue working with the communities who had hosted refugees during the crisis. Llojane (whose population doubled during March that year) and the surrounding region of Kumonova was identified as a refugee impacted area, and in October 1999 the Swallow Project moved north. The circus tent from Cegrane was re-erected outside the old cinema in Llojane, and workshops were soon full. As temperatures dropped the tent was abandoned and the group moved into the cinema itself. May ensured that the Swallow Project provided a safe environment away from the influences of recent history in which to explore the power of the individual will. It is hoped that the outcome of this process will have led participants towards a better understanding of racial tolerance, and what the impact of tolerance and integration could mean to them.


© Sarah May 2003