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Albania and Kosovo 1999

The following is a diary of Children’s World International’s activities in Albania and in Kosova between 28 September and 21 October 1999.

The following was partly written in diary form and sent back to the office when possible by email from Albania and Kosovo (where communications were appalling) and partly written on my return, so please forgive changes in style, etc.

THE CHILDREN’S WORLD INTERNATIONAL TEAM left Glastonbury at 5.00 a.m. on Tuesday 28 September 1999 to undertake 23 days of work with children in Albania and Kosovo.

This was Children’s World International’s first sortie. Basically, when the Director of Children’s World and the Children’s World workers saw the horrors of the conflict in Kosova, we felt very strongly, that, when the fighting was over, and when the country was pulling its life together again, we would like to go and offer fun, performance and creative play work to the children who had suffered. Fun and creative play may sound frivolous, but we believe that they are powerful tools in recreating confidence and in inspiring hope for the future, and we hoped that our work could provide benefits to the children.

Because the Children’s World Charity (which has been running drama, dance, music, puppetry and creative play workshops for children with special needs, integration work with special schools and their neighbouring mainstream schools, playschemes and Children’s Festivals since its formation in 1981) is limited in its geographical remit to the Southwest of England, we formed a separate organisation called Children’s World International (which has now, as of March 2000 received charitable status – our charitable registration number is 1079546.) We hope that Children’s World International will in future years be able to visit many different parts of the globe taking fun and play to children in need at appropriate times.

After contacting several large aid agencies we were eventually taken under the wing of War Child, Holland, and they introduced us via the email to a remarkable organisation called Balkan Sunflowers who currently have around 50 volunteers working with children in Albania and Kosova.

It was agreed that a 6-person Children’s World International Team would visit the Balkans for 23 days in September and October 1999 to run clown and circus performances, circus skills workshops, badge-making, face-painting, art and craft workshops and large-scale parachute games with as many groups of children as possible. We purchased a great deal of play equipment to leave with different groups and organisations once we had trained them in New Games, etc. Malev Hungarian Airways were most generous in allowing us 60k of excess baggage free of charge and 250k of freight free of charge. Butterfingers donated a lot of juggling equipment, the Consortium gave us discount on purchases, Anne Harris made us several huge parachutes and we fundraised to purchase the other equipment we wished to take with us. A full list of the equipment taken and distributed, the costs of the project, and of the donors will appears further on in this report. After weeks of form-filling, freight arrangement and preparations we were finally ready to set off………

TUESDAY 28 SEPTEMBER 1999
We left Glastonbury at 5.00 a.m. to drive to Heathrow for our 7.55 a.m. flight to Tirana in Albania via Budapest. The team consists of me, Arabella Churchill, the Director of the Children’s World Charity and our new sister-organisation Children’s World International; Paddy Hill, our Chief Play Leader; Charlie Miller, Playleader; Daryl Webster, Play Leader; Peter Simms, aka Devilstick The Clown, a juggling and circus skills performer and workshop leader; and Jamie McGruther, aka Booper the Clown, performer and workshop leader.
WEDNESDAY 29 SEPTEMBER 1999
Safely arrived yesterday, and staying with the Balkan Sunflowers in their hostel in Tirana, the capital of Albania. There were many thousands of refugees from Kosova here during the conflict, but the large majority have now returned to their homes. While we are here we will be working with some of the remaining refugees, and with a Balkan Sunflowers project in the village of Bathore, a few kilometres outside Tirana, where there is great poverty, no drainage, and very little in terms of play for the many children.

In the afternoon we pay our first visit to Bathore, and play parachute games with about 60 children and then present a show for about 150. These are very needy children and we are very glad that we will have the opportunity of working with them for 3 days now, and then for a couple more days when we return from Kosova.
THURSDAY 30 SEPTEMBER 1999
We travel back to Bathore and run more parachute games and shows. It is incredibly hot and dusty here, and the children are very demanding, unruly and difficult. But they love what we are doing and we love them, so it is intensely rewarding.
FRIDAY 1 OCTOBER 1999
Face Painting During the day, performances by “Booper the Clown (Jamie) and “Devil stick The Clown” plus games and workshops for 100 kids, at the opening of the Balkan Sunflowers Community Centre; and then parachute games, face painting and shows in the evening for 30 “Street Children” at an orphanage.
SATURDAY 2 OCTOBER 1999
Parachute Play Back out to Bathore again for more games and shows. Very good control in the circle , but chaos rules at the end as we try to give out balloons equitably. Said fond farewells. We will be working with these children again when we return from Kosovo – they really need it!
SUNDAY 3 OCTOBER 1999
1st day off. Time to sort out the freight, which is officially now in transit to Kosovo and once released from the customs house in Tirana , must be taken out of the country within 24 hours. I spend the day at the airport with Johnny, our excellent translator, confirming and reconfirming the details. Also at the airport is a German truck that has been promised to Children’s World for the trip across the mountains to the town of Pristina in Kosovo. This is a time of anxious worry. Trucks can take up to 15 days to clear customs – this has taken more, and is clearly not going to be released in time for our journey tomorrow. So we set about hiring 2 vehicles to get our freight and us across the mountains.

MONDAY 4 OCTOBER 1999
Vehicles late arriving, more hassles about the freight at the airport. Eventually on the road about 1.00 p.m. We were told we should arrive in Prishtina before dark if possible, but it will obviously not be possible! Oh well, we will survive! The journey over the mountains is incredibly impressive – mostly very arid and desolate and majestic, but with little areas of cultivation and animals. Absolutely beautiful. The roads are in a truly dreadful state, full of potholes. The drivers are so proud of their vehicles that they avoid every pothole – unfortunately this means that one is sometimes on the wrong side of the road when another vehicle comes directly towards us from around a corner, and that sometimes one wheel is almost off the side of the road over a huge drop!

About half-way there we are suddenly stopped by a roadblock. 10 men in black masks appear, sticking Kalashnikovs through the windows of the vans! It turns out they are police but wear masks as protection against retribution! Our mouths were hanging open for some minutes – it was the masks in a way that were more alarming than the guns! Eventually reach the border about 10.00 p.m. but have to wait until the Customs men have finished their dinner before we can leave Albania. Through into Kosova quite easily. One immediately sees the presence of N.A.T.O.’s KFOR Forces – tanks, guns, sand bag stations everywhere.

Arrive in Prishtina about 1.30 a.m., and the map we have been given is completely inadequate! Spend a lot of time driving around and trying different flats that we think are right. Guns fire in the distance at times. Eventually rescued by Rand, the Balkan Sunflowers co-ordinator for Prishtina who leads us to the flat they have found us, and we sink into bed about 3.00 a.m.
TUESDAY 5 OCTOBER 1999
After not enough sleep, we unpack and reorganise our working kit, and set off to a school in Prishtina. There are 400 children so cannot even attempt parachute games, but go straight ahead with a show, which goes down very well.
WEDNESDAY 6 OCTOBER 1999
Another Primary School in Prishtina. We do a show for about 400 children, and then circus skills workshops, parachute games, badge making and facepainting for about 160 children. Lose a lot of our juggling equipment.

In the afternoon we are meant to meet at a church, directions all wrong, and we land up in the wrong village completely. Go to the local school to ask for directions, and they refuse to let us go! We stay and do a show for 200 children in their gym. Because of the troubles this school has only just reopened – for a long period the children were taught in houses in very cramped conditions. They are all thrilled to be back at school, and are an incredibly well behaved yet enthusiastic audience.

THURSDAY 7 OCTOBER 1999
Theatre Show Sessions and workshops and performances for 180 children in the morning at the Cultural Centre/Kosovan Liberation Army headquarters in Vuccitrn, and then shows for a further 300 in the afternoon and badgemaking for 50.

Then drive on to Gjakova – some of us with Rand directly, and some of us after returning to Prishtina to collect the remainder of the luggage which would not all fit in in one go. Arrive at Balkan Sunflower House, which is already pretty crowded, and all 6 of us, and Ibrahim our driver, sleep on sofas and on the floor in the drawing room.
FRIDAY 8 OCTOBER 1999
Workshops and shows for 100 kids in a school just outside Gjakova in the morning, and then same for about 160 kids in a gymnasium in Gjakova in the afternoon.

These gigs have been arranged by Save the Children, and mostly take place in “Areas of Safety” where landmines have been cleared, and it is safe for children to play. Save the Children are doing tremendous work, and lend us some excellent translators, including the wonderful Ardian, who is a teacher and has great natural authority. He says things like “Line up in 3 lines” in Albanian, and it happens. This makes the workshops a great deal easier, and for both these sessions we can undertake the full gamut of workshops as well as the shows, which is great.

We manage to find rooms in an Albanian house for us to live in while we are in Gjakova as the Balkan Sunflower house is so crowded. Move in – there is much more space. The family are very much there as well though, including their 13-year old son Ditti, who speaks good English and seems to have become part of the team for this part of the trip! He and Ibrahim are both deeply attached to the badge machine – I think there is going to be a power struggle for control of it!

SATURDAY 9 OCTOBER 1999
Work at the Brickworks with about 50 children at a project set up by the Balkan Sunflowers. Badge-making, face-painting, parachute games and shows.

Face painting More parachute games The Salvation Army run this refugee camp where there are refugees from more than 16 different villages who have all lost their homes. The accommodation is quite good, and the Salvation Army have provided the most wonderful wood-burning stoves. The stoves only cost $50 but will transform people’s lives this winter (it is already very cold at night and is going to become colder and colder over the next few weeks.) They have distributed 3,000 already and will be distributing a further 2,000 over the next few weeks. A very practical and successful form of help. (Also very impressed by the Swiss who have sent 500 cows!)

Saturday afternoon and Sunday spent resting up and preparing more materials for workshops.

MONDAY 11 OCTOBER 1999
We visit Rogova, a few kilometres outside Gjakova with Save the Children. 160 kids there for workshops and shows.

Then, in the afternoon, parachute games (4 huge parachutes at a time, plus a bit of voice work) for 250 children in the village of Junic, again with Save the Children.

TUESDAY 12 OCTOBER 1999
Two more sessions with Save the Children.Workshops and shows for 90 children in the morning at a school in Bec, and then afternoon workshops and shows for 200 children in the grounds of a school in Carrabreg.

Working with Save the Children has been great and having their translators has really helped us run more workshops than we could on our own. The Balkan Sunflower volunteers, at least 6 per session, have been tremendously useful and helpful too.

I reckon we have done workshops and performances for well over 2,000 children now, and there are masses more gigs to come. Must do a tot-up soon! The children are really loving it, lots of volunteers have been trained up and lots of equipment left for them to use, so the project is really going very well, and is tremendously worthwhile.

The team have been working tremendously well under quite difficult and tiring circumstances. There are so many awful stories of the atrocities that have gone on, and we are very harrowed by it. The family we are staying with in Gjakova have just heard that one of 3 male relations who have been missing for more than 80 days is definitely dead as his clothes have been identified. It is so sad. They still don’t know if the other 2 are in prison or dead.

Here in Gjakova 40% of the houses were burned and there was a great deal of killing. In Peja, where we are going next, 90% of the houses were burnt though there was less killing. All very tragic, but the Albanians and Kosovans are noble people and very brave. They are still very sad, but there is a feeling of optimism in the country despite the sadness, and one can only hope that the future will be brighter for them.

WEDNESDAY 13 OCTOBER
We set off from Gjackova by van to Peje at about 7.30 a.m. After reviving cups of strong expresso coffee we went and had a meeting with Save the Children with whom we will be running some workshops and shows here. Then we went on to meet the Peje branch of Balkan Sunflowers. Again, their house is tiny, and already very overcrowded, so they have found a tiny separate flat for us to stay in.

In the afternoon we go with Save the Children to Baran where Save the Children have created one of their “Safe Areas”. These safe areas are places which are now definitely free of landmines, and Save the Children have been running different activities to encourage their use – wonderful work.

Show We had hoped to do workshops as well as shows, but the secondary children have been invited as well, and as there are 400 children and young people between the ages of 6 and 18, we cannot even manage parachute games, and go straight into the show, which goes down tremendously well.

Then we return to Peje and visit the old Blind School where there are many refugee families with about 45 children. We give out clown noses, do the show, do facepainting and give out balloons.

THURSDAY 14 OCTOBER
We are going to do a show at the Vaso Pasho school in Peje. First Kofi Anan (the head of the United Nations) was going to re-open this school, then he wasn’t, now he is! Are we going to perform before he arrives, or after he has done his speech? Chaos rules, men with walkie-talkies confirm constant changes, then it appears Kofi Anan will be late, so we do our show to about 600 as the warm-up act! It goes down very well.

Have to cut a bit at the end as the secret service guy say he is on his way. We are tremendously well placed on the top of the steps where Kofi Anan will give his speech. His cavalcade arrives and a helicopter hovers overhead. As Kofi Anan mounts the steps, Charlie is blowing up a balloon for a child – and it bursts! A severe shock for the secret service and policemen! Wonderful speech by Kofi Anan who has a wonderful presence, and a lovely return speech by a young teenage Kosovan boy. I get a grin and a handshake. Lots of good photos.

In the afternoon we go to the village of Jabllanica e Madhe, a few kilometres out of Peje, right by the foothills to do a gig under the auspices of the European Children’s Trust. A lovely little village, with many burned out buildings. They were just rebuilding the pathway to the school. A very well behaved crowd of about 350 awaits us and do a very successful show.

Silly Billies The show now runs as follows: Daryl and Charlie present the Silly Billy wallpaper sketch (must rethink this for the future, as am not convinced everyone knows what wallpaper is), Jamie does his Booper the Clown show, Devilstick The Clown does his juggling and circus skills show, and then the Silly Billies present their charming sketch “The Cleaner and the Ballerina” ending in the balloon dance. A lovely chanting thing has been started by Paddy at the beginning of the show and at each changeover and the end. It is an echoing call, and eventually we have huge crowds singing “oh, oh, oh, oh”with the other half of the audience singing “Boomchacker, boomchacker”. Doesn’t work well on paper, but works very well in real life! A nice break where the audience can participate.
FRIDAY 15 OCTOBER
We go with Balkan Sunflowers to a school in Peje. We had hoped to be able to do workshops here as well as shows, but there are about 600 children, so can’t do anything except the show sadly. We perform at the top of the steps and the children stand at the bottom. It would have been better to seat them really – there were huge crowd surges as though it was a pop concert.

The teachers were sitting at the top of the steps as though on a dais and weren’t a lot of help. Paddy and I have to descend into the crowd to try to exert some sort of control. Show goes very well though and is much enjoyed.

In the afternoon we are meant to go to Strellc with Save the Children, but they are still caught up in a meeting and are unavailable. We decide to head to Strellc anyway, but when we arrive nobody knows that we are coming. We grab a few passing children and start to play parachute games, word spreads and soon we have 40 children or more for parachute games and at least 80 by the time we do the show. These impromptu events sometimes feel the best, on the edge, yet intimate. We were working in the grounds of the school by a tree which had been burnt and near the graves of people killed in the conflict. Some very moving photographs. Although this village is directly on the main road between Gjackova and Peje, it feels very forgotten. Many, many burnt out buildings, and the children very poor and needy. The sports master from the school turns up and we leave him a parachute so that he can continue the games with the children. A lovely afternoon.

SATURDAY 16 OCTOBER
Our last day in Peje. We do a big show (after a drama group and a singing group) at a new cinema/arts complex that the Balkan Sunflowers have just opened. Lovely audience of about 500, and the show goes down tremendously well, despite appalling lighting.

SUNDAY 17 OCTOBER
We drive to Prishtina early in the morning and then catch the World Food Programme flight back to Tirana in Albania. We have to pay $57 each entry tax to get in to Albania again, which is not good for our budget at all. We wonder whether we will have enough money to get through the trip. When we arrive back at the Balkan Sunflower Hostel there are already 22 people staying there, we make 28 and there are more to come! Oh well, just 4 more nights, then home.

MONDAY 18 OCTOBER
Sunset On Monday afternoon Jamie and Peat take their shows back to the orphanage that we visited last time we were here, and the rest of us go out to Bethore again to work with the children there. Lots of games with the Balkan Sunflowers volunteers and then hand out badge papers, and the children all design a badge, which we take away to make up.
TUESDAY 19 OCTOBER
Daryl and I go to the Balkan Sunflowers Community Centre in the morning and make badges for about 60 children, and also black sugar paper designs with metallic pens and stars. Paddy meanwhile types up lots of notes on New Parachute Games to be left with the Balkan Sunflowers, so that they can continue these once we leave. In the afternoon we all go to the Hotel Catalonia where several refugee families are living until they can return to Kosova. Do parachute games and show for about 60 – goes down very well, and we are invited back to lunch the next day.
WEDNESDAY 20 OCTOBER
Our last working day here in Albania. We visit the Keno Centre in the morning and run parachute games and show for about 20 children and leave them with balloons.

Cat & Mouse Game In the afternoon we go back yet again to Bethore and run some great parachute games and do a final large show, which goes down really well. Very sad to say goodbye to the children here.

Local Children They really need some cover here for the winter so that fun and games led by the Balkan Sunflowers can continue. These children are very poor and really in need of fun and play. I hope that one day Children’s World International can return to work with them again.

THURSDAY 21 OCTOBER
Time to go back to England. We spend the morning handing over equipment to the Balkan Sunflowers and saying fond goodbyes. At 1.00 we leave for the airport and catch the flight to Budapest, then on to London. Met by our loved ones and back home in Glastonbury about 1.00 a.m.

We are all very tired and a bit run down.

The trip was not easy – living conditions were often difficult, overcrowded, water and power problems; some of the stories we heard were heart-rending; some of the children we worked with were very poor and very needy, others were very traumatised. It was harrowing and very upsetting at times. We had never travelled as a team abroad before or had to live on top of each other, and many of us were homesick, especially for our children. But we all feel it was a job well done, and that it was most worthwhile. The children really loved the shows and the workshops. We did shows for about 5,000, circus skills workshops and badge-making for about 2,000 and games sessions for more than 3,000. Many volunteers were trained in play and creative work, and a great deal of play and creative art materials were left with Save the Children, the European Children’s Trust, schools, villages and Balkan Sunflower groups, and we are confident that the fun will continue.

It was really a most successful project. It served a real need, and made many children very happy, giving a much needed ray of light in what have been very hard times. I would just like to congratulate and thank the whole team – Paddy Hill, Charlie Miller, Daryl Webster, Jamie McGruther and Peat Simms – for doing such a tremendous job. Their commitment and energy under difficult circumstances was tremendous. The fun and love they gave the children was tremendously appreciated, and their shows just got better and better. I am very proud that Children’s World International has been able to take their exceptional talents out to the Balkans where they gave so much pleasure. Thanks chaps, and well done! You are very special!

We would also like to thank the many people who contributed financially to this innovative project – please see income and expenditure sheet.

IT REALLY DID WORK, AND DID A GREAT DEAL OF GOOD. THANK YOU FOR HELPING US MAKE IT HAPPEN.

ARABELLA CHURCHILL,
Director of Children’s World International,
Glastonbury,
24 October 1999.

Peat Simms returned to Tirana, Albania for 8 weeks in January, February and March 2000, taking with him more CWI badge bits and parachutes. He worked on Balkan Sunflowers’ Mines and Weapons Awareness project which toured schools in Tirana and the local area. He then returned to the Balkans on 13 April, taking yet more CWI badge bits with him to keep the badge-making going. This time he worked in Macedonia, specifically with Roma refugees, again under the wing of Balkan Sunflowers. He paid another visit to work with Balkan Sunflowers in Autumn 2000.