In Place of War project

People take refuge in drama when the bombs rain down, and the arts aid rebuilding when the guns fall silent, says James Thompson, who has travelled to some of the world's most violent regions, only for the horrors of conflict to be felt closer to home

Journeys have defined my experience of conflict zones more than tales of bombs and fighting. Travelling across a country usually tells you as much about the deprivations of war as any history of violence. The distance between Uvira, South Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the high-plateau village of Minembwe is only 150km – but in the dry season in June or July it is a stomach-churning 11-hour drive. In the wet season the path is impassable – so the locals walk. Westerners can get passage on a United Nations helicopter if they are lucky (I have never been). I have made this journey by road twice in the past three years. My enduring memories are of the ingenuity of the driver, Musore Ruturutsa, as he steered over impossible holes or improbable bridges; of the steady commentary from Eraste Rwatangabo as he guided us through the varying terrain; discussions with Pastor Antoine Munyiginya about upcoming theatre workshops; and the resourcefulness of Bahati Kimanuka, the driver's assistant, who dug us out of the mud and directed us through rivers.

The Minembwe journeys are my most recent experience of war-zone travel: my first was a land and sea voyage in Sri Lanka between Colombo and the Northern Province capital Jaffna in 2000. The occupation of the area to the south of Jaffna by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam forced my party to take a circuitous route. We drove across the country to the eastern port of Trincomalee, boarded a Red Cross hospital ship (no cruise liner) for the 22-hour journey into international waters and around the island, and then docked in the naval base at the island's tip. I remember the karaoke with the Malay crew in the ship's tiny hold and watching returning cancer patients and young amputees clinging to the deck, stricken with seasickness.

The In Place of War project was born during that visit to Jaffna. I was the guest of the United Nations Children's Fund. Its Children Affected by Armed Conflict Unit had received a request from community workers in the city for someone experienced in developing theatre programmes for young people. Before the visit, I searched out literature on Sri Lankan theatre and found one book, which boldly stated that because of the war there was no theatre in the North. Having arrived in the capital of the region, I discovered how wrong that claim was. There was a theatre department in the local university as well as a major cultural organisation in the centre of the city, plus an impressive children's theatre movement. This was the product of theatre directors who had relocated to the schools: curfews meant that rehearsals could continue only in daytime settings, so the best theatre practitioners were working with primary school children.

I spent my time there training a large group of enthusiastic and dedicated activists, artists and non-governmental organisation workers in participatory theatre – a form where groups create performances that debate issues of relevance to their lives, and audience members are encouraged to comment upon or intervene in the action. I jumped each time a shell thudded in the near distance during a workshop and realised how wrong the writer of the theatre book had been. And it was from here that the two main questions that steered the In Place of War research project emerged: why in war zones do people continue to make theatre, and why do academics assume that they do not?

These questions led to a major Arts and Humanities Research Council grant for 2004-07 documenting theatre and performance programmes in war zones internationally. This was followed by another project, supported by the Leverhulme Trust, running seminars for war-zone artists. And finally the current stage, funded aga
in by the AHRC, developing an online platform where war- and disaster-zone artists can save and share their work.

This project has taken me and my colleagues to war zones internationally, from Gaza to Northern Ireland, from Bosnia to Banda Aceh, Indonesia. We have also brought artists to the University of Manchester to share work from Burundi, Colombia, the Congo, Kosovo, Nepal, Northern Ireland, Palestine, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka. We have learned that the assumption that the arts have no place in war misrepresents the daily reality of conflict and also fails to reflect how communities seek to resist the worst, or celebrate despite their situation. Academics take this position because they assume that joy is forbidden once the first bullet has been fired and that the arts themselves do not play a part in the competing rhetoric of making war. They are wrong: someone, after all, has to sing on those endless journeys.

Theatre programmes in war zones are diverse and change subtly depending on how close they are to the violence. At the moment the bombs start falling, they tend to focus on protecting children from the situation around them. During the Israeli bombing of Beirut in 2006, for example, a Palestinian theatre director created a project in a local theatre that was being used to house displaced people. The project, titled Laughter Under the Bombs, is one of the best examples I have encountered of the protective role that the arts can play for people in extreme circumstances. It included daily workshops for children and ended with packed public performances (during which the back doors of the theatre occasionally blew open from the pressure of nearby explosions).

As the violence subsides, the potential for movement allows people to start to rebuild, both physically and culturally. When the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger guerrilla leaders signed a ceasefire in February 2002, activists in Batticaloa, a city in the east of the country, began to support local villagers' desire to re-establish the dance drama kooththu. On a visit that year, I watched newly formed dance clubs practising in sandy yards, ensuring that the steps remembered by elders were passed on to young people. Slowly, excerpts of the Hindu epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata were prepared for previously prohibited all-night performances. The tales of war contained within them provided an unacknowledged commentary on the situation, balanced precariously between war and peace.

In Kosovo, in a similarly fragile postwar period in late 1999, the UN Office on Missing People and Forensics was struggling to return disinterred bodies to their families. People were refusing to give blood as a means of identification, preferring instead to believe the rumours that their loved ones were alive and being held in secret prisons. The agency commissioned the Centre for Children's Theatre and Development, a theatre organisation based in the capital, to create a travelling play that would present the dilemmas faced by families. Postwar divisions made a bilingual cross-community play impossible, so instead the centre staged two parallel projects – one in Albanian and one in Serbian – which toured missing people's associations, encouraging more open debate about the importance of reclaiming the dead.

One of the important principles of In Place of War is that "place" is both specific and ubiquitous. Clearly, Sri Lanka children's theatre is not Palestinian children's theatre; theatre and reconciliation in Sierra Leone is not theatre and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. But by understanding the place of war to be ubiquitous, we sought to find it in our locality. This led to projects with Manchester refugees and weekly drama workshops undertaken at the city's office of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture (now called Freedom from Torture). In the eastern Congo, we documented participatory theatre with returning refugees displaced by the continuing bloody conflict in the country, but we also worked with survivors of that conflict in the centre of our own city.

Our work in the eastern Congo started with a visit in 2006 to a theatre team run by an international peace-building NGO, Search for Common Ground, as it created interactive street performances about the conflicts between refugees returning to the Congo from Tanzania across Lake Tanganyika, and those who had remained in the province of South Kivu. Tens of thousands had fled across the lake during the worst years of the war in the late 1990s, and in the early 2000s they started to return.

More recently, I have been collaborating with a charity called Children in Crisis (CiC), which works with Eben-Ezer Ministry International (EMI, a local NGO) to support teacher training and girls' rights programmes in the inaccessible high plateau area above Lake Tanganyika, which is largely populated by the Banyamulenge community. The Banyamulenge have lived in the region since the 19th century and are connected to the Tutsis in Rwanda. Their mistreatment under the Congo's former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and involvement in the Congo wars, often as a proxy for Rwandan interests, means they have suffered a huge amount, and have been vilified as "foreigners" or "Rwandans" by those who claim a greater degree of indigeneity. The Banyamulenge continue to be caught between local suspicions, Rwandan politicking and the patterns of racism and fear.

The CiC project has sought to overcome lack of investment in the region and to start to build schools and train teachers. During my first visit to the high plateau, after the 11-hour drive, I witnessed some of the performances, worked with a group of war widows to create a short performance, and ran some school workshops. Theatre programmes in schools can provide a practical way to debate issues raised in the curriculum and can encourage young people to participate in discussions about important social issues. My second visit, in June 2011, involved training for community workers and creating small plays on the struggles of girls to get equal access to education. In communities where there are poor levels of literacy, theatre can provide an accessible means of presenting information and encouraging dialogue.

I make no claim as to the particular innovations of my contribution, but I felt privileged to have an opportunity to work in this remote community. On the high plateau, the devastation of war, coupled with the lack of electricity, running water, mobile signal or roads, was met with inspirational dedication from members of EMI and participants, who walked for between three and four hours to attend each workshop.

In October that year, however, I received a phone call from the London office of CiC. The team had once again been driving from Uvira to Minembwe, the journey I had taken with them, on their way to lead a one-month training programme for teachers, but this time they had been attacked en route by a militia group. Three of the 13 people in the vehicle were released because they were not Banyamulenge, allowing the driver-assistant Bahati – whose name means "chance" in Swahili – to escape. Seven others were killed by gun or machete. The driver, Musore, died inside the vehicle as it was shot at during the attack. Several others were taken away and killed in a nearby village. The project's education manager, Eraste, was shot during the opening attack, and so was Antoine, who had a bullet pass through his elbow as it rested on the passenger window. Outside the vehicle, he was ordered to lie face down on the ground – but for some reason the person ordered to shoot him missed his head.

Eraste and two other injured colleagues were left for dead by the side of the vehicle. Antoine hid in the bush. He heard the armed men return a few hours later. When they discovered that some of Antoine's fellow passengers were not yet dead, they finished off his friends with their machetes. All who died were Banyamulenge: four staff members of the CiC and EMI project, one board member of EMI, the young sister of EMI's cook and Musore's father-in-law.

Antoine stayed in the bush all night. In the morning he staggered back down the road until he was eventually found by an army lorry and driven to the hospital in the nearest town.

I returned to the Congo for the memorial with UK-based CiC colleagues a few weeks later. We visited the families and the widows, and attended a painful church service. We also saw Antoine in hospital – and it was from this moment that the place of war started to become more personal. The hospital had no specialist who could operate on his shattered elbow. The discussion was about expensive trips to either South Africa or India to save his arm. On my return to Manchester, I made a call to my colleague at the university's Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, Anthony Redmond, a specialist in disaster zone surgery, and asked him if he knew of any possibilities in the city. Within 48 hours he had found a surgeon at the Alexandra Hospital in Manchester who was willing to operate for free.

So that November, Antoine arrived at my family home in Chorlton, Manchester. He left the following May. For just over six months my house became a recuperation centre for a theatre worker colleague from a war zone. I went to work as normal at the university and, initially, spent evenings in hospital, occasionally dressing wounds, often sharing food and watching lots of football.

When he was discharged, a community of friends and family took turns to accompany him to hospital appointments and physiotherapy sessions, go for walks with him, cook for him and simply spend time with him. We went to church together: Antoine spent Christmas and Hanukkah with my family; we watched Manchester City together.

I am writing this article from the Congo, on my first return visit since that terrible event in autumn 2011. I am here, nominally, to work with the reformed team: the project has a new director and new trainers. For me, though, the real opportunity has been to see our colleagues' widows and families again and, of course, Antoine. I have been able to hear how his "British Arm", as they now call it, is faring, and share stories of our journeys around Manchester. Antoine has made it clear that he can never again take the road to Minembwe. The burned-out vehicle, which now sits in the EMI office compound in Uvira, is a terrible memorial to the reason why. I doubt that I, too, will be able to go to the high plateau again because the dangers of the route persist and in many ways I no longer wish to travel in war zones. Journeys once remembered as arduous but delightful now have unhappier memories graphically layered over them. In spectacular fashion, my work came home with me – in caring for Antoine and in seeing up close how a bullet can cause such untold suffering. I now know more concretely than ever that the war zone is, sadly, ubiquitous: no mythic voyage is needed to find it.

Postscript :

James Thompson is professor of applied and social theatre and associate dean for external relations in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Manchester. His latest book, Humanitarian Performance, will be published in July. The In Place of War project won a Times Higher Education award in 2010.