DRAWN TO ATTENTION

As displaced Kosovars are scattered across Europe, visitors to a new exhibition are encouraged to imagine themselves refugees. John Lichfield was unsettled
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The Independent Culture
MY NAME is Vesna. I am a 12-year-old Bosnian girl. My father is dead. He was killed when a Serb shell destroyed our home. My mother and my sisters have fled. I am alone but I must, somehow, reach Split. I think my mother is in Split. I am terribly afraid because I have to go through the Croat checkpoints. The Croats, just like the Serbs, hate me because I am a Bosnian Muslim. At the first checkpoint, there is a man with a pointed nose and cruel eyes and a crumpled olive- green uniform.

"Where is your father?" he says. I explain that my father is dead. Was he a soldier? No, I tell him, he died when our home was blown up. "Ah," says the cruel man, laughing hysterically. "Your father was a coward. You are the daughter of a coward." I shake my head because I loved my father.

"Yes, Vesna, he was a coward, hiding rather than fighting," the cruel man shrieks. "He died the death of a coward. The soldiers on the barricades, they don't like cowards. And they don't like the daughters of cowards. But they like fresh meat, just like you,Vesna. They will have much fun with you, Vesna. I wish I could be there to watch that, Vesna. Go, Vesna, daughter of a coward." He crumples up my identity document and throws it on the floor...

I am a greying, plump, middle-aged man who has never been to Bosnia. I am also Vesna. With scores of other people, most of them schoolchildren, I am visiting - or rather taking part in - "Un Voyage Pas Comme Les Autres", an extraordinary exhibition at the Parc de la Villette in Paris. The intention - abruptly topical once more - is to increase understanding and sympathy for the plight of refugees.

Visitors choose from 12 possible identities, based on genuine refugee life stories. (I also passed through as Tarik, a Kurd deserter from the Iraqi army.) Depending on your identity, you are guided through your "life" by a series of clues on wall panels. You kneel with a convincing-looking gun pointed at your head, even if you are a child; you are shoved into a dark cell for many minutes; you pass through a minefield, through a refugee camp. When you finally reach "France", your problems have just started. A jumble of bewildering arrows, signs and unhelpful officials bully you through the process of establishing your refugee status. In eight out of the 12 cases, you fail and are booted out of the country.

The exhibition, brilliantly staged, and performed by professional actors, is touring Europe, with different players and different refugee life-stories in each country. It started in Brussels and passed through Rome. It has now left Paris to move on to Berlin. No British visit is planned, which is a great pity.

It is easy to lose sight of the individual humanity of refugees. They rapidly become a media commodity, a political debating- point, a stick with which to beat governments. However moving and terrifying the sight of hundreds of thousands of Kosovars herded to the Macedonian and Albanian borders, it is difficult to conceive of them as suffering individuals, whose lives - not so different from our own lives - have been uprooted and swept to one side by politics, history, wickedness and incompetence.This is the cathartic brilliance of "Un Voyage Pas Comme Les Autres" (which translates as a "An Extraordinary Journey", deliberately sounding like a ride at Disneyland, Paris). You enter with your head full of the minor complications of your own life: giggling if you are a child on a school trip; wearily embarking on "another story" if you are a journalist. Abruptly, you discover something of what it is like to be a 12-year-old girl who has lost everything and everyone she has known; who has to be polite to her tormentors if she wishes to see her family again; whose sheltered village life becomes a world of officially condoned rape, guns, minefields and refugee camps; who, even when she reaches France, has to run the gauntlet of heartless bureaucrats, who are also "obeying orders", in the form of government instructions to accept as few refugees as possible.

I also discovered that I would make an appalling refugee. I managed to lose my "identity papers" in the "refugee camp". If I had been the real Vesna, my experience might have been even more dreadful than hers.

The French and British governments have argued that the Kosovar refugees should not be dispersed or brought to western countries. To do so, they say, is to hand Slobodan Milosevic a propaganda or even a physical victory. Paris and London took the same stand of high principle during the Bosnian war. Although involved in the heart of the conflict, proportionally they accepted far fewer Bosnian refugees than other European nations. To have done otherwise would have been to condone ethnic cleansing, they argued. It is a convenient stance, ignoring the dismal history of such events, which shows that most people who are uprooted in this way never return to their homes. It ignores the needs of the refugees as suffering individuals.

What happened to the real Vesna? She was - as the Croat militiaman on the checkpoint threatened - captured and raped by Croat soldiers. She spent two years in a refugee camp. She escaped to France overland, where she spent another two years trying to prove her case for refugee status. She eventually succeeded. Last year, at the age of 19, she married a French man. She now has a baby and lives in the south of France. 1

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