Edinburgh Festival Day 9: Where words fail. . .: Dubravko Bibanovic has fled the war but wants to bring the horrors of Sarajevo to a street near you. Tom Morris reports

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The Independent Culture
In the Edinburgh office of Picardy Television, Bosnian theatre director Dubravko Bibanovic is showing me the most shocking video footage I ever want to see. It was filmed in Sarajevo over the last year by fellow members of a 200-strong arts co-operative called SARTR, an acronym for Sarajevo War Theatre. The footage is incidental: it's stuck on to the beginning of a tape of Bibanovic's play Bomb Shelter (now running in Sarajevo), but I am unable to wind it forward. The hand-held camera shows a line of bodies, literally blown apart in the street. The corpses are ludicrously decorated with five- and 10-gallon plastic containers. 'They were queueing for water,' Bibanovic explains, while men load the headless and limbless dead into vans.

Dubravko Bibanovic is at the Edinburgh Festival because he believes that cultural exchange is the only feasible response to the political deadlock in former Yugoslavia. According to Richard Demarco, denizen of the Eastern and Central European avant- garde and the man behind Bibanovic's invitation to Edinburgh, that is what the festival was designed for. 'The International Festival was founded in 1947 to celebrate the arrival of lasting peace in Europe,' he says. 'Now that peace has been violated and the official festival organisers have completely ignored it.' There is no work from any part of former Yugoslavia in the official festival.

SARTR, of which Bibanovic is the founder and director, contains artists of all ethnic groups and all fields of artistic expression. It was conceived in May 1992, when Bibanovic and several other artists were living together in a make-shift bomb shelter in the basement of a Sarajevo theatre, and inaugurated, some four months later, with the premiere of Bomb Shelter in the same space. Since then, Bibanovic explains, the group has become a vital focus for the cultural survival of Sarajevo. 'Our audiences force us to work,' he says. 'Even though there is no electricity, no soap, no shampoo, they always dress up for the theatre. They need to remind themselves that they are human.'

Both set and performed in the same theatre basement where it was conceived, Bomb Shelter addresses the need for art in wartime. The audiences that have crushed into the space each Friday to watch the show have seen every aspect of themselves reflected on stage. 'At the end of the play, the director insists that their situation is inherently dramatic, whether it has an audience or not,' says Bibanovic. 'The last instruction in the play is for the light to shine on the audience and for the actors on stage to clap.'

On the video, the audience's response is ecstatic. But things have got much worse since that video was made. The theatre has come under direct attack on several occasions. There is no petrol for the generator, and performances are given under bombardment by candlelight. In April, Bibanovic fled under fire and escaped to Zagreb. Despite losing touch with SARTR's day-to-day running, he remains eloquent on its behalf.

'It is very important that the voices of the people of Sarajevo themselves be heard,' he says. 'The play Sarajevo which was performed in London this June was good for raising the issue, but it was not a genuine statement from the people of Sarajevo.' He is sceptical of Susan Sontag's production of Waiting for Godot, now running in Sarajevo. 'We don't need to know that Western artists like Sontag can make theatre,' he says. 'The rest of the world needs to know that we can.'

He is currently appealling for funds to set up a branch of SARTR in London. 'We cannot bring our performers from Bosnia at this moment,' he says, 'but we want to make an installation about them in Covent Garden. It will be called Street of Sarajevo.' He describes it as follows. 'It consists of sculptures placed in a row as if they are walking on the street. They are made of plastic window models, completely painted in white and partly burned with acid to look like real wounds. They are also mutilated - without legs, arms, heads. Some lie piled. There are tape recorders installed inside the sculptures so one can hear cries for help of wounded and sick. Blind street singers walk between and around them singing Bosnian melodies. There are also sculptures made of empty and dried canisters of water supplies and of bins which are searched for food. The street is bordered by warning signs usual for Sarajevo saying 'Beware of snipers'.' It is a sculptural replica of the scene on the video.

Richard Demarco (who is exhibiting a series of most un-warlike prints by artists currently working in Sarajevo) is worried by the idea of this installation. 'Art does not exist merely to reproduce the atrocities of war. If he gets this thing up, it will shock people and then be forgotten - like the nine o'clock news. At worst, it is dehumanising for both sides. As soon as we lose sight of the creative humanity of the people of Sarajevo, the whole point of being in contact with the artists there is lost.' In his hand he cradles a gift from the artists of the Obala Gallery in Sarajevo. It is a tiny cigarette box, charred by the bombardment of the gallery. Inside is a minute screenprint of a red heart setting like a sun between the craggy mountains that surround the besieged city. Set into the lid is a pair of eyes, crudely cut from a broken mirror. 'It's beautiful, you see, and it's what Edinburgh should be all about,' says Demarco. 'When I look into this strange burnt face, I see my own eyes looking back at me.'

'Witnesses of Existence', an exhibition of art from the Obala Gallery, is on show at the Demarco Foundation

(Photograph omitted)