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Towards tolerance through theatre

By Mavliuda Dzhaparova 

ANDARAK, Kyrgyzstan, 4 November 2013 - In need of money, the family of Elbek, who is a student in class 10, sells their house in the city and moves to the village. In the rural school, classmates extort money from Elbek and when he is unable to give any, beat him up. Elbek tries to explain and talk to the boys, but to no avail. He eventually stops going to class and drops out of school. His classmates continue mocking him when encountering him on the streets. Finally, Elbek begins to steal money to get out of his trouble...  

This is the beginning of a forum theater play in a border school in Andarak, a border village located in the south of Kyrgyzstan. Students of two schools – the Tajik "Andarak" school and the Kyrgyz "Manas" school are sitting in the hall together. On the stage, the actors of both schools act out a conflict situation and encourage their audience to solve it. Under the rules of the forum theater, the viewers can go up on stage and replace the characters to show other ways of solving the problem.

Among the viewers, there was UNICEF Representative Jonathan Veitch and the Ambassador of the UK Embassy H.E. Judith Farnworth. They came to the school to review the progress the joint Equity, which helps to promote tolerance and to prevent tension between students, especially those of different ethnic origins. 

Elbek, the School Forum Theater actor, telling his story to the audience. 
© UNICEF Kyrgyzstan / 2013 / Saralaev 

The Forum Theatre and the tolerance class did not appear here randomly. These two schools are located in a rural area in Iskra and Andarak villages of Batken region. Geographically, between the villages of Iskra (the main population is Kyrgyz) and Andarak (the main population is Tajiks) there are no boundaries, but the two communities live separately. Due to limited natural resources, conflicts often arise between the residents of the two villages over drinking and irrigation water, land and pastureland disputes. As a result of negative stereotypes, the ethnic clashes among residents of different nationalities have a negative impact on young people and have in the past shaped their attitudes towards the other ethnic group. 

Adults also have a great interest to the Forum Theater and active in discussions. © UNICEF Kyrgyzstan / 2013 

The School Forum Theater was created in order to discuss the cause of tension that could escalate into conflict and attempts to resolve them. Topics of the theater performance and discussion are different for each session: the non-attendance of school by children, border conflicts, incomplete education, illegal crossing of borders, migration, early marriages etc. Students choose a topic themselves and hold further discussions during and after the play to exchange their views. The actors play not only on the stage of their school, but also visit the communities and together with the residents of the village conduct a Forum Theater, trying to help look for peaceful and long-term solutions, trying to find a way out of seemingly dead-end situations.

The audience was imbued with Elbek’s story to such extent that everyone, young and old began to ask to go to the stage to talk with the bullies. © UNICEF Kyrgyzstan / 2013 / Saralaev

The audience was so moved by Elbek’s story that everyone, young and old, wanted to go up on stage to talk with the bullies. There was a primary school teacher who wanted to play Elbek’s role and show that the school racket can be defeated only by force - by beating up the offenders. But the audience did not agree with this proposition. The audience finally recognized that the most appropriate solution was to talk to the school director to inform him about the bullying and to call the juvenile police if needed. All children agreed that while stealing was not good, the hero should not drop out of school. With no bullying in the school – he could resume classes and learn with all the other children. 

"By playing a role of a positive character, I want to show everyone what he really feels. How he tries to find a solution and how he is struggling"- says the student of the Kyrgyz school "Manas" Elbek Habibullaev. 

The UK Ambassador Judith Farnworth and UNICEF Representative Jonathan Veitch visited Batken Province to participate in the Forum Theater. © UNICEF Kyrgyzstan / 2013 / Saralaev

Jahangir Hodjiev who played the role of a chief racketeer, who is a student of the Tajik school, tells us that he really felt ashamed to play a “bad guy”, "but we feel that it was necessary to show how wrong it looks seen from the outside and that it is very instructive for the other students as well our parents and communities".

Along with the Forum Theatre, the “school tolerance room” was opened where literature about peace, harmony, friendship of people, conflict prevention and the variety of cultures is available, as well as books about the development of the individual. The discussions on topics of the Forum Theatre are conducted with the participation of both students and teachers. 

The work on establishing and promoting peace and harmony in 26 border schools is a part of the UNICEF Equity Programme. Within the framework of this program, each school has been allocated 2,000 dollars for their initiatives to promote peace. 

Actors of Tajik and Kyrgyz schools are on the stage of theatre are trying to help look for peaceful and long-term solutions for causes of tensions that could escalate into conflict. © UNICEF Kyrgyzstan / 2013 / Saralaev

In reality, Elbek and Jahangir are good friends, and they both attend “tolerance class” that was opened in the Tajik school of the Andarak village with UNICEF support. In this class, children from different schools may hold joint lessons, dialogues on friendship, harmony and peace. The classroom is equipped with computers and Internet access is provided.

Two years ago, on 29 December 2011 tensions escalated in Andarak village resulting in fighting between the Kyrgyz and Tajik youth, which led to an open confrontation among villagers with the participation of more than 1,500 people. The property of Tajiks was damaged (arson, destroyed machines and shops). Thanks to the active work and action of security forces and law enforcement agencies as well as the participation of adults and the elderly a further escalation of the conflict was avoided.

"At present, the situation in the border area is fortunately calm. But in order to promote tolerance among children and adolescents, it is necessary to discuss all challenges that do exist in the communities. As an example, how can we solve the problem of school racketeering?”, - asks Suhrobzhan Ergashev, a facilitator of the Forum Theatre. “Theatre is needed to broaden the horizons of children to develop their critical thinking, and the forum theater helps to analyze situations and find ways of solving them ".

The Equity Programme provides an opportunity for active participation of young people in the area of peace-building through the development of their potential and enhancing a sense of civic duty. The Forum Theater, in accordance with studies conducted by UNICEF, is one of the most effective tools for enhancing awareness and responsibility of young people to maintain peace. It is not just a performance; it requires the participation of the audience and teaches the community-minded attitude and a desire to learn to live in unity, friendship and peace – a precondition of peace and development of the state as a whole.



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