Ride to freedom

A talk by Ben Rivers on Playback Theatre and Popular Struggle in Occupied Palestine. Photo: Bhagya Prakash. K  

Even as the Israel-Palestine conflict continues to be a subject of academic and political discussion, there are ordinary citizens who have been living under the shadow of oppression for years. In an endeavour to get their stories heard, the Freedom Theatre’s Freedom Bus, since December 2011, has reached out to thousands of Palestinians to tell their stories, addressing the oppression they’ve been subjected to through Israel’s practices of settler colonialism, military occupation and structural apartheid.

Somberikatte, Palestinian Solidarity Committee in India and 1 Shanthiroad recently organised a talk by Ben Rivers, a British-Australian drama therapist and co-founder of The Freedom Bus Initiative with The Freedom Theatre in Palestine, on playback theatre and popular struggle in Occupied Palestine. In the talk Ben focussed on the cultural activities of the Freedom Bus Initiative, including ‘solidarity stays’ in which the team resides in a village for some days, acting as a protective cover or re-building homes . “We also work very closely with grassroots, popular struggle groups and organisations. We organise political actions together.”

An important feature of Freedom Bus is playback theatre, in which a group of Palestinian actors and musicians engage with the audience, inviting them to tell their stories and turning these stories into pieces of improvised theatre. “When we hold an event, we have no idea who is going to speak, what stories are going to be told. And often it is the people in the community who are not usually in the limelight who end up telling their stories. It’s different from just hearing someone talk. The stories are turned into the language of images, of song and of sound. In many of the communities we went to, they never had theatre before. But they were very moved by the experience of having their stories turned into pieces of theatre and understood this is a very compelling way to communicate .”

In his talk, Ben narrated some of his experiences working with the communities in occupied Palestine. “In the South of the West Bank, in a region known as South Hebron Hills, we were on the outskirts of a village called Atwani, where a very small community lives. A lot of their land was stolen by people of a settlement nearby who were hostile. Palestinians who are grazing their sheep on the hills are regularly attacked by them. Palestinian children used to be stoned by the settlers as they walked to to school.”

Ten years ago, Ben says, a group of human rights monitors offered to provide protective presence for the children on their way to school. “The first day when they accompanied the children to school, the settlers attacked, severely injuring the two people who were accompanying the children. One of those activists was American. So you’d probably guess, as soon as an American was injured; the American government became actively involved. They approached the Israeli Parliament and told them to do something to do about it.” The Israeli Government agreed to provide a military patrol, but it turned out to be a measure that is hardly ever implemented. “In the initial days, the Palestinian children walking to school had an army vehicle behind them and another vehicle in front of them to protect them from the settlers. However, the army often fails to fulfil their obligations, either they don’t turn up at all or turn up late. We were there recently and the Army was failing to turn up in the last couple of weeks. So the children in Atwani decided that they would protest. They gathered their teachers and other community members and marched up the hill to the place where they normally wait for the military patrol. We were in Atwani at the time performing, so they asked if we could join them. We sang together and the children started telling their stories, which the actors improvised. And then halfway through this event, the Israeli army and the Israeli border police turned up and stopped the performance.”

In another incident, Ben and his team were called to one village for a performance in protest against a separation wall that is a threat to many people losing their land. “We performed on a hill top, a piece of land that will be taken when the wall is completed.” 200 people had gathered for the performance, but the Army came to know of the event. “They sealed the entrances to the village to stop other activists from coming. And then they stationed a battalion of soldiers to monitor the whole event.”

A walk that was organised in the South Hebron Hills, which was a completely non-violent event, was vehemently opposed by the Israeli Army. “We hoped to walk through five communities that will be soon be expelled because the army wants to turn the region into a military training zone. Our idea was to walk through these villages to raise awareness and to express our solidarity Not very far into our walk, the Army stopped us.” Despite relentless oppression, Ben says that it is the spirit of the Palestinians that is remarkable. “They have a spirit that refuses to be defeated.”

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 4:55:50 PM |

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