Dritan Kastrati was born in Kosovo, in what was then southern Yugoslavia, at the turn of the 1990s. It was bad timing, in the sense that within two years of his birth, the country was ripped apart by the vicious civil war that led to the siege of Sarajevo, to NATO bombing raids on the Serbian capital Belgrade, and to at least 140,000 deaths among combatants and civilians.
The mountain region of Kosovo where Dritan grew up saw little of that initial conflict. At the end of the decade, though, its bitter aftermath began to sweep through Kosovo, which is mainly inhabited by people of Albanian heritage, but is seen by Serbia as a symbolic national heartland; and when Dritan was 11, his father decided that there was no viable future for his younger son in a region devastated and impoverished by conflict, and that Dritan should undertake the dangerous refugee journey to the UK, to join his older brother, who was already living in London.
In a sense, the story of that refugee journey has become a familiar one during the last decade; most people in western Europe, whether they want to or not, now understand something about the desperation that drives people to risk their lives, and sometimes their children’s lives too, on dangerous “illegal” crossings of the Mediterranean or the English Channel, and about the range of political responses to that desperation, from the compassionate to the violently cruel.
In his play How Not To Drown, though – co-written with Glasgow-based playwright Nicola McCartney after they met in a workshop for young refugee writers in 2014 – Kastrati does more than tell the story of his journey, terrifyingly brought to life in Neil Bettles’s magnificently physical production, premiered at the Traverse Theatre during the Edinburgh Festival of 2019. As writer and performer, he also delves deep into the other, more metaphorical kind of drowning that almost overwhelmed him after he finally made it to Britain; the refusal of child care authorities to let him live with his brother, the series of foster families with whom he lived, the near-universal failure to empathise with the extent of his trauma, and the growing emotional distance from his family, and from a homeland where family is everything, that hurt him almost more than anything else.
Today, Kastrati is a young actor and writer who has saved his own life, and built a career for himself in the country that has slowly become his home. In this extract from the play, though, he returns to the moment when his happy childhood began to fall apart, with the arrival in his village of hundreds of refugees from the fighting in lowland Kosovo. McCartney – internationally recognised as the writer of plays including her 1999 epic Heritage, revived at Pitlochry last year, and as a teacher of playwriting at Edinburgh University – has worked on the real-life stories of groups ranging from American women prisoners to schoolchildren in divided Ukraine, and is a key supporter of the Traverse’s international Class Act programme for aspiring school-age writers. Yet as she said last summer, when How Not To Drown was about to open at the Traverse, in this kind of work she can only ever be a co-writer. “Without me, there might not be a play,” she said. “But without people like Dritan, who are willing to share their vital lived experience in this way, there would be no story at all.”
How Not To Drown, co-produced by ThickSkin, the Traverse, the Tron, and the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, will tour in the UK and internationally in 2021-22.
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