When trouble hits, these fools rush in

Clowns Without Borders bring joy to children in the world's danger zones


Saturday, April 1, 2000

Other aid groups deliver medicine or powdered milk. When Ghislain Turcotte of Quebec's CSF went to Kosovo last month, he took 5,000 fake noses.

CSF stands for Clowns sans frontières (Clowns Without Borders), and Mr. Turcotte was bringing a precious gift to the children of Kosovo: laughter.

Taking its cue from Doctors Without Borders, the roving physicians who won last year's Nobel Peace Prize, Clowns Without Borders travels around the world entertaining refugees, street children and other victims of poverty, violence and war.

This was the first trip for Mr. Turcotte, 33, a classically trained actor who directs shows for a Quebec circus. He found it unforgettable.

"What an experience!," he said after returning to his home in Quebec City this week.

The fun began when Mr. Turcotte, known by his stage name of Fafoin, arrived at the Kosovo border. With him were Jacques Thériault, known as Jacko, and Pierre Noel, or Pino. In their stacks of luggage, the trio carried balloons, juggling batons, maskmaking materials, musical instruments and three boxes containing 5,000 red plastic clown noses.
On the Macedonian side of the border, a guard suspected them of planning to sell the noses and wanted to charge them an export tax. Mr. Turcotte and his friends eventually persuaded him they were a humanitarian group and only wanted to give the noses away -- which they did, all 5,000 of them.

On the Kosovo side, they handed the border guard one of the noses. He wouldn't put it on, but he waved them through with a laugh.

Arriving at the district of Glogovac, the three at first met with a wary reception.

"The kids had never seen anyone like us," Mr. Turcotte said. "I don't think really they even knew what a clown is."

But once the clowns got into their pratfalls, somersaults and other japes, the kids went wild. "They were yelling and pushing and crowding around us. It was completely crazy."

The performance was a rare break for Kosovo's children. With electricity off and on, cinemas seldom open and playgrounds strewn with garbage, there are not many ways to have fun.

A Canadian aid official who saw the group perform in front of 800 kids in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, said the experience was magical.

"These are kids whose lives have been filled with hatred and violence and hardship," said Andrew Hamilton, who organizes the delivery of Canadian aid in Kosovo. "Normally they are pretty quiet. But within minutes they were shouting and jumping and putting on the clown noses. The effect was absolutely amazing."

Caught up in the excitement were two high officials of the international effort in Kosovo: the Secretary-General of NATO, Britain's Lord Robertson, and the commander of international forces in Kosovo, German General Klaus Reinhardt.

They were touring Pristina to mark the first anniversary of the NATO bombing campaign that paved the way for the international presence in Kosovo. The clowns persuaded them to put on red noses, too.

Back in Glogovac, the clowns split up and went to three separate villages. They found devastation everywhere they went: burned houses, potholed roads, bombed bridges. Located near the birthplace of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the district was hit hard when Serbian troops rampaged through Kosovo last year after the start of the NATO bombing.

In 10 days, the three clowns performed for more than 3,500 children, teaching them to juggle, make masks and generally act goofy.

One day, they led a parade through the streets of Glogovac, which ended with the three of them directing traffic at a busy intersection in their full clown regalia. Dressed in black coat and big boots, his face painted black and white and his hair dyed yellow and orange, Mr. Turcotte waved wildly at the bemused drivers and even jumped on the hood of one car.

Most people found it amusing, but not all. One man got out of his car, pulled a gun and told Mr. Turcotte to get in. "I said to myself, this is not funny now," Mr. Turcotte recalled.

Fortunately, a passerby spoke English, and Mr. Turcotte got him to explain that he was only a clown. The man put away his gun, smiled and shook Mr. Turcotte's hand.

"I don't know what would have happened if I got in the car," Mr. Turcotte said. "I think maybe he was going to kill me."

Clowns Without Borders have had many adventures since they started travelling the world to create hope through laughter, their unofficial motto.

The group was founded by a Spanish clown named Tortell Poltrona in 1993 after he went to Croatia and performed for refugees there. It is headquartered in Barcelona and, in addition to Spain and Canada, has chapters in France, Sweden, Mexico and the United States.

Clowns Without Borders joins many other roving humanitarian organizations that have sprung up over the past decade. Following Doctors Without Borders, there came Reporters Without Borders, Artists Without Borders, Students Without Borders and Firefighters Without Borders.

The Canadian chapter of Clowns Without Borders, founded in 1994, has made trips to Bosnia and the Philippines and hopes to go to Haiti this year to help the United Nations Children's Fund with its vaccination campaign. The U.S. doctor-clown Patch Adams, made famous by the film starring Robin Williams, wrote to the group this week to try to recruit them to travel overseas in his personal airliner to work with victimized children.

When they aren't travelling, the clowns work at home in Quebec with seniors groups, victims of violence and immigrant children.

The Kosovo trip was born after Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy saw the clowns doing a demonstration performance in Montreal on the dangers of land mines. A fund controlled by his office paid half the $20,000 cost of the trip; a Canadian government fund for Kosovo reconstruction paid the rest.

Children are the key to Kosovo's revival, Mr. Hamilton said, because only they can break the cycle of violence and reprisal typical of the Balkans.

Mr. Turcotte does not know about that. What he does know is that when he fell on his behind in his clown suit, the children loved it.

"You should have seen their eyes light up. After all they've been through, they put their trust in us and we gave them the permission to laugh."

Original article