Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre – Review

Shrapnel

It is the 28 December 2011, and Pentagon officials are watching video footage from a drone. They spot a huddle of young men and donkeys on the Turkish-Iraqi border.

The Kurdish group are unarmed. They are treading the path they have trodden hundreds of times before, smuggling cheap petrol and cigarettes across the border to pay their bills, support their families, and fund school supplies.

Hours later, the Turkish Armed Forces repeatedly bomb the group. Of the 38, 34 were killed. 19 were children. Teenage boys earning pocket money, helping out their dads, uncles and brothers.

They always knew it would be risky. One boy had made the trip to pay back his school canteen the £14 in lunch debt he’d run up. Another to save for a laptop.

The village’s youth football team are wiped out.

There has still been no proper apology, artistic director Mehmet Ergen tells me last night at the opening of the harrowing Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre at Dalston’s Arcola Theatre.

Not from the Americans, not from the Turkish.

The civilians were in terrorist territory say the military. The victims parade their dead children to further their bid for separatism, say the press. The villagers are milking it, they say, “Their children are more beneficial to their cause dead than alive”.

Shrapnel 34. Images Nick Rutter

Karina Fernandez plays every female character. She is the grieving mother, the intrepid reporter determined to expose the perpetrators, and the self-congratulatory journalist who tows the government’s line and receives awards for it.

You can guess which one gets the platform, and which ones are silenced. When the army tries to buy her pardon, to compensate for her dead husband for the price of a second-hand Fiat Punto, the disgust on her face says everything.

Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre left me physically shaken, in tears, and feeling sick – and I cannot thank its writer, director and cast enough.

It was shortly before I undertook my MA in International Relations that George Bush introduced the unmanned drone to the War on Terror.

The drone reduces warfare to a computer game. Young men wear headsets and they watch life destroyed on a big flatscreen, thousands of miles away.

Drone attacks kill ten times more people than the original target, however many times Obama wants to call them “precision strikes’.

This was an aspect of modern warfare much debated by my classmates and brought to life, so to speak, with the most astonishing impact in ‘Shrapnel’.

Shrapnel

A whole village’s youth can be wiped out with little more than the click of a mouse. Servan (17), Selman (18), Selhattin (16), Cemal (17), Serhat (16), Cevat (17) – they are just pixellated characters in a war game.

“If you never see or feel the impact of what you do, how can you feel or take responsibility?” asks writer Anders Lustgarten.

The Turkish forces (David Kirkbride, Ryan Wichert) are played with British accents, as are the reporters, as is the editor who calls the shots, who decides what is truth and what is not. This is one story of one massacre, but its players could be any nationality, in any conflict.

The grieving mothers and fathers are universal. They are the parents of the 50 dead in one Boko Haram massacre, the 150 killed by Isis in another. The 200 killed and injured in an Iraqi suicide-bomb.

The newspaper headlines, often buried under the latest celebrity wardrobe malfunction, don’t have much impact anymore, we’re too desensitised. Shrapnel is a high-impact wake-up call – a massive slap in the face.

Aslam Percival Husain’s slick defence industry executive sells killing machines like they’re iPhones.

It’s a nauseating parody of the mindset of those who benefit from war. Detailing the capacity of his machines to create mass destruction and misery, he proclaims “we are essential to eventual peace”. Then moves on to the financial year stats for his shareholders – the only thing that matters.

The defence industry tech geeks, in thick-framed glasses and cartoon t-shirts, were the smartest kids in class. They get paid to design cool new machinery for their clients and they spend their bonuses on home improvements.

Their clients bomb Kurdish teenagers who are smuggling diesel to pay for a new football kit. That cool new machinery causes untold grief to thousands. ‘Team Young’ lost six of their eight players, and they all had the same surname.

Lustgarten’s play is a fragmented, confusing collage piecing together the fragments of a tragedy.

There is no set to comment on, no music to distract. The script is disturbing, memorably punchy and endlessly quotable.

“They judge themselves as individuals, but us as a group” says one surviving villager. The Western powers’ mindset couldn’t be better described.

There are two scenes that left me in tears. The first involves human excrement, a disgusted, reluctant, solider, his bully commander, and a young boy.

In future, when I read the press release for a play and it tells me it’s ‘shocking’, I will always compare it to this.

In the second, a father, crippled by grief, carries the pulverised remains of his son on stage in a sack. He spotted his kid’s shoes, tried to yank him from the rubble, and came away with just his feet. I audibly sobbed, as did many of the front row on the opposite side of the stage.

Last week I saw 83-year-old Egyptian writer and lifelong dissident Nawal El Saadawi at the Goldsmiths, University of London theatre.

“It is the creative people who are dangerous”, she said. It is creativity that leads to social and political change.

When governments refuse to admit their mistakes and mainstream media runs scared from exposing them, it is the Anders Lustgartens and Mehmet Ergens of this world whose voices speak out.

It is 1am and I am still Googling the Roboski massacre, and wondering how and why we stand for this.

Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre runs at the Arcola Theatre until 2 April.

*****stars

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