Staff writer In these days of “Pokemon” mania, who wouldn’t want a personal note from Pikachu? Hector Sierra, 34, a fine arts doctoral student from Colombia, might not seem like the most likely recipient. But the filmmaker and NGO coordinator was as tickled as any kid. Arriving days before Sierra was to leave on a humanitarian mission to Kosovo for his 8-month-old organization, Artists Without Borders, the message was more than just a friendly hello. “[Pikachu] wrote that ‘me and other Pokemons are very interested in helping you help the children of Kosovo and Yugoslavia’,” Sierra recalled in a recent interview on his return from Yugoslavia. “‘What do you need?'” Based on the offer, he was able to add 9,000 crayons — more than 2 tons worth — to the group’s “My Friend is in Kosovo” campaign. An ongoing effort, the aim of the campaign is to collect sketchbooks, pens and other drawing supplies, as well as drawings, messages and photos from children in Japan, to donate to and to share with children in Yugoslavia. It is AWB’s first project and was inspired by Sierra’s work taking video footage in Belgrade and Kosovo last spring. Sierra, who is fluent in Russian, interviewed Serb, ethnic Albanian and Roma residents of Kosovo for a documentary on the conflict until he was forced to leave shortly after NATO’s Balkan bombing campaign began March 24. Back in Japan, he founded AWB, which aims to bring art to the service of healing. AWB proposes that the psychological release provided by art is essential to communities victimized by conflict. “Art is no less important than food and water,” Sierra says, “because art and entertainment will give people opportunity to gain catharsis.” Children across Japan sent pictures and letters, often with their own photo attached, for the children overseas. They wrote kanji characters, simple introductions and messages of friendship in English. One popular theme is the image of a check, in the currency of friendship, made out to children in zones of conflict. The illustrated message assures that “The bank of Japanese children will pay 10,000 smiles.” Sierra took the messages to Kosovo in September, where he estimates he worked with 1,000 children in workshops in the divided city of Mitrovica. He picked the northern city as “it would be the only place that I could find Serbs,” he says. “The Serbs have been cleansed from Kosovo.” In addition, he notes, “It would be the place that would allow me to work in total neutrality, on both sides of the river that divides the city.” The bridge over the Ibar River, now guarded by U.N. troops from France, was, Sierra recalls, the site of often violent demonstrations on the future of the city. The ethnic Albanian community is concentrated on the southern side of the river, while Serbs, Roma camps and minority Gordanza families have settled in the north. The workshops usually lasted five days. On Day 1, he gave the donated drawing supplies as presents to the children, then had them draw “My City.” The following day he brought the drawings and letters from Japan, and had the children write back. The groups spent two days making origami cranes and doves and drawing Kanji characters, such as “heiwa” (peace) and “jiyuu” (freedom). On the final day, Sierra asked the children to draw “My Ideal City.” He speaks at length of the children’s simple enjoyment and laughter, as well as their joy and yearning for peace. However, visiting schools in Mitrovica also showed Sierra that in many cases children “were being taught to hate.” He found that speaking of neutrality and co-existence was often the most dangerous stance. And where hand signals such as the “V for peace” — ubiquitous in snapshots in Japan — reveal political allegiance, staying neutral in the face of questions was often his most difficult task. In Japan, the group faces a different set of problems. Despite the familiar-sounding name (a tactic the group is also using for a planned concert tour, United Colors of Kosovo), AWB has struggled to get support for its effort. Sierra says contacting other Japanese NGOs working in the region, in hope of joining forces or sharing information, was a “waste of time.” AWB planned its original mission to Kosovo for August, but with only 40 kg of donations in hand by the beginning of the month, Sierra delayed his departure. He had also hoped to collect more letters from children once schools were back in session. It was slower going than he expected. AWB introduces kids to Japanese culture, while children here who send messages to their counterparts overseas “learn English, practice art and learn about the global community,” Sierra says. But too often, he says, such arguments have fallen on deaf ears. “For us, Westerners, charity is something ‘atarimae,’ something you do naturally, but in Japan charity is a kind of taboo, it’s kind of ‘meiwaku.'” Yet, little by little, the group has gathered supporters — Pikachu and others. As Sierra acknowledges, perhaps for a new organization it is simply a matter of time. AWB has 22 core members, who have come up with a seemingly endless list of projects and ideas. Works from AWB’s Kosovo workshops will be displayed at a benefit concert today. The “music party” will feature a Javanese gamelan ensemble and Javanese dance, “hogaku” and jazz. The group continues to look for gallery space, not only for the children’s works, but to introduce adult artists to a wider audience. Furthermore, as the first release on AWB’s recording label, members have proposed a collection of lullabies and children’s songs written by Japanese artists. Sierra continues to collect student contributions and has his sights set on returning to Kosovo in early 2000. He hopes to add a performance art element to a Yugoslavia tour in April with clowns and mimes and later with a Japanese drumming group. In the interim, AWB has shifted its attention to a situation closer at hand. AWB has been wrapping presents for another shipment overseas. With a mission that left Japan on Dec. 15, AWB hopes to bring a merry Christmas to East Timor. E-mail Artists Without Borders at: ARTWB@yahoo.com

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