Posted by: koolwine | November 21, 2010

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Zlata’s Diary

The diary of a 5th grade girl reveals an average family’s living conditions during the Bosnian War.

Country Focus: Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosna i Hercegovina in Bosnian)

Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo
Zlata Filipović; translated by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić
Originally published in France as Le Journal de Zlata by Fixot, 1993.
My edition: Penguin, 1995.
197 pgs.

Acclaim: National Bestseller

To make a long story short: What begins as a typical preteen regurgitation of ski trips, favorite TV shows and good grades turns into an outlet for fear, confusion and horror as eleven-year-old Zlata Filipović witnesses her country descend into what would become known as the Bosnian War.  From January 1991 through 1993, Filipović shares her family’s predicament: their neighborhood in Sarajevo is shelled, their friends are killed, and basic necessities become scarce.  Throughout her diary, which she names “Mimmy,” Filipović urgently pleas for peace and mourns her stolen childhood.

My opinion: Filipović is sweetness personified: a friendly, well-behaved and thoughtful only child from an upper middle class family.  Our age difference aside, I found her easy to relate to.

Her diary, sprinkled with the drama of all capitals when she is excited or horrified by something, is noteworthy because it describes everyday life in the midst of war:  going to work and to school when possible, hiding in the cellar during the shelling, lighting candles and bundling up when the electricity is out, standing in line for water, worrying about what to feed the canary after the bird food is gone, and being unable to go outside and play.

How Filipović’s diary ended up being published is somewhat disconcerting.  She writes that a teacher asked her if she had been keeping a diary about her war experiences, and that the teacher told her, “they want to publish a child’s diary.”  It’s not clear who “they” are, but the thought of publishers traveling to war zones in search of suffering but literate children whom they hope to make a buck off of…well, the practice sounds predatory to me.

The armchair travel experience: Filipović’s youth and corresponding ignorance of her country’s political situation mean that very little background or explanation of the Bosnian War is included in her diary.  There are some specific events that she mentions after watching them on the TV news, but since I wasn’t familiar with the war, those bits of information didn’t mean much to me.

Sarajevo, nicknamed the “Jerusalem of the West,” had been long known for the peaceful coexistence of its religiously diverse inhabitants, and Filipović (a Croat) is especially upset by the proposed division of Serbs, Croats and Muslims.  She emphatically states that her family is friends with people from each of these ethnic groups and that “ordinary” people don’t want to be separated from each other.

In my book (or what Bosnia and Herzegovina mean to me and maybe you, too)

What do you mean Yugoslavia’s gone?
When it comes to eastern European countries, my knowledge is stuck in the 1980s.  I thought Sarajevo was still part of Yugoslavia, like it was during the 1984 Winter Olympics.  Ummm…no.  Yugoslavia was split into six different countries in 1992.  Bosnia and Herzegovina (with Sarajevo as its capital) was one of the countries formed from the breakup.

From Winter Games to War Games
In February 1984, Yugoslavia became the second communist country to host the Olympics.  This was the first Olympics that I have any memories of, probably because it was the first time my family had American television to watch it on, and also because anything communist was such a big deal back then, even for a grade-schooler.

Spectators at Zetra, the newly-built ultra-modern skating arena in Sarajevo, watched American Scott Hamilton win gold in men’s figure skating, and Britons Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean receive an unprecedented nine out of nine perfect scores for their unrivaled ice dancing performance.

A little less than nine years later, onlookers saw the building – rather than its athletes – on fire.  On May 25, 1992, Zlata Filipović wrote in her diary: “Today the Zetra Hall, the Olympic Zetra, went up in flames.  The whole world knew about it, it was the Olympic beauty, and now it’s going up in flames.”

Zetra was rebuilt in 1999.

Graphic depiction of war
About ten years ago, I read Joe Sacco’s award-winning graphic novel Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995.  The comic book format made the complex and intimidating topic palatable; I would never have read regular nonfiction about Bosnian War.

Sacco spent four months living with and interviewing the locals in Goražde, a Muslim enclave in eastern Bosnia that was penned in by the Serb Army.  Although Goražde was designated as a United Nations Safe Area (meaning that civilians were supposed to be safe from attack), the Serb Army besieged the town.  The Serbs killed nearly 700 and wounded almost 2,000, most of whom were civilians, before they withdrew.  Although casualties were high, Goražde was the only city in eastern Bosnia to escape ethnic cleansing by the Serbs.

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