Last Monday night was one of those cold blustery nights that make you want to stay home and never leave. Instead, I walked through the streets and pondered the strange synchronicity of hearing about Slobodan Milosevic's death over the weekend and the prospect of seeing Zlata Filipovic read from Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Wartime Sarajevo. A diary she kept as an eleven-year old during the siege on Sarajevo. The ultra nationalist Serbian leader who drew the former Yugoslav republics into a long and bloody war, passed away over the weekend, while on trial for war crimes at The Hague. It seemed like poetic justice that the young girl had grown into a woman and that the eloquent and heartbreaking diary she kept as a child would outlive him. But not before a war destroyed her childhood, divided an entire country, and genocide, bloody massacres, and the daily grind of war killed 250,000 human beings.
Zlata Filipovic (now twenty-five years old) is a poised young woman filled with compassion, determination and a hopeful out look on the world, despite her traumatic experience. During the reading at A Clean, Well-Lighted, Place for Books she spoke with frankness about beginning the diary in earnest, and expecting to write about boys, girlfriends, music, books, and the usual subjects that preoccupy adolescent girls. The diary entry in the fall of 1991 finds Zlata watching the American Top 20 on MTV and munching on pizza. By the spring of 1992 Zlata's comfortable existence quickly disappeared and life in Sarajevo was forever changed by the war. But what does it mean to try to live and survive in the midst of war? There is always a war raging on in some part of the world. For those who don't experience war first hand, it is a distant idea, something that happens to other people, somewhere far away.
The diary entries are a detailed chronicle of the dangers, cruelties and reality of daily life during wartime. The beginning of firing on the city, hearing guns blasting away day and night, shells falling throughout the city, shells blowing out the windows in her living room, lack of water to drink and bathe with, spending days in a cold dark cellar during heavy bombing and feeling the building shake as if it's going to be torn apart, facing snipers on the way to get basic supplies like water and bread, having your eleven year old friend die with shrapnel lodged in her brain, cars burning in the streets, dead bodies charred in the street, and the constant sound of gunfire. This is only a small fraction of the reality of war.
She read the following passage from her diary. Boredom!!! Shooting!!! Shelling!!! People Being Killed!!! Despair Hunger!!! Misery!!! Fear!!! That's my life! The life of an innocent eleven-year-old schoolgirl. A schoolgirl without a school, with out the fun and excitement of school. A child without games, without friends, without the sun, without birds, without nature, without chocolate or sweets, with just a little powdered milk. In short a child with out a child hood. A wartime child. I now realize I am living through a war, I am witnessing an ugly disgusting war. I and thousands of other children in this town that is being destroyed, that is crying, weeping, seeking help, but getting none. God, will this ever stop, will I ever be a schoolgirl again, will I ever enjoy my childhood again?
As she read the diary, the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq loomed like a dark shadow. I thought about the significance and timeliness of the re-release of the book. The honesty of her observations and eloquence of her insight, are a reminder that the inhuman and simplistic portrayal of the war on the news, is a big lie. Just like the reason for the invasion has consequently proven to be a lie. A lie perpetrated by people who stand to gain power and wealth at the cost of human life and utter destruction. Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Wartime Sarajevo stresses our capacity as human beings to feel empathy. No matter how much distance and culture and language and geography and age separate human beings, we still experience the sorrow and tragedy of loss. If we allow ourselves to experience empathy and truly comprehend the impact of war, perhaps no more children's war diaries will need to exist.
Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Wartime Sarajevo by Zlata Filipovic
Paperback, 197 pages