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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

The Girl from Sarajevo: Remembering Zlata’s Diary

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By Caleb Mills

In 1992, a press shop in Sarajevo released Zlatin Dnevnik, a small collection of personal dictations from a local girl who had spent the last several years enduring the horrors of the Bosnian War. The original publication included just 45 pages and was largely consumed by city residents. However, soon the harrowing account of Zlata Filipovic’s experiences during the conflict reached millions around the globe. From a personal meeting with the U.S. President Bill Clinton to a nationally televised interview with Charlie Rose, Zlata and her diary became a cultural phenomenon (Baum, 1994). When the violence which brutalized her homeland seemed distant and secluded, Zlata’s story humanized the struggles of her countrymen. Thirty years have passed since Filipovic’s memoir was first published, but the plight of children caught in the crossfire of war has remained. As the violence in Ukraine and Gaza continues, it’s more important than ever to be reminded of the impact that systematic violence has on children’s psyches.

In September 1991, the USSR’s Congress of People's Deputies took the extraordinary step of approving the dissolution of the Soviet state (Petraškevicius, 2023). The decision, spurred on by an attempted coup the month before, signaled an approaching end to the Cold War. Across Eastern Europe, the winds of change quickly swept away old regimes which had once constituted the Iron Curtain. The chaos which followed brought the opportunity of democracy for some, but for others, it reignited generations-old ethnic and religious tensions. In the Balkans, the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia, which had held the fragile region together for decades, inflamed these pre-existing animosities even further. When ethnic Slovakians and Croatians voted to secede in 1991, it placed Zlata’s family and others squarely in the middle of what would become Europe’s most brutal conflict since World War 2.

At the time of its disintegration, the territory which comprised Yugoslavia was incredibly diverse. The former Republic included 44% Bosniak Muslims, 33% Serbs, and 17% Croatian Catholics (Klemencic and Žagar, 2004). Ethnic Serbians feared a separate republic in which they would politically function as a minority, and nationalists were wary of a continuation of the oppression that they had been subjected to over the last century. The former Yugoslav army, which was heavily comprised of Serbs, came to the aid of Nationalist Serbian President Slobodan Miloševic. Severely outgunned and initially without significant military protection, Croats and Bosniaks alike suffered retaliatory attacks from Serbian forces. Although the European Community, the predecessor of the European Union, recognized the independence of Slovenia and Croatia, the Serbian military only intensified its efforts (Sveen, 2017). By April 1992, Miloševic’s forces had laid siege to the capital of Sarajevo, which is where the events of Zlata’s Diary primarily occur.

Born in December 1980, Zlata Filipovic grew up in a middle-class household nestled in the capital of Bosnia (Haupt, 1994). Her story, told from a child’s perspective, is largely shaped around these central individuals as the bulwarks in her own life. Frequently referenced characters include her father Malik, her mother Alicia, her aunt Melica, and her uncle Braco and aunt Seka. Even when her own life is turned upside-down, Filipovic faithfully documents the trials and tribulations of those in their community, like friends Kemo and Alma, as well as their neighbors the Bobar family. The defining characteristic of Zlata’s personal account is how she bears witness to the suffering of others.

The opening pages of the diary detail the well-adjusted, family-oriented existence that all children her age should be accustomed to. Her initial recordings are free from descriptions of violence, strife and malice. By most measures, her life appears almost normal. After attending her friend Ivana’s birthday party, she writes with sincere pride that she won the event’s dance contest, outperforming dozens of boys and girls. Her typical weekend activity before the war was mostly studying, although she freely admits that even a good student like her wasn’t immune to certain distractions. In one diary entry, she details an entire day spent watching MTV; an American entertainment channel. She coupled this Sunday adventure with the consumption of an entire pizza topped with, of all things, ketchup and ham (Filipovic, p. 2-4). Although inadvertent, the narrative that Zlata offers before the war fills the reader with a particular dread. An empathetic nostalgia for the life which we know Filipovic will soon leave behind. She’s accepted it, but the readers still absorbed in the innocence of her childhood cannot. We can relate to Zlata because the most chilling aspect of her story is that before the war, the life she led was not so different from ours.

A far more practical observation which can be derived from the pre-war section of Zlata’s diary is that we can trust her as a reliable narrator. Few children would have the maturity and self-awareness, even in private, to write such honest observations about themselves and those around them. The documentation of her day-to-day life is permeated with an admirable candor that is free of embellishment or exaggeration. Although Zlata lacks the proficiency of a die-hard academic, her childlike honesty portrayed from the diary’s outset foreshadows that the coming crisis which reshapes her life forever will be accurately portrayed.

The first signs of trouble in the city come tumbling into Zlata’s life over the radio. She notes with horror that a small band of radicals had killed a Serbian wedding guest during the ceremony, and wounded the priest. She writes that barricades were hastily erected as the city braced for ethnic violence, and she fears for the safety of her father, who had recently been drafted into the police force. Clearly, the entire event exhausted her, as her next entry on Friday, March 6, 1992 simply reads, “Things are back to normal” (p. 24-26). Unfortunately, the violence was just beginning. Days later, Zlata writes that her aunt Melica overheard at the hairdressers that the nationalists were preparing to bomb Sarajevo. Her mother does her best to comfort the young girl, dismissing the information as a baseless rumor, but it soon becomes clear that the situation is becoming dire. On April 5, Zlata complains that the gunfire coming from the neighboring hills is distracting her from school. By 9 April, she writes that the city schools have all been shut down and basic amenities are increasingly difficult to acquire. Despite her youth, this progression demonstrates Zlata’s awareness of the violent direction her country is headed. “Mommy”, she writes, “I’m afraid of war”. (p. 29-31).

The stark reality was that all-out war had already broken out. On 5 April, nationalist forces had begun the siege of Sarajevo; which would continue for another 1,425 days. In early May, Zlata recounts her family being forced into an underground shelter due to heavy artillery shelling. Over time, entire rooms in the house were entirely abandoned because they faced the hills outside the city which the nationalists were using for the bombardment. A brief entry later describes in passing the death of a schoolmate named Nina, who had been killed when a piece of shrapnel became lodged in her head. Zlata’s oddly stoic recounting of the event, which stands in contrast to the emotion she later writes with, leads the reader to believe that this event was an emotional turning point. That this was the first time the war had permanently taken something from her. “I’m not writing to you about me anymore. I’m writing to you about war, death, injuries, shells, sadness and sorrow. Almost all my friends have left” she writes on 23 May (p. 47-61). Here, the reader gains an intimate insight into how once far-flung rumors of war and conflict have permanently infiltrated Zlata’s once peaceful, happy life.

 Sadly, Nina was not the last person Zlata knew that the war would take. Another classmate, Edin, dies the same way weeks later. Even simple pleasures, like a modest celebration of her friend Alma’s birthday, are cut short by impromptu shelling. When salvation seemingly arrives once Zlata’s mother and aunt receive permission to flee with her to Holland, the offer excludes Zlata’s father or her grandparents. After making the difficult choice to accept the offer, it falls through because of a mixup with the paperwork (p. 80-94). Despite these hardships, life continues. She writes that the clothes she had at the start of the war have become too small for her, and bemoans the fact that her friend Alma was forced to return a recently adopted puppy (p. 147-161). Her diary concludes with the acknowledgement of her newfound celebrity status due to her diary, which has now been published, and celebrates the news of progress on a peace accord.

Zlata’s Diary stands out as a captivating personal account of the impact war has on the development of a child. It shines a light on the intimate struggles that come with living in an active war zone. Despite the complexities of ethnic conflict and security crises during the Bosnian War, the book is incredibly relatable and accessible, laying bare the hardship that Zlata endured. Her methodology is endearingly simple, and in that sense truly revolutionary. Similar to the diary of Anne Frank, it retells a story from a perspective that is too often ignored: the innocent, questioning nature of a child.

Caleb Mills is a research assistant at Purdue University, studying behavioral and ideological trends among non-state and state actors. He is currently a resident assistant with the South China Sea Newswire and a former research assistant with Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project. His work has also been featured in the Geopolitical Monitor, International Policy Digest, and RealClearPolitics, and was recently cited in Anatol Lieven’s recent book, ‘Climate Change and the Nation-State’ published by Oxford University.

Works Cited

Baum, Geraldine. Dreams of Peace?: When Zlata Filipovic Began Her Diary, She Did Not Know Her Words Would Launch Her Family’s Escape from the War in Bosnia. Now Free from Mortar Shells and Hunger, the Girl Is Hoping the Journal--a Best-Selling Book--Will Aid the Children of Sarajevo. - Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 15 Mar. 1994, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1994-03-15-vw-34333-story.html.

Daalder, Ivo H. “Decision to Intervene: How the War in Bosnia Ended.” Brookings, Brookings Institute , 1998.

Filipovic, Zlata. Zlata’s Diary. Penguin, 2006, pp. 2–4, 24–26, 29–31, 47–61, 80–94,  147–161.

Haupt, Christopher Lehmann. Books of The Times; Another Diary of a Young Girl. The New York Times, 1994, https://www.nytimes.com/1994/02/28/books/books-of-the-times-another-diary-of-a-young-girl.html.

Klemencic, Matjaž, and Mitja Žagar. The Former Yugoslavia’s Diverse Peoples. ABC-CLIO, 2004, p. 311.

Petraškevicius, V. (2023). The Dissolution of the Soviet Union. In: The Paradox of Marxist Economics. Springer Studies in Alternative Economics. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-36290-3_14

Sveen, Benjamin. Bosnian War: What Led to Europe’s Most Devastating Conflict since World War II. ABC News, 20 Nov. 2017, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-11-20/bosnian-war-explained/9170716.

 

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