Books | Cultural History

REMEMBERING BOSNIA: ‘Zlata’s Diary’ by Zlata Filipović (1994) reviewed by Jo Varney


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zlata1 (2)On Monday 2 September 1991 Zlata Filipović, aged 10 years old, started a new diary in a new notebook: “Behind me – a long, hot summer and the happy days of summer holidays; ahead of me – a new school year”. Zlata lived a middle-class life in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with her mother, a chemist and her father, a lawyer. A self-conscious, conscientious girl, she was excited about seeing her friends, eating four seasons Pizza and waiting for Saturdays and no school. Bright and evidently hardworking, on 6 October 1991 Zlata wrote, “I’ve finished studying and tomorrow I can go to school BRAVELY, without being afraid of getting a bad grade”.

Within six months her fear of bad grades would be overhauled into unimaginable terrors: her world changed with breath-taking speed. Little could she have imagined that the people of Sarajevo would be subjected to 44 months of sniping, artillery and mortar attacks as the war in Bosnia placed the city under siege.

Though Sarajevo was under siege conditions till early ’96, this month marks the twentieth anniversary of the official ending of the Bosnian war. One of the final stages in the collapse of former Yugoslavia, the war brought in its wake ethnic genocide and a siege a whole year longer than Leningrad’s during World War II. The Siege of Sarajevo was not only the most protracted in modern warfare but also the most internationalised: Sarajevo became a magnet for aid workers, diplomats, UN “Blue Helmet” soldiers, journalists, artists, celebrities, peace activists and black-market traders. Quickly the tortuous, globally-televised battle for the Bosnian capital came to represent the post-Cold War experience of ethnic conflict: a castrated United Nations, Western paralysis, questionable humanitarianism and a mushrooming global relief-aid industry. Today Sarajevo still stands as one of Europe’s most historic and beautiful cities, despite the incessant bombardment it withstood for nearly four years. During this time, the fighting spread to almost every region of the country, but throughout the conflict Sarajevo remained a focal point of the struggle and the most visible symbol of the war.

zlata5 (3)Zlata began her new diary several months before the conflict started, her entries, in those first few months, full of the markers of a normal contemporary childhood. She watches MTV, breathlessly joins Madonna’s fan club and practises the piano. Yet within six months, her new notebook began to contain horrifyingly simple, matter-of-fact accounts of living under siege. One of the dominant, tragic aspects of Sarajevo is its encirclement by mountains, placing it in a bowl visible and vulnerable to anyone standing on the upper ground. The surrounding hills were accordingly occupied by Bosnian Serb forces, shooting and shelling down on a city which, for most of the war, was virtually impossible to leave (a restriction reenforced by the UN, who also banned post arriving too in what came to be known as the second, UN siege of the capital).  There was little choice other than to remain at home: elderly men and women, young families with children and young adults all lived out their lives as best they could. Zlata’s words described her family’s daily endurance – usually in an unlit cellar – a microcosm repeated all over Sarajevo for 44 months.

It’s the tiny everyday details in Zlata’s diary that give it much of its power. On 20 July 1992, barely three months into the siege, Zlata writes: “There are lots of beautiful pedigree dogs roaming the streets…. Yesterday I watched a cocker spaniel cross the bridge, not knowing which way to go. He was lost. He wanted to go forward but then he stopped, turned around and looked back. He was probably looking for his master.” The basics of human and animal life – food, shelter, hygiene, schooling, heat, water – were all affected by the siege. By August 1992,  the only way to get water was to cross the city with water-cans, risking sniper-fire and shelling in the process. “I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have water pouring out of a tap, what it’s like to shower”: she and her family have resorted to using jugs to wash themselves and their clothes. Especially difficult was the winter period of 1992 and 1993 – long and bitterly cold. Life under siege conditions was becoming the norm, with constant shortages of water, fuel and food.  In October 1992, in the continuing chill,  Zlata recorded how the family furniture was “going to wind up in the stove”. By the end of November she could hear the whine of electric saws: “The winter and the power cuts have condemned the old trees, arboured walks and parks that make Sarajevo so pretty.” Over three-quarters of all urban trees within the siege line of Sarajevo were cut down for firewood by desperate residents. Fortunately after the war, they were quickly replanted.

In the years that followed, the siege of Sarajevo has been viewed through numerous lenses. Within the pages of Zlata’s diary can be found topics and subjects that scholars, journalists and military historians have all studied after the event. Yet Zlata’s childhood words articulate in simple terms the crux of the city’s divisions: “… Serbs, Croats and Muslims. But they are all people, there’s no difference. They all have arms, legs and heads, they walk and talk, but now there’s ‘something’ that wants to make them different.” Despite arriving only at this elusive ‘something’ as the agent of war, she adds that “politics has started meddling around.”

zlata 5This 11-year old perhaps captured more starkly – more simply than any journalist, politician or historian since – what was happening around her: politics, she writes in November ’92, “has put an ‘S’ on Serbs, an ‘M’ on Muslims and ‘C’ on Croats, it wants to separate them. And to do so it has chosen the worst, blackest pencil of all – the pencil of war which spells only misery and death.” The nationwide census in 1991 revealed that 43.6 percent of the country was Muslims, 31.3 percent Serbs, 17.3 percent Croats, and 5.2 percent Yugoslavs. It was a pattern mirrored within Sarajevo, but what census data could not reveal – could never real – was the extent to which the guiding spirit of Sarajevo was cosmopolitan, multicultural and multinational. Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats, Bosnian Catholics, Bosnian Jews and other minorities and religions all lived together –  a city of ‘mixed’ marriages, ‘mixed’ apartment blocks, ‘mixed’ streets – in short a population that defined itself not by religion or ethnicity but seemingly by merely being ‘citizens of Sarajevo’. It was a place where notions of religion or ethnic origin were irrelevant; these people were simply your husbands, wives and neighbours. Artificially imposed divisions thus created fault-lines where none had existed.

zlata2In the autumn of 1992 one of Zlata’s teachers asked her if she was keeping a diary – UNICEF wanted to publish a child’s diary and Zlata’s was chosen. Extracts were published and the author read excerpts at a promotion day in the city in July 1993 – Zlata quickly becoming labelled the ‘Anne Frank’ of Sarajevo. Recognizing the appeal and power of personalising the story of the siege through the eyes of a young girl, the international press corps soon turned its attention to ‘Zlata’s story’. Recognising the parallels with her predecessor, Zlata wrote: “Some people compare me with Anne Frank. That frightens me…. I don’t want to suffer her fate.”

Fortunately neither Zlata nor her family did – but the same luck wasn’t afforded to the 11,000 people killed and 50,000 injured during the siege. Today Zlata Filipović is a successful documentary film director producer, based in Dublin. Her childhood account of living through a bitter war is both a testament to her and her family’s strength and a source of hope that children and young families trapped in the horrors of current conflicts might make it out alive. Her descriptions of the siege of Sarajevo are pertinent today, and remind us that this is an anniversary well worth remembering.

To read a recent interview with Zlata Filipović, conducted by Jo Varney, please click on the image below. 

zlata1 (2)


Zlata Filipović’s Zlata’s Diary (Puffin Non-Fiction, 1995, translated by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić) can be purchased from at the price of £5.99.



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