Zlata Filipović is a writer and documentary film maker living and working in Dublin, Ireland. Besides writing ‘Zlata’s Diary’ (1995, Puffin), an internationally best-selling account of the Siege of Sarajevo through the day-to-day reflections of a child, Zlata has co-edited with Melanie Challenger ‘Stolen Voices. Young People’s War Diaries, from World War 1 to Iraq’ (2006, Penguin Books) a collection of fifteen diaries from young people coping with war. Zlata was on the board of Amnesty International in Ireland for seven years. She spoke to Jo Varney about her diary on the twentieth anniversary of the end of the war in Bosnia.
JV: When you look back at your childhood diary entries, with the distance of some twenty years, how do you feel about your diary and childhood self?
ZF: The diary has developed all sorts of purposes today; originally it was a memory repository for me. I started to keep a diary because a friend of mine, who was three years older than me, started one and it was the cool thing to do. So the diary started innocently enough in a notebook. But obviously the entries started to change and it became a memory repository for me and everyone in it. It’s useful to me now as it’s like a primary document, a source document of that time, as memory can play tricks over time.
But the diary does have different purposes – immediately at the time of writing, it was for me to write what I was doing and feeling, but then it became something else when it was published, in that it was something that got a child’s perspective of war across to other people and children in other places in the world. So it became something else – a way of communicating about the siege. Now the diary has a life of its own.
Today – when I’m with people who’ve only known me in my adult life – some don’t want to read it, but others do – I love it when someone says they recognise me in it. It’s nice to hear when friends say they can hear my voice in the diary – as if there is something of me that is beyond the siege and the war.
JV: Before the war in Bosnia, what were your childhood aspirations?
ZF: I definitely went through the usual phases of wanting to be a doctor and then a ballerina but I guess I’ve always liked writing. But I also thought I’d always be in Sarajevo – you grow up in Sarajevo, you go to school in Sarajevo, you’d get married to a Sarajevo guy. I’d never imagined I’d be living in Dublin. Today I’m a documentary film maker – my nine to five job is film making, often about social issues and science – I’ve always been fascinated by non-fiction. But I was on the board of Amnesty International in Ireland for seven years and have also spoken to schools and universities, lectures and been involved in numerous humanitarian/human rights initiatives, so to a great extent the experiences of war and the siege in Sarajevo profoundly changed the trajectory of my life.
JV: Your diary entries before the siege gets underway are brilliantly revealing about the ‘normality’ of your childhood, like joining Madonna’s fan club…
ZF: Yes, that’s what I noticed in the years after my diary was published – I realised that those details are the ones people connected to – they can’t connect to 900 bombs dropping on their head in a day, nor should they have to, but people can connect to Madonna, Michael Jackson and what happened to my canary. And once they connect to that, they connect to this bigger unimaginable story that the person is living.
This was also what I was partly exploring in Stolen Voices. It’s interesting to see what people connect with – Anne Frank wrote about having a difficult time with her mum – people connected with what I wrote about my pets and the pop stars l liked; I guess it’s a way in for people.
JV: Were you conscious of an impulse to continue to keep writing your diary during the siege?
Not so much, but in hindsight, I realise it forced me to make some sense of what was happening, by forcing me to describe it – to put verbs and nouns together. So in retrospect it perhaps provided some therapeutic relief.
JV: Why is it still important to talk about your story today?
ZF: It’s never just my story – it happens to be me in it but it’s emblematic of many people’s stories and experiences in Sarajevo at that time. It was about ordinary people. Why did my diary get published? I don’t know to be honest – I think it was random – there were so many Zlatas writing at the time of conflict, it could have been any child’s diary. But it does feel relevant to talk about it now – especially in light of what’s happening in the world with recent attacks in Paris. We developed a muscle when living in Sarajevo – you’d hear about a part of Sarajevo that was being bombed, and you’d think ‘who do I know or love who is there?’ The same muscle still works today – I have an uncle who lives in Paris and I felt the same feelings returning when I heard about the attacks – it’s like what happened is being expanded to many places in the world.
JV: It seems that continuing acts of cultural output, of trying to put tasty food and meals together were important to maintain a humanity and civilisation despite, or maybe because of, the siege and war…
ZF: Yes, I can still remember the giant cans of fish we’d get from aid packages. We invented recipes to make cakes out of nothing as it was still important to celebrate people’s birthdays. Plays and music still carried on being performed in Sarajevo – they were acts of defiance. It is fascinating to consider acts of creation in the face of destruction of war – it was important to maintain these things as much as it was about maintaining survival.
JV: Do you still keep a diary today?
ZF: Yes I do still keep a diary today but perhaps not as often as I used to. I think it’s in my personality to hoard – to keep old cinema tickets – a way of marking your time, of collecting the ‘I was here’ moments. Writing is still useful even if you don’t quite know what you’re feeling; it forces you to put something down.
JV: Finally, your original note book diary from the war must be a precious object to you now, do you still have it?
ZFL: Yes! In fact I was having a big clear out in my house the other day and came across it, so it’s very much an important part of my possessions.
Zlata Filipović’s Zlata’s Diary (Puffin Non-Fiction, 1995, translated by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić) can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk at the price of £5.99.