The author and activist on growing up under siege in Sarajevo, chronicling the childhood memories of other survivors, and the future of Bosnia’s storied capital city.
December 14 will mark the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Dayton Accords, and with it, the official end of the Bosnian War, which raged for over three and a half years and ultimately claimed the lives of an estimated 100,000 people. Of the conflicts that erupted in the wake of the breakup of Yugoslavia, the war in Bosnia was unquestionably the most brutal. By its close, tens of thousands of Bosniak women had been raped, 2.2 million people were left displaced, and Europe was reintroduced to the concept of genocide for the first time since the end of the Second World War.
Though almost no significant population center escaped unscathed from the protracted and indiscriminate shelling campaign that was to become a hallmark of the global television coverage, it was Sarajevo, Bosnia’s cosmopolitan capital, that epitomized the relentless nature of the assault.
Commonly referred to as the “Jerusalem of Europe” for its centuries-long reputation as a hub of cultural and religious diversity—it was, until the end of the twentieth century, the only European city to have a mosque, synagogue, Orthodox church, and Catholic church in the same neighborhood—pre-war Sarajevo was as renowned across the Balkans for its snow sports, kafanas, and rock musicians as it was for its integrated population of Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks.
All of this changed on April 5, 1992, when, following Bosnia’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia and weeks of escalating tension and sporadic bursts of violence within the capital, ethnic Serb snipers acting on the orders of Radovan Karadžić and the anti-secessionist Serb Democratic Party opened fire on a multi-ethnic peace protest in the city center, killing two young women. Within a month a Bosnian Serb paramilitary force of 13,000, stationed in the surrounding hills, had encircled Sarajevo, blockading the city and setting in motion what was to become the longest siege in the history of modern warfare.
For 1,425 days, those who couldn’t or wouldn’t leave the city were subjected to a catalogue of atrocities too numerous to fathom. The world looked on as an average of 329 shells a day rained down on medical centers and schools, residential neighborhoods and commercial districts, government buildings and cultural institutions. The near-constant sniper fire throughout the city turned previously hum-drum commutes into a daily dance with death. Vijećnica—the beautiful, pseudo-Moorish National and University Library on the banks of the Miljacka River, with its fortress-like façade and 1.5 million volumes—was burned to the ground. The need for coffins and firewood was so great that the parks of Sarajevo were stripped of their trees. Koševo Stadium and its surrounding complexes, which less than a decade previous had hosted the opening ceremony of the 1984 Winter Olympics, became a combination battleground and makeshift graveyard. 11,541 civilians lost their lives in the Siege of Sarajevo; at least 521 of those were children. UNICEF estimated that of the approximately 70,000 children living in the city during the period, 40 percent had been shot at, 39 percent had seen one or more family members killed, and 89 percent had been forced to live in underground shelters to escape the shelling.
Jasminko Halilović, author, activist, and founder of the War Childhood Project—a linked book and museum dedicated to foregrounding the personal testimonies of those young people who lived through the siege—was one of those children. He was four years old when the siege began. “In those days of April madness,” he recalls, “apartment after apartment in our building would empty. Some were fleeing to other parts of the city, some fled abroad, some to the other side. For years afterwards I would wonder how anyone could persuade people who had lived on the same street all of their lives that from tomorrow they were ‘on different sides.’ Even today, I have no answer.” He remembers the hunger, the presence of Bosnian soldiers cleaning their weapons in the hallways, the beloved teddy bear left behind when his family was forced to flee from their apartment, the day a shell blew up his father’s green Stojadin car, the napkin caricature gifted to him by a painter whose son had been killed in the first Markale massacre. Yet alongside this painful reminiscence, Halilović also has vivid memories of his first childhood love, Mirela; the time he published a poem in a local children’s magazine; wars using the seeds of horse chestnut trees and football matches with friends; the day his sister, Ajdina, was born.
This paradoxical but vital worldview—what Halilović calls “the enormous capacity of youngsters to adapt to the worst circumstances possible, to create and preserve their world of play and imagination even when the actual world around them is literally collapsing”—is at the heart of War Childhood: Sarajevo 1992-1995. The book was initially seeded as a memoir. Then, following a 2010 online call for single, text message-length testimonies from survivors, many of whom are now scattered across the globe, it grew into a kaleidoscope of childhood memories from over 1,000 of Halilović’s former peers, buttressed by analysis of the conflict, extended diary entries, and photographs of preserved family artefacts and heirlooms. It’s a haunting compendium, but also a hopeful one.
I exchanged a number of emails and phone calls with Halilović throughout the fall of this year, most recently on the eve of his trip to Tokyo for the launch of the Japanese edition of the book. Among other topics, we discussed the therapeutic aspects of the War Childhood Project, the layered nature of Sarajevo’s historical and cultural identity, the problematic fallout from the Dayton Accords, and his hopes for the second phase of the initiative: the opening of the War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo in 2016.
—Dan Sheehan for Guernica
Guernica: Tell me a bit about how the idea for the War Childhood Project came to you. How did it evolve from an initial impulse to tell your own story into such an ambitious living document, one which ultimately came to include more than 1,000 voices?
Jasminko Halilović: For years I dreamt of writing a book that would preserve my memories of childhood in war. I was only four years old when the war started, and although I had learned to read and write, if awkwardly, at a rather early age, my war diaries were not as comprehensive or reliable as those written by older children. More serious investigation into different publication routes revealed that some personal diaries from the Bosnian War, which surpassed my own scribbles in both depth and clarity, had already been published. Yet the prevailing literature still lacked extensive accounts of the collective experience of childhood during the Bosnian War. This is how the idea to create a book that transcended my personal account and incorporated the memories and insights of my peers was born. The book developed into a platform for dialogue; more than 1,000 people, who were just children during the war that shook Bosnia in the 1990s and are presently dispersed across thirty-five different countries around the globe, had the opportunity to share their short recollections.
Guernica: Why did you choose the text message format as a way to gather the reminiscences of survivors?
Jasminko Halilović: I had been ruminating on the concept of the book and how to engage with the questions that arose from it long before it was finalized. Many dilemmas emerged during the process: whether to include twenty, fifty, or 100 people; in what form to present their recollections; how much space to devote to each memory. Then it struck me that this experience is so complex and multifaceted that it can’t be properly represented unless approached from hundreds of different angles. In the era of “micro” formats—texting and tweeting—I decided to experiment with a similarly short format to present the peculiar experience of growing up in wartime. In the end, it was exactly this concept—a mosaic of short reminiscences written by over a thousand people—that won over the audience.
My sister’s birth, a couple of days before the signing of the Dayton Accords, marked the end of the war, as well as the beginning of the rest of my life.
Guernica: You were just a child when the war in Bosnia broke out. What are your enduring memories of the siege?
Jasminko Halilović: There are many. During the first weeks of the siege I experienced intense hunger. I got a bruise on my forehead when I hit the floor of an uncomfortable van that was rushing at lightning speed to drive my family and me to another, safer part of the city. I lived in my father’s office for fifteen months, bathing in a washbowl. Mirela, my first childish love, was killed. I watched the 1994 World Cup—these were the first soccer matches that I remember vividly. I couldn’t understand how it was possible that somewhere in the world people played soccer while here war raged. Still, I rooted for Italy and cried when Roberto Baggio missed a penalty in the final. My sister’s birth, a couple of days before the signing of the Dayton Accords, marked the end of the war, as well as the beginning of the rest of my life.
Guernica: One of the most poignant and affecting aspects of this book, for me, is the frequency with which contributors invoke the memories of cherished childhood items—things a political commentator might dismiss as insignificant or ignore completely—in their testimonies. The book itself is peppered with images of these items—an Alf doll, an ice-cream wrapper, a coloring book, a piece of Cunga Lunga bubble gum. What does a focus on these talismans, these “childish things,” tell us about life under siege that a colder, more prosaic focus might not?
Jasminko Halilović: Looking at what children decided to hold on to and to cherish reveals the enormous capacity of youngsters to adapt to the worst circumstances possible, to create and preserve their world of play and imagination even when the actual world around them is literally collapsing. Driven by the need for self-preservation, many kids saved their toys from burning houses or kept them through exile, among their family’s limited luggage. We begin to recognize each other and ourselves in these objects; they are a basis for empathy and mutual understanding. It is exactly in these items—improvised and store-bought toys alike—that individuals’ childhoods intersect, regardless of their cultural, historical, or socioeconomic context.
While working on the book, I realized that, twenty years after the war, many survivors still hold on to relics of their childhoods. Not only did I include photographs of these personal belongings and memorabilia in the book, but I also began dreaming of a physical space, a museum, where they could be kept and exhibited.
Even though a wartime childhood is almost exclusively viewed through the prism of suffering, it is actually much more than that.
Guernica: Along similar lines, it was heartening to see that, despite the horrors endured, so many survivors mentioned play or attempts at play in their brief testimonies. In fact, according to your statistics, “shelling” and “basement” are the only subjects mentioned with more frequency. Were you surprised that so many participants submitted these lighter, more hopeful memories from such a dark period?
Jasminko Halilović: I wasn’t too surprised, because I also had such memories. It would more likely come as a surprise to readers who didn’t have any experience of growing up in a war. Even though a wartime childhood is almost exclusively viewed through the prism of suffering, it is actually much more than that. Of course, given the limited space provided to participants, you couldn’t expect that someone who lost a family member or a friend during the war would dedicate this space to a favorite toy or a game. But those who didn’t have such tragic losses very often devoted their short recollections entirely to the fleeting moments of happiness. This book teaches us about children’s strength and resilience. Nevertheless, we have to approach the concept of resilience cautiously, not letting it become an excuse for adults to continue with armed conflicts. The fact that some children successfully cope with the adversities and memories of war doesn’t mean that war has no profound, lasting consequences in their lives. It doesn’t mean that around us, in all the conflict and post-conflict zones, the lives of people who grew up during wartime haven’t been forever changed by this experience.
Guernica: I imagine that for many of the contributors, particularly those who emigrated during the siege and did not return to Bosnia, there was a tremendous sense of catharsis to be felt in opening up about these painful formative years. You exchanged emails with hundreds of these people; do you think that by volunteering to be part of the War Childhood Project they were also engaging in a form of therapy?
Jasminko Halilović: Absolutely. While working on this book, I had already received a large number of emails in which participants talked at length about their experiences, and some of them indicated that this was the first time in twenty years that they were writing or speaking about it. But it was only after the book had been published that I became aware of the effect that it had on the participants. I will share with you the stories of two young, successful ladies, both named Ivana. Ivana P. lives in Canada now. In the book, in response to the question “What was a war childhood for you?” she wrote: “Now that I am older, I feel guilty for not having stayed longer, until the end of the war.” After the book arrived to her in Canada, she contacted me and said that her parents had also read it, and, for the first time since their refuge, they talked to her about some of their experiences. There were other similar instances in which the book helped participants start a dialogue with their families.
Ivana V. is now pursuing a doctorate in Germany. Her recollection in the book was: “I was overtaken by fear. The blood flowed, and I uttered: ‘Mom, why me?’ and I thought what wrong had I done to God…” Ivana V. was injured during the war in Sarajevo when she was nine years old, so she was evacuated to Germany for her treatment, finally settling down in Croatia in the war’s aftermath. For the next eighteen years, two-thirds of her life actually, she couldn’t find the courage to come back to her home city, despite passing through Bosnia many times. When the book was published, she decided to come to its launch in Sarajevo. Afterwards, she visited the city several times, and in her speech at the book presentation in the European Parliament she said: “I will be thankful for [this project] for the rest of my life. It was wonderful being home again, and ever since then, I finally don’t dream of wandering around anymore.”
Guernica: Toward the end of the book, you include a number of longer diary entries by a then-fifteen-year-old boy, Admir Kadric, who was diagnosed with leukemia at the beginning of the siege. What was it about his account that resonated so strongly with you?
Jasminko Halilović: I had already finished editing the book, and the designers were working hard to create its layout, when I got an email from Admir, who sent me his diary entries. I opened the attachment, saw that it contained tens of pages, and, tired as I was at that time, I simply closed the file without reading its content. The concept of this book was a mosaic of short recollections; I had already contacted hundreds of [people], the whole process lasting more than two years, and I felt quite exhausted. And then, one night, when design was almost done, I was lying awake in bed, wondering whether I had failed to include something or made any mistakes during the editing. Then I remembered Admir’s email: I had never actually seen what was written in his diaries! I got up in the middle of the night and started reading his journals. It was the most memorable account that I had ever received. I decided to enclose this material in the third part of the book, which already contained some of the photographs, letters, and diary entries.
In brief: Admir arrived in Sarajevo for leukemia treatment before the onset of the war. When the war started, Admir, then a fifteen-year-old teenager, remained in the hospital all alone, cut off from his parents. In his diaries, he describes his battle against both the malignant disease, and the terrible events unfolding around him. This story had a happy ending: Admir was evacuated to Germany to continue his treatment; he was cured and some time later he reunited with his parents. Today, he is a successful young man. Admir was one of the promoters of the book at its first presentation in Sarajevo and later in Graz, Austria, where he lives now.
Europe and the rest of the world confirmed at Sarajevo’s expense that neither all cities nor all lives are equally valuable.
Guernica: A recent New York Times travel article describes Sarajevo as a city which “[h]aving witnessed mankind’s capacity for violence…[is now] demonstrating the capacity to rebuild with art that nourishes and heals,” and says that to visit the capital is to “witness both our modern civilization’s greatest sorrows and greatest triumphs.” I’m thinking in particular about the detailed restoration of the National and University Library that was completed in 2014. How significant has Sarajevo’s identity as a cultural and artistic heartland been in the rebuilding process?
Jasminko Halilović: Sarajevo’s cultural and historical significance certainly played a part in garnering the world’s attention during its sudden devastation; U2 sang of “Miss Sarajevo,” and the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer in 1994 called for the city’s rescue. On the other hand, the war revealed that Bosnia, as a state, and Sarajevo as its capital held far less sway than their European counterparts. Imagine the Eiffel Tower burning before the world’s eyes; the international community’s available resources would immediately have been redirected toward saving Paris. Unfortunately, Europe and the rest of the world confirmed at Sarajevo’s expense that neither all cities nor all lives are equally valuable. Sarajevo, consequently, raised its own defense to survive—and succeeded. Cultural resistance was another aspect to this struggle: during the war in Sarajevo cinema, theater, and literature lived on. Now, just as then, art and culture remain an important means of uniting communities that war and its aftermath have pulled apart.
However, the post-conflict period has been defined by a new set of issues. Amid corruption, failed privatization ventures in the business sector, and generalized public disillusionment, Sarajevo’s cultural initiatives have become an afterthought. While the local arts scene isn’t insignificant, its accomplishments and truly world-class contributions these past twenty years can only be attributed to the brilliant and committed individuals running the show. And like other cities, Sarajevo continues to evolve without losing sight of its history. These emerging layers of identity build off of former ones, rather than substituting or effacing them completely. The consequent layering effect, its dynamics and the interaction between new and old, keeps cities fresh and enticing, and it will be interesting to see this new face of Sarajevo as it develops.
Guernica: The 1995 Dayton Accords have been described as a “construction of necessity,” commended initially for bringing an end to open hostilities and hastening postwar reconstruction but criticized for sowing the seeds of long-term instability and sectarianism by creating a decentralized political system that undermined the state’s authority and agency. Now that two decades have passed, how do Sarajevans feel about the controversial accords?
Jasminko Halilović: It is true that the Dayton Peace Accords paralyzed many of the state’s functions, institutionalizing structures that have kept the same incompetent politicians on rotation these past twenty years and establishing a state in which the basic human rights of minorities are threatened daily. So it is easy to conclude that the agreement’s legacy has been to the detriment of not only everyday Bosnian citizens, but also the country as a whole. This is the widespread opinion among Sarajevans, who in recent years have attributed a malfunctioning government to the fault-ridden Dayton Accords. Sadly, the failures of the Dayton Accords have become the preferred excuse for issues that could comfortably be resolved at a local level, such as Sarajevo’s crumbling water infrastructure, an increasing number of stray dogs, and corruption in both healthcare and education. It is as though all interventions are on hold, “because nothing can be done at the state level” or because the Dayton Agreement simply is “no good.” Regardless of the problematic nature of the Dayton Agreement, had Sarajevo’s leaders exhibited the requisite skill and good will, we would already know a truly renewed and altogether more attractive city.
Guernica: It was recently announced that the second phase of your War Childhood initiative, the opening of a War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo, will be happening next year. First of all, congratulations! What is your vision for how the museum will operate? What is the significance in preserving, and showcasing to the general public, these collected artefacts of wartime?
Jasminko Halilović: Thank you! While working on the book I realized a couple of things: that many people still keep their war diaries, letters, toys, and other memorabilia from that period; that a large number of these objects has already been damaged or lost; and that it is extremely important for the survivors to have an opportunity to share these objects and corresponding personal stories.
That was the moment when I began to dream about creating a War Childhood Museum. We officially began developing the methodology for the initial collection at the start of this year, focusing on the lived experience of growing up during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In addition to physical artefacts and documents, we are working toward a multimedia archive with a collection of survivors’ video testimonies forming an oral history at its core. We plan to open the museum in May 2016 and, after its opening, we will continue to do research and documentation of the experience of growing up in wartime not only in Bosnia and the Balkans, but also in other conflict and post-conflict zones around the world. Our ten-year goal is to create the world’s largest archive dedicated to childhood in war. We believe that the museum will provide not only a uniquely interactive platform for survivors to share and discuss their experiences, but that it will also enable researchers and professionals in related fields to study this subject further. On an individual level, our vision is to help people overcome their traumatic experiences and to come to terms with the past, possibly preventing the transmission of trauma to the next generations. On a collective level, we hope that this project will contribute to the ongoing process of understanding and reconciliation.
Guernica: For a long time Sarajevo was famously known as the “Jerusalem of Europe,” a religious and cultural crossroads where the intermingling of faiths and backgrounds was not just tolerated but celebrated as a unique and intrinsic aspect of the city. In light of recent history, is it naïve to hope that it could be this again?
Jasminko Halilović: War didn’t end the celebration of diversity in Sarajevo; a majority of Sarajevans praised it throughout the war and continue to do so today. In that sense Sarajevo remains a unique capital city not only in the Balkans, but also in Europe as a whole. The question then becomes: Is it naïve to expect that the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina and our neighbours will adopt a similar openness to and celebration of heterogeneity? Europe’s insufficient response to the largest refugee crisis since World War II has been telling; even the world’s most developed regions have retained certain levels of xenophobic resistance to the diversity that, I believe, is imperative for a better future. These are the growing pains that Sarajevo overcame centuries ago, perhaps not by its own pure will so much as by historical circumstance. Of course, Sarajevo is not immune to current affairs, be they local or global. Having been scarred by both war and reconstruction, the city is changing once again in response to global sociopolitical and economic dynamics. The resulting changes may appear daunting to locals, but history reveals that the city has faced more dramatic transitions in the past. And throughout its turbulent evolution Sarajevo has preserved its identity as a seductive city with open arms.
Jasminko Halilović is currently looking for an English language publisher for War Childhood. Those interested in publishing or promotion can contact him at email@example.com.
To contact Guernica or Dan Sheehan, please write here.