Book review

Zlata's Diary by Zlata Filipovic (1993)

Try to imagine, for a moment, what it would be like to live in a freezing cold house with no gas, electricity or water and insufficient food. You can't go outside because it isn't safe. There is no school. You don't see your friends. You've read all your books. You daren't play your piano because it is in the room which faces the snipers. You're growing out of all your clothes and shoes. You're frightened. People keep getting killed. And you don't know how long this is going to go on for.

Zlata was living in Sarajevo with her parents in 1991 when the civil war began to close in around her. Slowly, slowly, the commentary in her diary slides from chat about her life at school and weekend 'sleepovers' with her friends, to the political stirrings in the country round about her. Over the next few months Zlata has to face up to a lot. The shelling of Sarajevo starts, and many of Zlata's friends and relations pack up and leave to begin their lives as refugees. But Zlata stays behind. She spends a lot of time with her family in the cellar sheltering from the interminable bombardments. Food is scarce and becomes a topic of constant interest and concern. As winter approaches heating and cooking becomes a priority. There is no electricity and no water. And I still didn't really appreciate just how bad it was until I read this entry:

...Daddy's got frostbite on his fingers from cutting the wood in the cold cellar. They look awful. His fingers are swollen and now they're putting some cream on them, but they itch badly. Poor Daddy.

We see plenty of images of war on the TV these days, but it is the personal aspect which makes this book so touching. Zlata's mother copes tolerably well with the windows of the flat being blown in by the bombing, but locks herself in the bedroom and refuses to come out when a mouse scuttles across the living room floor:

... A tiny little mouse. So small that I barely recognized it for what it was. He ran under the built-in bookcase in the niche by the wall. Mummy screamed. She climbed on to a chair and then ran off into my room. I know she would have liked to run out of the house, but ... THERE'S A WAR ON.

Everyone must have found their own way of coping with the awful life. Zlata wrote all her hopes and fears down in her diary. She didn't understand the politics but understood only too well how the politicians were depriving her of her childhood:

... A schoolgirl without a school, without the fun and excitement of school. A child without games, without friends, without the sun, without birds, without nature, without fruit, without chocolate or sweets, with just a little powdered milk. In short, a child without a childhood. A wartime child.

I can't say I enjoyed this book, but Zlata wouldn't mind me saying that because she didn't write it for me to enjoy. She agreed to the publication of her diary because it is important to keep on telling the world about the devastating effect of war on everyone, especially children. Although finally she escaped from Sarajevo, there are still millions of children world-wide who live under the shadow of war, and we must never forget them.

What can I read next?

If you are interested in children trying to survive wars, you could look at this one about the Second World War by Gaye Hicyilmaz:

Or, slightly gentler, you might like to read this classic by Ian Seraillier:

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