My Childhood under Fire: A Sarajevo Diary
Written by Nadja Halilbegovich
Kids Can Press, 2008, 120 pp.
This moving autobiographical book focuses on the actual experiences of a young girl, Nadja, and her family during the siege of Sarajevo in 1992. When the siege officially began, Nadja Halilbegovich was twelve years old. In her diary, she documents the events of the next three and a half years and her feelings about them. Interspersed with the vignettes are simple drawings and photographs she created to accompany the vignettes. For instance, “Bombs are exploding all over the city. I hide my feelings from everyone, but I am drowning in despair. When will this war end? For how long will my life consist of the dead space between two explosions?” (p.53). Nadja writes of her wishes for the violence to end, the stress of having her mother go to work with the threat of sniper fire all around and her own injury with the subsequent painful recovery. At the same time, Nadja sings in a children’s choir, asks why there is not more help from the international community and shares her poetry over the radio waves with her fellow citizens of Sarajevo. Eventually, Nadja endures a treacherous journey in an underground tunnel not large enough for her to stand upright in order to escape to safety to a foster family in America.
This book is one of several diaries published by young people who lived through these traumatic events as ethnic, religious and political unrest was the norm in this geographical area during the late eighties and early nineties. Other diaries include Zlata’s Diary (Filipovich, 1994) and Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia (Heleta, 2008). In addition to her diary entries, Nadja includes passages written from the perspective of being an adult looking back on these events. Her initial diary began when she was twelve and ended with her escape at the age of sixteen. Her book was published in 2006 when she was twenty-six. In addition to the powerful rendering of a young girl’s struggle to grow up in an untenable circumstance while retaining her optimism and desire to work toward creating a world where other young people are not subject to living through war and violent conflict, Nadja addresses the issues of conflict resolution and peace-making. In a 2006 interview, Nadja comments “I hope to continue speaking and sharing my story and message. I hope that many children, teenagers and adults will read my book and be inspired to become peacemakers in their everyday life.” (http://www.associatedcontent.com). She also includes a series of black and white photographs which show her as a child, her family, her friends and returning to the tunnel through which she escaped. These photographs give context to the narrative.
A common complaint about this text is that it does not specifically address the causes of war or provide maps and other historical information to help readers learn about this war, which is not well publicized or studied about in the United States. However, the text is a diary which by its very nature reflects the experiences of an individual. This text does a wonderful job of introducing adolescent readers to the challenges of living through war. By experiencing the conflict through the eyes of one young woman, it feels very real and concrete. This is not an abstract exploration of war in general; it is a personal narrative that is descriptive and clear without being overly graphic or glorifying the violence that does occur. For instance, Nadja describes chopping up the furniture to use in the wood burning stove her family was fortunate to acquire and discovering the mushrooms her father cooked for dinner were actually snails he collected in nearby fields. These sorts of detail add to the cultural authenticity and the ability of readers to relate to a situation with which they may not have a personal experience.
As an adult, Nadja is a public speaker, activist and performer about issues of war and peace. By pairing this diary with her speeches and interviews, the issues of war and conflict can be addressed more broadly. As she states in one interview,
The first time I went back was in the summer of 1996 and it was both wonderful and painful. Of course, it was wonderful to be back home, see my parents, family and friends, but much of the city was in ruins and the lasting consequences of the three and a half years of destruction were very disheartening. The factories, businesses, schools and every part of the city life had to be rebuilt and nourished back to what it was before the war. Over the past decade, I’ve learned that it takes a long time to rebuild a war torn country. It is much easier to destroy than to create (www.associatedcontent.com).
Statements such as these provide ample fodder for teachers and students to explore which will result in developing empathy for Nadja and other children living through conflicts not of their own making. Additionally, this diary is a wonderful addition to a text set of other similar texts of children living through conflict like The Diary of Anne Frank and A Long Way Gone by Ismael Beah (2007). This diary is set apart from Zlata’s Diary (Zlata Filipovic, 2007) the more popular text dealing with the siege of Sarajevo because Zlata clearly expresses her awareness that she was writing her diary as a record of war and expected it might be shared with a larger audience. She had read and been influenced by Anne Frank—The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank, 1953). My Childhood under Fire does not have the stated intention of addressing a wider audience or serving as a chronicle of war. Instead, this diary serves as a powerful testament to the resiliency of the human spirit, the ingenuity of people in difficult circumstances, the will to survive, common concerns experienced by many adolescents and an exploration of how and why people tolerate this type of conflict in our world.
University of Arizona and Amerischools College Prep Academy, Tucson, AZ