Wars in the Words of Children

April 03, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

Children and war. In a perfect world, those words would never appear in close company. But of course that is the real horror of war: too many of the victims are innocent -- non-combatants and non-political.

Zlata Filipovic's diary of the months she lived under siege in Sarajevo brings eerie echoes of that more famous chronicle of a wartime childhood, "The Diary of Anne Frank." That book recorded the thoughts and daily routines of a young Jewish girl and her family as they lived in hiding in an attic in Amsterdam during World War II. Eventually they were discovered and young Anne perished in the death camps of the Nazi Holocaust.

Zlata's story has a happier ending. After a teacher learned that she had been keeping a diary since September 1991, six months before the war began, UNICEF helped a small press in Sarajevo publish her diary last July. She then became a popular subject for journalists visiting the embattled city. In December, two days before Christmas, a French publisher managed to arrange for Zlata and her parents to escape Sarajevo for Paris.

She will never recapture the innocence of her idyllic years of childhood in Sarajevo. But, ironically perhaps, the diary into which young Zlata poured her frustrations and fears, her anger and sadness, not only helped preserve her sanity under siege, but also helped assure a future for her family.

Zlata Filipovic has now become something of a celebrity in Europe and the U.S. During her American book tour, she was asked to testify before a congressional committee. Resisting their attempts to lionize her courage and empathize with her suffering, she told the lawmakers that any child in Bosnia could take her place and tell the same story.

In many ways, that is true. But in her introduction to the diary, Janine Di Giovanni, a journalist who wrote about Zlata for the London Sunday Times, noted an important distinction between this young diarist and most other children battered by war and social upheavals:

"During the course of reporting the war in Bosnia, I met many children, sat with them in the hospital, in their homes, in orphanages. All of them were traumatized and shell-shocked. I spoke to psychiatrists who talked of post-traumatic stress syndrome and the effect of the war on all these children. Zlata was different: she was suffering, but because she was recording the events taking place around her, she tended to see the world from a slightly detached viewpoint. It was almost as though she was watching a film in which she was a character. There are hundreds of thousands like her in Bosnia: besieged, frightened, their short lives suddenly ground to a halt. The difference is that Zlata kept a careful record of the chilling events -- the deaths, the mutilations, the sufferings. . ."

The difference for Zlata was her diary. It represented psychic survival. The difference for her readers is that Zlata becomes a flesh and blood person, while other Bosnian children remain anonymous victims.

But all-out war is not the only threat to childhood. Closer to home, another diarist has provided glimpses of other childhood struggles, of a life lived in fear, of childhood threatened by violence and uncertainty.

Like Zlata Filipovic, LaToya Hunter found refuge in a diary. Her story, "The Diary of LaToya Hunter," chronicles a different kind of war, the struggle of a young girl in the Bronx to overcome a hostile world. Like Zlata's diary, LaToya's memoirs tell the story of a young girl braving a hostile environment. Published by Vintage Books, her diary of her first year in junior high school in the Bronx lacks the drama of long days spent in a dark, dank cellar, seeking refuge from artillery shells. But it does contain other nightmares, ones which many inner city American children live through. LaToya's entry from Jan. 9, 1991, is one example:

"Today gunshots echo in my head. They are the same gunshots that killed an innocent human being right across from my house last night. They are the same gunshots that have scarred me, I think, forever.

"Late last night, I was in bed when I heard a man screaming for a police officer. I told myself I didn't hear the four gunshots that followed his cry for help. I lay there in bed and it was like I was frozen. I didn't want to move an inch. I then heard hysterical crying. I ran to the window when I couldn't keep myself back any longer. What I saw outside were cops arriving. . . . It turned out that I knew the person who got shot. He worked at the store at the corner. He was always so nice to me, he was always smiling. He didn't know much English but we still managed a friendship." As our hearts go out to Zlata and the children of Sarajevo, let's not forget the wars closer to home.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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