________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 18 . . . .May 12, 2006


My Children Under Fire: A Sarajevo Diary.

Nadja Halilbegovich.
Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press, 2006.
120 pp., cloth, $16.95.
ISBN 1-55337-797-4.

Subject Headings:
Halilbegovich, Nadja, 1979--Diaries-Juvenile literature.
Yugoslav War, 1991-1995-Bosnia and Hercegovina-Sarajevo-Juvenile literature.
Yugoslav War, 1991-1995-Personal narratives, Bosnian-Juvenile literature.
Sarajevo (Bosnia and Hercegovina)-History-Juvenile literature.

Grades 5-7 / Ages 10-12.

Review by Harriet Zaidman.

** /4



My mother went to work despite the shelling. I am so worried when she goes out. Sometimes I huddle by the front door until she comes back.

We've heard that our defenders are advancing in the battles across Bosnia, so that the aggressors are taking their revenge on Sarajevo. They vent their anger on children and unarmed civilians.


The Bosnian War of 1992-1995 caused the deaths of more than 200,000 people and the displacement of nearly 2,000,000. In simplified terms, the war was the result the long break-up of Yugoslavia, a state created at the end of World War II under the leadership of Yosip Broz Tito. When he died in 1980, different nationalist and political forces, which Tito had suppressed, were able to rally support under ethnic and religious banners. Slobodan Milosevic, the leader of Serbia, among others, was later indicted for genocidal crimes in Bosnia. Unrepentant, he died recently in The Hague before his trial could be completed.

     Which side is responsible for the war probably depends on who is speaking. A generally accepted Western version (and this may be opening a discussion) is that Serbia invaded the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and began a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Muslim Bosnians. They are accused of forcing people into concentration camps, mass slaughter - such as the one that occurred in Srebrenica, where nearly 8000 men and boys were murdered, and the deliberate mass rape of Muslim women to "breed out" their ethnic strain.

     These were the events that destroyed the childhood of Nadja Halilbegovich, a happy 12-year-old in Sarajevo when the war began. She, her parents and brother spent the next three years trying to survive and maintain some degree of normalcy in their lives as they dodged snipers' bullets and sought shelter from bombs. Nadja began a diary to record events and confide her feelings as insanity swirled around her. She has published her diary to raise awareness about the devastation that war creates, that innocent civilians form the greatest number of victims and to encourage youth to work for peace. Her intention is to appeal to peoples' humanity, and in doing so, she refuses to lay blame and identify sides in the conflict. Her sorrow is the number of people who died unnecessarily and the destruction of the beautiful and historic city of Sarajevo that had been a jewel on the Adriatic.

      Unfortunately, her refusal to discuss the issues that began the war becomes the book's weakness. Other than mentioning that her father was dismissed from his job because he was Muslim, Halilbegovich does not examine the forces that created discrimination and aggression. While a teenager might not understand all the aspects of the controversy, these could have been explained in a prologue or in the sections called 'Looking Back' where, as an adult, she has inserted observations and comments. It is not necessary for her to 'take sides' if she objects to that. But without a context for the conflict (who were the 'aggressors' and the 'defenders' she speaks of?), the diary is uninteresting and slightly confusing. She writes "...adults and children of Bosnia have to fight for their future with their own blood." Why? Against what? The reader can only ponder.

      Halilbegovich was a talented child. Despite the dangers that the war created, she participated in a children's choir and performed on radio, reading poetry, excerpts from her diary, playing the guitar, and singing. She details these activities which were so important to keeping people's (and her) spirits alive. She also discusses the rigours of daily survival, including the lack of electricity, the need to chop furniture to start cooking fires in their apartment, the discovery that the mushrooms she so enjoyed for dinner were snails that her father had collected in fields. Any day, a neighbour or friend was killed randomly. Halilbegovich, herself, was nearly killed in an explosion after stepping outdoors for the first time in months. The state of constant uncertainty and terror was the norm, as were boredom and frustration for a child unable to attend school.

      Her parents were finally able to get her and later her brother, out of Sarajevo. Halilbegovich immigrated to the United States where she attended university. She has used her talents in her pursuit of peace, and she leaves the reader with these thoughts:

All of us have our own dreams and visions to fulfill. But our common dream is that of a world of peace and tolerance, in which we're respected and embraced for who we are. For this dream, we walk through the mud and darkness together because, in the end, the tunnel will take us to the world we want to live in.

...our common dream is that of a world of peace and tolerance.

     No, that is not the common dream of us all. There are some people who do not care about peace and tolerance. They care about power, accumulating land or riches. They do not mind seeing others suffer. They enjoy whipping up prejudices and conflict. It's a sad fact, as World War II proved, as the genocides and wars that have occurred since the Bosnian War have demonstrated. These people need restricting. The United Nations and regional organizations were established to take steps to prevent these people or groups from accomplishing their aims. Who needs to be restricted, how they should be restricted and who does the policing are all issues for debate. But it is nave to pretend that peace can emerge without identifying issues, leaders or their motives.

      Children need to be educated about world politics so that they can understand disputes and advocate for peace. Peace is not an abstract concept. This book can be used to teach them about the effects of war, but it is not a book that can be used to talk about how war can actually be prevented.

Recommended with reservations.

Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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