Friday, January 28, 2005

A Child of War

I just finished reading Zlata's Diary (© 1994, Penguin Books), the journal of a Bosnian girl who was in her pre-teen years between 1991 and 1993, as her city of Sarajevo was engulfed in the Balkan Wars. I read the diary because I will be teaching three movies in the coming weeks that attempt to represent the horrors, the personal dramas, and the absurdities subsumed within the Balkan conflicts and the international (non)-responses to that crisis: the Macedonian film Before the Rain, the Oscar-winning Bosnian film No Man's Land, and the British war-journalist drama Welcome to Sarajevo (in which a young girl of Zlata's age plays an important role). All of these movies had significant critical pushes but still failed to catch on with audiences—continuing the American trend of incomprehension and seeming indifference to the crisis in the Balkans.

For better or for worse, the bestselling Zlata's Diary, rather sentimentally marketed (and self-consciously written) as a counterpart to Anne Frank's WWII journal, was the one cultural artifact that seemed to connect with American audiences. The book is still inspiring people, especially young children, to think and learn about the daily violence that confronts so many people in the world. And since the experience of war seems depressingly consistent from location to location, reading Zlata's Diary today gives some impression of what the passing days must feel like for any number of children in Iraq or Afghanistan, Sudan or the Congo, and in any zone of any country where either state violence or street violence continues to run rampant. Zlata Filipović may not say anything remarkably profound (she is eleven, after all), and reading her diary is not an excuse for ignoring the deeper facts about the Balkans or about the other wars that her journal may put you in mind of. Obviously, there are many other books that cut much deeper and say much more. But if you have two or three hours (it's a short book), it's not a bad way to remind yourself of what millions of children her age are experiencing, and it might well incite you to donate to UNICEF or any number of other charities and NFPs that are working to reduce the number of Zlatas in the world and take better care of the ones we already have.

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