April 2017 marked 25 years since the first shells fell on the city of Sarajevo in what was to become the longest siege of a capital in the history of modern warfare. Each passing month since then has presented another macabre silver anniversary. May 19th, 1992: Admira Ismić and Boško Brkić, a mixed Bosnian-Serbian couple are shot by snipers while trying to flee the city together. August 25th, 1992: Vijećnica, the beautiful pseudo-Moorish library on the banks of the Miljacka river, is razed to the ground, the ashes of its 1.5 million irreplaceable volumes falling upon the surrounding streets like snowflakes. June 1st, 1993: 13 people are killed and 133 wounded in a mortar attack on a youth football game in the Dobrinja suburb on the first day of a Muslim holiday. February 5th, 1994: the first Markale massacre in which the targeted shelling of a civilian market in the heart of the old town kills 68 and wounds 144.
These are just a handful of atrocities among many thousands in a relentless campaign of urbicide that didn’t let up for almost four years. When the last of the guns in the hills above the city were finally silenced at the beginning of 1996, there wasn’t a building in Sarajevo left unscarred. Whole districts of homes were returned to their surviving owners as little more than uninhabitable husks. Sports pitches and parks whose trees had been cleared for coffin wood now housed makeshift graveyards. Winter Olympics facilities, once gleaming emblems of the ’84 Games, the first to be held in a socialist country, were left abandoned in a state of almost haunted decrepitude.
By the time the Dayton Peace Accords were signed in December of 1995, over 11,500 Sarajevans had lost their lives. At least 521 of these were children. UNICEF estimated that of the approximately 70,000 children living in the city during the period, 40 percent had been shot at, 39 percent had seen one or more family members killed, and 89 percent had been moved back and forth from underground shelters to escape the shelling. The damage done to the collective psyche of a people who were forced in their formative years to spend 1425 days under such a dark and terrible cloud remains, and will perhaps forever remain, unquantifiable.
Jasminko Halilović and Amina Krvavac, respectively the Founder and Executive Director of Sarajevo’s War Childhood museum, were themselves just children when the war in Bosnia broke out. Like tens of thousands of others mired in that brutal and protracted assault, their childhoods were marked by fear, displacement, and the constant specter of sudden, violent death. “In those days of madness,” Halilović recalled in his 2013 book, War Childhood: Sarajevo 1992-1995, “apartment after apartment in our building would empty. Some were fleeing to other parts of the city, some fled abroad, some to the other side. For years afterwards I would wonder how anyone could persuade people who had lived on the same street all of their lives that from tomorrow they were ‘on different sides.’ Even today, I have no answer.”
“It all started with a simple question: What was a war childhood for you?”
Halilović’s War Childhood project was originally conceived as a memoir, but a chance online appeal for text message-length reminiscences from survivors yielded so many responses that the resultant book became something else entirely: a mosaic of micro-testimonials, diary entries, photographs, and historical analyses combining to form a heartbreaking yet unexpectedly hopeful tribute to the resilience and optimism of the young.
It all started with a simple question: What was a war childhood for you?
“Collecting bullet casings and playing with them instead of real toys!” goes one exuberant reply. “I remember the scorched sky when I tried to see the stars through the window in the dark,” recalls another. One contribution simply reads: “Hell.” More than 1,000 war children, many of whom had never before discussed their experiences and are now dispersed across 35 different countries, call out from the pages of Halilović’s book with stories of playmates lost and first loves found, tragedies suffered and small joys preserved.
As a child growing up in early-to-mid 90s Dublin, I had experienced the Northern Ireland Troubles in sound rather than image—background family chatter and evening news updates on a cooling conflict whose worst horrors seemed mostly to predate my awareness, save for when a stretch of cautious negotiation was interrupted by sporadic, but ever-dwindling, outbursts of extreme violence. The war in Bosnia, on the other hand, seemed to be suspended in a state of sustained chaos and brutality for which I had no frame of reference. Television reporters, I thought, were supposed to calmly cover the aftermath of bombings, not stand in front of their booming continuance. Skeletal bodies behind barbed wire fences belonged in an era of grainy black and white photographs, not color television broadcasts.
The idea that hundreds of thousands of people could be trapped for so long in a city that was, shell by shell, bullet by bullet, being wiped from the face of the earth, while the world looked on, was incomprehensible to me.
This is how you kill a city, I would think many years later. First you turn it into a cage, one from which none but a lucky few can escape. Then you set about rewriting its very identity. You gun down its people, extinguishing the blended communities that are such an affront to your newly-radicalized sense of self. You target its municipal buildings, its commercial sector, its newspaper offices and television towers, its schools and hospitals and kafanas and football fields. But you don’t stop there. You have to destroy the very things that made it unique, that tether the present to the past, the markers of its long-integrated identity: those neighboring houses of worship and centers of learning by which it earned the moniker “Jerusalem of Europe.” Ultimately, you don’t merely destroy the city. You make its very name synonymous with destruction.
And yet, Sarajevo survived. It sustained the kind of damage no city, no people, could ever reasonably expect to endure—but did not fall. When I visited for the first time in 2007, bullet-pocked buildings still lined every street. Sarajevo Roses—paw-print holes in the concrete, filled with bright red resin to memorialize those killed by mortar shells—could still be easily found. The fire-ravaged Vijećnica was still years away from reopening. To a green 19-year-old from Dublin, it seemed like a place almost entirely defined by recent horrors. The siege had remade every street, every neighborhood, every park and playing field and graveyard, and their altered states served as daily reminders of just how much had been taken.
Returning in September of last year, I stopped by the Olympic Hotel Holiday—formerly the Holiday Inn, perhaps the building most recognizable to the outside world as the place from which foreign journalists filed news reports during the siege. Located on “Sniper Alley,” the area around the giant yellow building was one of the most lethally dangerous in the city, in immediate proximity to the front line. But instead of burnt-out cars and chunks of fallen plaster, the grounds of its current incarnation—which has been refurbished and polished, inside and out, to a high shine—now include a restaurant extension and a colorful playground.
I walked up into the hills, past sprawling cemeteries—each one immaculately maintained and sprinkled with mourners, many of whom had brought entire families to pay their respects during the holy period—to the Yellow Fortress high above the city. From there, through the evening haze, you could peer down into the valley and see the entirety of the city—every slatted terra cotta rooftop and minaret and bright white patch of headstones.
Despite the efforts of a generation of determined and resilient people, the rebuilding of Bosnia has been an uphill battle. Unemployment in the country hovers around 40 percent, with youth levels closer to 60. One in five citizens live below the poverty line. The formal impediments to effective governance that sprang from the Dayton Peace Accords—which ended open hostilities but split the country into two ethnically-based political entities and established an ineffective and maddeningly complex co-governance structure that has entrenched sectarian division and scared off international investors—facilitated a now decades-long period of political stagnation, corruption and dog-whistle politics that shows no signs of abating.
The young people with whom I spoke often lamented that the promises of the immediate post-war years turned out to be false. Some were enraged at the continued ethnic segregation of schools and classes. Others decried police brutality and the mass privatization of government services. Most agreed that the government’s status as the primary stable employer allows it to maintain power by presenting desperate voters with an ultimatum: cast your ballot for us and you’ll have a pathway to employment—otherwise forget about it. Sadly, even among the citizens of the country’s cosmopolitan capital, the mood is palpably despondent.
For Halilović and Krvavac, attempting to build a museum in this climate was, unsurprisingly, challenging. Early proposed sites were denied, funding was scarce to nonexistent, and some took umbrage with the idea of building an apolitical center of remembrance while so many political grievances remain ignored. But Halilović and his team persevered. They collected artifacts from survivors and developed a cataloging system for them; translated the original War Childhood book into various languages; spoke about the project at conferences around the world and created a temporary exhibition that drew the attention of international media outlets like Reuters and the BBC.
In September of 2016, these efforts paid off: Sarajevo’s Old Town Municipality finally allocated a space to the War Childhood Museum and, in January of last year, it opened its doors to the public.
The museum sits on the edge of the Old Town, a little way up a steep, narrow street. Its name is emblazoned across the whitewashed façade in thick black capital letters, beside which stands the emblem of the War Childhood project: a young boy and girl, holding between them the string of a balloon shaped like a grenade. Inside, the exhibition rooms and hallways and are cloaked in shadow, with each donated artifact and its accompanying description illuminated inside a glass case or on top of a small plinth. As you walk past frayed stuffed animals, ballet shoes, ICAR ration cans, flak jackets, photographs, and video testimonials, snippets of remembrance are projected onto the wall above your head. One case houses only a small card with three golden fleurs-de-lis and the words Djećija Policija—Children’s Police—printed in red above the typed name of its proud former owner. Its description, like all the others, conjures up a life—in this instance, an all-too-brief one:
How happy and proud he was that day when he received this badge! With his very own name on it! Just imagine the honor! Imagine, he would be the one to protect order on our street.
He could not imagine that he would carry it for such a short time. He could not even imagine that in a single day, during a UN ceasefire . . . that a single piece of shrapnel would ruin everything. Since that day, nearly 25 years ago, I, his twin sister have carried his badge in my wallet. Proudly, but with a heavy heart.
Many of the short testimonials end this way—with the violent loss of a sibling, playmate, or parent. But for every memorial item, every emblem of the senseless carnage of the time, there is also a totem of happiness: a toy or a dress or a musical instrument that opens a portal to period of joy stolen amid the daily grind of siege living. One exhibit, titled “A Group of Happy Dolls,” consists of a motley crew of homemade stuffed companions: an unsteady giraffe, a ragdoll with drawn-on features, a bunny in an electric-rainbow workout outfit, and a plump seal with hypno-disc buttons for eyes.
My grandmother Jovanka made these toys.
My sister and I wanted a giraffe, but we did not have a pattern so we described for our grandmother what we wanted it to look like. First, we built a wireframe, then we covered it in sponge and rags. Only after that did we sew its “skin.” Its neck was too long and it would always topple over.
The seal was our “secret weapon,” because my sister and I primarily used it to beat each other. Our mischief left a mark on its fabric, particularly around the tail.
The doll was called Baby. Her dress was an old blouse of mine that I wore when I was only a few months old.
The bunny’s name is Goran and he was sewn from an old dress and coat. He was my favorite toy.
By focusing on the often-overlooked small joys and sorrows that make up young life, Halilović, Krvavac, and their team imbued the entire exhibition with its own quiet power. For Krvavac, who before encountering Halilović’s book had never dealt publically with her own wartime experience, the project’s mission became a way to come to terms with how the period shaped her own identity, and to alter the lens through which other people view her.
“I’m OK with empathy but I’m not OK with pity,” she explained over watermelon juice in Sarajevo’s newest (and, somewhat controversially, alcohol-prohibited) shopping mall, “so I’m very proud that the project allowed me to embrace the identity of an empowered survivor, rather than a victim, and that we can provide this feeling for all of our participants.”
Rather than cataloging the dead and wounded, the museum’s emphasis is always on the agency of survivors, the multi-faceted nature of a wartime childhood, and the creation of a community from which individual stories can be heard and supported. “I think the War Childhood project has the potential to serve as a global platform to connect people who share this experience,” Halilović said. “I imagine a day when a child refugee from a current conflict comes to a more settled society—let’s say from Syria to Germany. In Germany, there are thousands of well-integrated former Bosnian war children who could help this child with language, with school, with basic necessities, with sharing their stories, if there was someone to connect them.”
This desire to grow the War Childhood community, to extend its reach and utility beyond the Sarajevo valley and the Bosnian border, is what motivated the team to partner with a number of Lebanon-based organizations that work with child refugees of the Syrian conflict. After several months of remote collaboration and discussion, Krvavac and a small team of staffers decided to travel to the region to get a better sense of what was happening on the ground.
“Initially I was apprehensive,” she told me. “I knew how important it was that we tell these children’s stories, that we give them a voice and raise awareness about the kinds of conditions they’re living in, but I also worried that our entire mission would sound strange to them—asking people who have so few possessions left to hand one of them over to us, to tell us the story of how they became displaced by conflict. But all of the families we met were so welcoming and eager to talk about their experiences. It was an amazing, enriching visit.”
Far from being wary, it seemed that the children, especially the young girls, saw in Krvavac’s life story a kind of roadmap out of their current situation. If she could rise from the rubble of a war-torn country to excel at college, forge a successful career, start a family of her own, and contribute to a project that would touch the lives of thousands of other survivors, then perhaps they could, too.
A verdict in the trial of Ratko Mladić, the once-hulking commander of the Bosnian-Serb forces—who presided over not just the four-year destruction of Sarajevo, but also the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in which 8,000 Muslim men and boys from the besieged enclave were taken from their families and summarily executed—was handed down in the Hague last November. With it, the last high-profile trial of the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia—the UN body established to prosecute serious crimes committed during the Yugoslav Wars—came to a close.
Mladić, more so than perhaps any other individual, embodied the bloodiest and most senselessly brutal aspects of the war in Bosnia. For many Bosnians, his conviction for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide marked the end of the darkest chapter in living memory, and has provided a long-awaited modicum of justice, perhaps even of peace. For others, the trial’s duration, the knowledge that thousands of soldiers under Mladic’s former command will never see the inside of a jail cell, and the belief that the general’s goal of tearing Bosnia apart has in many ways succeeded, made this verdict a hollow victory.
Other museums in Sarajevo and throughout Bosnia will have updated their exhibitions to include this verdict, but however much its founders and staff may privately rejoice, neither Mladic’s face nor the news that he will spend the rest of his life behind bars will appear among the exhibits in the War Childhood museum. You won’t see his name added to a list of convicted war criminals. There will not be, nor has there ever been, any blanket condemnation of the Bosnian Serb or Bosnian Croat communities, or call for testimonies only from Bosnian Muslims. It’s just not how they do things.
“By not making an explicit political statement, we are making a political statement.” Halilović explained last September. “We obviously have our own political positions, but we also know that there’s no point in doing all of this if it isn’t going to be completely universal and inclusive. If we’re going to talk about the war childhood experience, then that also means the war childhood experience in Syria, in the Ukraine, in Sudan.”
“Children in war are children in war, whatever ethnicity they may be,” Krvavac continues, “The point of the museum is not to point out who is guilty or who did what. We hope that being apolitical is one of our strengths, because it means that we can be a place of reconciliation, here and abroad. I think that this all-encompassing approach makes it far easier to bridge the gap between local citizens and the refugee communities.”
“If we’re going to talk about the war childhood experience, then that also means the war childhood experience in Syria, in the Ukraine, in Sudan.”
There are of course those who don’t, and will never, agree with this approach; those who believe that any concession to shared experience or reconciliation undermines the very real political grievances they still have with Serbia and the Dayton-mandated Bosnian-Serb statelet of Republika Srpska, the mere existence of which affronts many survivors. But Halilović maintains that the vast majority of Sarajevans, even those who don’t fully agree with the museum’s policy, can see it for the honest endeavor it is, and therefore respect the project. More paradoxically, many seem to be able to maintain their long-held political positions while still recognizing the benefit, and even the necessity, of the museum’s approach in the current climate.
My return to the city last September coincided with Eid al-Adha. It was a beautiful, quiet time to be a wanderer in Sarajevo, to stroll along the banks of the Miljacka river reading the histories of its ancient bridges, or through the old town as the call to prayer sounded and the courtyard of the Gazi Husrev-beg mosque filled with worshipers. I lingered outside kafanas and drank thick Bosnian coffee, garnished with small squares of rose-colored Turkish delight, from the ornate copper serving sets that sit in the windows of every craft store and market. As I sat in the park one afternoon, three tiny girls in matching white dresses emerged to play among the pieces of a giant chess set there, laughing as they followed each other from square to sunlit square. The eldest was about six years old, the youngest no more than two. Children of war children.
It’s difficult to predict from where an improvement in Bosnia’s fortunes will come. The political, economic, and societal challenges facing this traumatized nation are considerable, and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future. Maybe it’s naïve to think that a wound so deep, so unsatisfactorily treated, could heal within the lifetimes of those who suffered it. But there is a new generation of school-aged, post-conflict Bosnian kids who want to know what happened during the war.
And maybe the first history lessons that resonate with them won’t come from partisan school rooms or red-faced politicians on the television news. Maybe they’ll come from a field trip to a small museum on Logavina street. Maybe the image they’ll take home to their parents will be that of a little boy and girl, staring upwards at an unusual balloon. A symbol of hope, drawn from horror.
In December of 2018, the War Childhood Museum was awarded the Council of Europe Museum Prize. The judging panel praised the museum’s “real potential to serve as a powerful self-sustained model of civic initiative” and said it offered an example that could be replicated in other major conflict and post-conflict zones in the world.
Dan Sheehan’s new novel, Restless Souls, is available from Ig Publishing.