WORLD

Dear diary

A Sarajevo girl’s war journal ignites controversy

PATRICIA CHISHOLM March 28 1994
WORLD

Dear diary

A Sarajevo girl’s war journal ignites controversy

PATRICIA CHISHOLM March 28 1994

Dear diary

WORLD

BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA

A Sarajevo girl’s war journal ignites controversy

PATRICIA CHISHOLM

In the past three weeks, 13-year-old Zlata Filipovic has met President Bill Clinton, fielded questions from powerful U.S. senators and appeared on the Today show. Her heart-shaped face recently gazed from the cover of Newsweek and, in May, she is scheduled to meet the Pope. Widely hailed as “Bosnia’s Anne Frank,” Filipovic has attained celebrity status as the author of a diary that chronicles her family’s struggle to

survive during the siege of Sarajevo. An affecting tale of the fear, hardship and growing desperation felt by ordinary residents of Sarajevo trapped in the two-year-old ethnic conflict, the diary became an instant bestseller when it was published in France late last year. By last week, Zlata’s Diary was a Top 10 best-seller in Britain, the United States and Canada. But having survived the bombardment of her native city, Filipovic is now the target of attacks from critics, some of whom have questioned the political and commercial motives behind the diary’s publication and cast doubt on its authenticity. “This is a vicious attack,” says Susanna Lea, foreign rights director for Editions Robert

Laffont/Fixot, Filipovic’s French publisher. “Zlata herself is very hurt by it.”

The growing controversy over Zlata’s Diary has been fuelled by negative reviews in such publications as The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic and The Globe and Mail. Some reviewers complain that parts of the book appear to have been written or heavily revised by its editors. And as a publicity juggernaut rolled through five U.S. cities last week, other critics questioned the commercial motives behind the publication. The tour’s promoters, Penguin Books Ltd. of London, paid $760,000 for the English-language rights to the diary. And Universal Pictures has paid $1.4 million for film rights.

8isB*Ä In most quarters, however, there has been nothing but praise for Filipovic herself, who has succeeded in putting a human face on a war that too often seems incomprehensible. Asked recently about her long-term goals, the young writer replied modestly: “I would just like to have a normal life.”

That poignant yearning for what should be the right of any youngster runs throughout the diary’s 185 pages. The only child of lawyer Malik Filipovic and his wife, Alicia, a biochemist, Zlata is of mixed Croatian, Serbian and Muslim descent. Her family is not religious. She says that she S began the diary in September, 1991,

1 with no thought that it might be pub-

2 fished. But only seven months later, I war erupted in Bosnia-Herzegovina § and her concerns turned abruptly

from Madonna, fashion and school to her family’s growing terror. At the onset of the fighting, all the windows in their apartment were shattered. Eventually, they were confined to only one room, the kitchen, which also became their bedroom and bathroom. During heavy shelling, they cowered in a dank, dark cellar. Most meals consisted of rice and beans, and there was seldom any electricity, running water or gas.

One of the few bright spots came in October, 1992, when the family learned that a portion of Zlata’s diary would be published by UNICEF, the United Nations children’s fund, in an attempt to draw attention to the plight of children in Sarajevo. The international agency had learned of Zlata’s diary from one of her teachers. The overwhelming response to the excerpt, released

in July, 1993, finally resulted in a promise of full publication in France. In December, 1993, the family received a UN escort out of the city by armored car and airplane. They now live in Paris.

That happy ending for the Filipovics helped fuel much of the criticism against the diary. Critics take exception to the inevitable comparisons between Filipovic and Anne Frank, the young Jewish girl who kept a diary for two years during the Second World War while her family hid from the Nazis in an Amsterdam warehouse. Filipovic herself is conscious of the parallel. In a March 30, 1992, entry, she wrote: “Hey, Diary! You know what I think? Since Anne Frank called her diary Kitty, maybe I could give you a name, too.” Each subsequent entry is addressed to “Mimmy,” a name with no apparent significance. In other sections of the diary and in public appearances, however, she is careful to note the many differences between herself and Frank, who died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 and who had no idea while she was writing her journal that it would one day be published.

Some critics have also questioned the authenticity of the diary. In The New Republic,

David Rieff, who has visited Bosnia and is writing a book about the region, alleges that significant additions were made to certain passages of the diary for partisan purposes. As proof, he compares the sections originally published by UNICEF with the North American edition. In the earlier version, entries under the same dates are far less detailed and lack specific references to the turmoil in the city. In response, Zlata claims that the earlier versions were edited and that all sections of the diary were written by her without assistance.

The Filipovics, still traumatized by their ex-

periences, are considering moving to Slovenia, where they have friends and relatives. They may even be able to return to Sarajevo, where warring Serbs and Muslims have signed an agreement to open roads to civilian traffic, effectively ending the 23-month siege of the Bosnian capital. And although Serbian and Muslim snipers continued to claim victims around Sarajevo, Bosnian Croats and Muslims also signed an accord to create a bicommunal federation in Bosnia, raising hopes that peace may spread throughout the region.

Zlata’s most important accomplishment may simply have been to draw a compelling portrait of the suffering behind the headlines of the Bosnian conflict. Even Serbian partisans acknowledge as much. “Hopefully, she’s trying to put a human face on a tragic conflict,” says Daniel Dostanich, executive director of the Serbian Media Centre in Toronto. “Bufi” he adds, “it is also intended as demonization of the Serbs.” In this most horrific and inexplicable of wars, the questions of innocence and guilt remain as insoluble as ever.

PATRICIA CHISHOLM