Today I read My Childhood Under Fire: A Sarajevo Diary, by Nadja Halilbegovich (Kids Can Press, March 2006). This is a non-fiction book aimed at children ages 10 and up. It's the real-life diary of a young girl who lived in Sarajevo from 1992 to 1995, while the city was under siege. Actual diary entries are interspersed with additional descriptive passages that the author wrote later, after the war.
I found My Childhood Under Fire to be utterly compelling. The writing starts out a bit simplistic (the author is a 12-year-old at that point), but matures throughout the course of the book. Nadja's diary provides a window into what life is like for ordinary citizens during a war. Nadja's mood shifts between fear, frustration, humiliation, and boredom, with periods of optimism and determination. She repeatedly rails against the aggressors who are shelling her city, and against the international community that is doing nothing to stop them. She is most disturbed by violence against children, memorializing and mourning the innocent children who have been killed in the war. This is evident even before she herself is seriously wounded.
Through all the privations and suffering of war, Nadja maintains her spirit. Even when her family can't leave the house to buy gifts, and make do with scraps of food, they celebrate every birthday. Nadja demonstrates remarkably little self-pity for her own injury, focusing more on the suffering of others. Even as she criticizes the international political community, she notes every parcel that her family receives from aid groups, and the small kindnesses of her neighbors and her family members.
Nadja and the people around her do whatever they can to maintain a semblance of normal life, even as they struggle without electricity or water or food or fuel. Nadja continues to strive artistically and academically, and to reach out to provide encouragement to others in her community. She and the children in her building make up a newspaper called Kids of Sarajevo. She writes poems, and reads them aloud over the radio. She sings in a singing group called Palcici, despite the danger of going outside to attend practices and concerts. She writes letters to Bill Clinton, asking him to take action. Although she clearly loves music and culture, the seeds of her later adult work as a peace advocate are readily visible before her 13th birthday.
Nadja does have periods of depression and hopelessness, particularly later in the book, in the period before her ultimate escape from Sarajevo. And she experiences terrible things. The recounting of her escape from Sarajevo is almost unbelievable, yet somehow matter-of-fact. Nadja's diary shows how anything can become normal to people. It also shows how people, especially children, can maintain their humanity under dire circumstances. I think that children (and adults) can learn a lot from this book. I read it in one sitting, but will remember it long into the future. I highly recommend it, for children and adults.
End Note: I'm grateful to Tara Koppel at Raab Associates for providing me with a review copy of My Childhood Under Fire. Tara also sent me this paragraph about Nadja Halilbegovich: "In the years since the siege of Sarajevo, Nadja Halilbegovich has been an advocate for peace, speaking and sharing her experiences at The International Youth Leader Conference, The State of the World Forum Conference, and many other events. In 2003, as a representative of the nonprofit organization "Free the Children," she spoke to more than 70,000 students in thirty-five states and four Canadian provinces. She has also been featured in Teen People and Newsday."
(And speaking of "Free the Children", one of my oldest friends, Professor Jonathan White of Colby College is on the American Board of Directors. Isn't it cool when things in your life intersect like that?)
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.