Filipovic, Zlata

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Zlata Filipovic

Excerpt from Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo

    Written by Zlata Filipovic

    Published in 1994

The country of Bosnia-Herzegovina is located on the Balkan Peninsula, encompassing land that was the west-central part of the former nation of Yugoslavia before its political breakup in 1990–91. Yugoslavia, formed in 1918 following World War I (1914–18), was home to three ethnic groups—the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. At the end of World War II (1939–45), Marshal Josip Tito (1892–1980) assumed control of Yugoslavia, aligning it as a republic with six states: (1) Serbia, its majority population being Serbs; (2) Slovenia, 91 percent Slovene; (3) Croatia, 78 percent Croat; (4) Bosnia-Herzegovina, 38 percent Muslim Slovenes, who later became known as Bosnian Muslims, 22 percent Croat; (5) Montenegro, 68 percent Montenegrins; and (6) Macedonia, 67 percent Macedonians. Although each state had its own government, Serbs dominated the central government and military. The nation's capital was Belgrade, located in the Serbian state. Ultimate political control was provided by Communist Party (system of government in which the state controls the economy and a single party holds power) officials in Moscow, capital of the Soviet Union.

"Yesterday the people in front of the parliament tried peacefully to cross the Vrbanja bridge. But they were shot at. Who? How? Why? A girl, a medical student from Dubrovnik, was KILLED. Her blood spilled onto the bridge."

Tito, a forceful leader, maintained a certain amount of independence from Moscow. At his death in 1980, the country's diverse ethnic groups clung together for a while, united in their fear of increased Soviet dominance. However, out from under Tito's rigid control, each ethnic group in Yugoslavia began asserting its own pride and feelings of nationalism (belief that a particular nation and its culture, people, and values are superior to those of other nations). A strong Serbian nationalist, Slobodan Milosevic (1941–2006), took control of Yugoslavia in 1989. At that time, the Soviet Union and its Soviet bloc of countries in Eastern Europ—including Yugoslavia—began to break apart and declare independence from Moscow dominance. In turn, the Yugoslavian states of Croatia and Slovenia declared independence from Yugoslavia. In January 1992, Bosnian Muslims and Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina voted for Bosnia-Herzegovina independence. Serbs living in Bosnia-Herzegovina were strongly opposed to independence and vowed to keep Bosnia-Herzegovina part of Serbia. With support from Serbia, an ethnic war erupted, the bloodiest in Europe since World War II.

Before independence and war, Bosnia-Herzegovina's population was multi-ethnic. The three main ethnic groups were Bosnian Muslims (44 percent), Serbs (31 percent), and Croats (17 percent). These three ethnic groups differed primarily in regard to language and religion. All three spoke Serbo-Croatian, but with their own dialects, or languages. Religion was the most visible marker. Bosnian Muslims practiced a form of the Islamic religion that is found in Eastern European countries such as Turkey. Islam in Bosnia-Herzegovina is less strict than Islam in the Middle East. Bosnian Muslims supported a secular (nonreligious) government and religious freedom. Bosnian Muslims could marry a non-Muslim if they desired. Serbs and Croats are Christian followers of Jesus Christ, unlike Muslims who follow the prophet Muhammad (570–632). Serbs are Eastern Orthodox (follower of church teachings), which split from traditional Roman Catholicism centuries earlier. Croats are Roman Catholics. Bosnian Serbs differ little from Serbs in Serbia. Serbs lived in southern, eastern, and northern Bosnia. Serbs and Croats traditionally were rural farmers, whereas Bosnian Muslims were professionals living in cities. By the late twentieth century, many individuals from each group lived in cities and mixed freely. Ethnic differences were not particularly disruptive until Bosnian Muslims and Croats joined together and declared independence.

Bosnia-Herzegovina's Serbian population backed by Serbian Serbs, Milosevic, and the well-armed and organized Serbian army went to war with Bosnia-Herzegovina's Bosnian Muslims and Croats. Serbs operated under a policy of ethnic cleansing. Ethnic cleansing, like genocide, is a planned systematic attempt to eliminate an entire targeted group of people by exterminating all members of that group. Serbs tortured, raped, and murdered Bosnian Muslims and Croats. The Serbian offensive bombed major Bosnia-Herzegovina cities including the capital Sarajevo. Cultural symbols, such as churches and museums, were destroyed. Bombs also fell on schools, public buildings, parks, and even cemeteries. Millions of Bosnian Muslims and Croats fled from Sarajevo.

Zlata Filipovic was eleven years old when the war reached her home city of Sarajevo in April 1992. Zlata began her diary in September 1991, only a few months before the war. She called the diary Mimmy, named after a deceased pet goldfish. Zlata's family, a Croat family, was wealthy. Her father was a lawyer and her mother was a chemist. Yet by spring of 1992, Zlata, her family, and neighbors huddled many hours in the cellar as artillery fire rained down on Sarajevo; money and material wealth did not give people safety. Schools were closed, electricity cut off, and food scarce. Gone were Zlata's happy childhood days. A good friend Nina, also eleven years old, died in a neighborhood park that was shelled. Zlata carefully and painfully recorded the terror, suffering, and death that was all about her.

Things to remember while reading excerpts from Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo:

  • The ethnic prejudice and hatred by Serbs for Bosnian Muslims and Croats and a strong desire on the part of the Serbs to remain part of Serbia led to the war.
  • Before the violence engulfed her city, Zlata's life had been normal and carefree. She enjoyed school, her friends and family, skiing, and playing the piano, and was a fan of American pop singer Madonna (1958–). As the war began, Zlata watched her normal life disappear, replaced with the terror of war.

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What happened next …

The war finally halted in 1995 after deployment of United Nations (UN; an international organization founded in 1945 composed of most of the countries in the world) peacekeeping forces and the bombing of Serbian strongholds by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces including air attacks by the U.S. military. NATO is an international military organization of North American and European nations. On November 21, 1995, the presidents of Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia met in the United States at Dayton, Ohio, and reached an agreement to end the war. Under the Dayton Accord, Bosnia-Herzegovina was established as a single nation but with Bosnian Muslim, Croat, and Serb territories. Government leadership was shared among the three. In the early twenty-first century, peace remained tenuous. Serbs wished to unite with Serbia, and Croats wanted to unite with Croatia.

The population of Bosnia-Herzegovina had been 4.6 million in 1991, but after the war, it was down to 2.6 million. Over 100,000 persons had been killed.

As for Zlata, she showed her diary to a teacher who managed to get it published in Sarajevo. Zlata became a celebrity, visited by journalists from many countries. During the Christmas season of 1993, as shelling and shooting continued in Sarajevo, Zlata and her family were whisked away in two armored French vehicles. Managing to get through a checkpoint, they reached the airport. The family flew to Paris and safety aboard a UN plane.

Zlata began school at the International School in Paris. She and her parents traveled on a world tour, promoting peace and describing how ethnic hatred tore apart their city and country. Zlata's story appeared in newspapers worldwide, and she was interviewed for many television appearances.

Zlata's diary, originally published in Croat, was translated into more than twenty languages. Zlata and her family used proceeds from the book to start a charity to help victims of the Bosnian War. Many of those victims were children.

Did you know …

  • Zlata's diary is often compared to the diary of Anne Frank, a Jewish girl living in Germany who died in the Holocaust (mass killing of European Jews and others by the Nazis) during World War II. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, students studying ethnic prejudice frequently studied both diaries for firsthand accounts.
  • Before it was almost destroyed by the war, Sarajevo was a beautiful city. It was the site of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games. Television coverage of the games frequently took audiences to Sarajevo's night spots where people of the city, unquestionably of many ethnicities, were shown enjoying life together.

Consider the following …

  • Research in depth Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the former Yugoslavia to more fully understand the history and ethnicities of their peoples.
  • Compare a thirteen-year-old's day in the United States with a day in the life of Zlata in the early 1990s.
  • Explore what psychiatrists see as effects of war on children. Research post-traumatic stress syndrome. List reasons why Zlata was able to come through the experience psychologically whole.

For More Information


Cigar, Norman. Genocide in Bosnia: The Policy of "Ethnic Cleansing." College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1995.

Filipovic, Zlata. Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo. New York: Viking, 1994.

Judah, Timothy. Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

Neuffer, Elizabeth. The Key to My Neighbor's House: Seeking Justice in Bosnia and Rwanda. New York: Picador, 2001.

Tanner, Marcus. Croatia: A Nation Forged in War. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.