Breaking the siege
Zlata Filipovic's childhood was ruined by war in her native Sarajevo, but her diary provided an escape and was published to great acclaim. Now living in Ireland, she has become a leading humanitarian voice, writes Erin Golden
Zlata Filipovic doesn't make five-year plans. Perhaps she would have, if life had been different: if there'd been no war, no diary, no MTV appearances, if the ordinary life of a girl in Sarajevo hadn't been interrupted by politics and gunfire. But now, as an adult, the transplanted Dubliner knows there's no use in pretending life unravels in tidy, simple lines.
The petite, dark-haired 26-year-old is perhaps Ireland's most famous resident from the former Yugoslavia, part of an immigrant community that blossomed in size here in the early 1990s as ethnic tensions in the region dissolved into full-scale warfare.
By the time Filipovic fled Bosnia with her parents in 1993, getting out of the country alive was nearly impossible. Snipers lurked on the rooftops of Sarajevo and soldiers with heavy artillery dotted the mountains surrounding the city. But the 13-year-old had done something remarkable: she'd written her ticket out by keeping track of her thoughts in a diary, a small book that would become the international bestseller Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Wartime Sarajevo.
Interest in Filipovic and her diary came from all over the world, but it was a French publisher with government connections who won the rights to Filipovic's diary with a pledge to help its young author and her parents flee the fighting. Two days before Christmas, 1993, the publisher's promises came through.
"We left on the 23rd of December in the safest way possible, on one of those airplanes that had brought humanitarian aid," Filipovic says. "And then we were in Paris, just before Christmas, and it was madness. Every family in the world was coming together and ours had just been pulled apart." After more than two years without the normality of school, working electricity or un-rationed meals, Filipovic had to contend with something just as unexpected: outside of Bosnia, she had unknowingly become a media star.
"I had no idea of the impact the diary had, because we had no TV, no newspapers, no way to see what all these journalists coming to interview me had done," she says. "We thought we'd come to France and be regular refugees, start our life again, but coming out of the plane there were cameras, photographers . . . people who could pronounce my name and had a sense of who I was based on the scribbles I'd done for myself as a 12-year-old girl."
FOR FOUR MONTHS, Filipovic flew around the world to promote her diary. She met students and politicians, drew a peace sign in the sand for MTV cameras and talked about the friends she'd left behind in Sarajevo, where the war continued on. At 13, she felt a heavy responsibility on her shoulders, a sort of survivor's guilt for being one of the few to get out.
"There was a level of guilt because my best friend stayed behind. Why was I different from another 13-year-old girl in Bosnia?" she remembers asking herself. "My responsibility was to use this in some kind of way for all those who remained and if people were willing to listen, I'd tell them about it."
Though Filipovic and her parents eventually settled into life in Paris, it took another move before she finally felt at ease and almost at home. By 1995, the family was ready for a change, looking for a cheaper, English-speaking and not-too-distant home. Ireland, with its Celtic Tiger still in the wings and welcoming policy for refugee-seekers, seemed a good fit. In October, Zlata, her parents, and best friend from Sarajevo - who had been able to join the family in Paris a year earlier - arrived in Dublin.
All Filipovic knew of Ireland came from a song she'd learned as a young girl and the memory of a handsome Irish boy with bright green eyes who'd been a classmate in France. Everything else - the countryside, the weather and the traditions - was a mystery.
But to her relief, she was also a mystery. For the most part, her new classmates had never heard of the Bosnian girl with the diary and the dramatic escape.
"The best thing was coming here, where people either didn't know [ about Zlata's Diary] or would just say 'oh cool . . . so what kind of music do you like?' It wasn't a big deal and that was really nice," she says.
Outside the classroom, Ireland seemed to welcome the family with open arms. It would be years before Filipovic would feel the sting of anti-immigrant sentiment lobbed in her direction. In late 1995, however, things were changing in Bosnia and it looked like a permanent return could be on the horizon.
"We were excited when the peace agreement was signed because it meant the next summer, we'd go back to Bosnia for the first time," she says. "But I was in school in Ireland, and in 1996 we weren't sure if the peace would last." After three months back in the still-smoking ashes of a war zone, the Filipovics decided not to take their chances and returned to Ireland. But in those three months - and in the summers in Bosnia that followed - Zlata Filipovic became something strange: a diaspora kid.
Like the millions of Irish who'd left for New York, Boston or Sydney but kept ties to family and friends at home, Filipovic developed a sort of dual personality, part Bosnian, part Irish, but never fully one or the other. In Dublin, she excelled academically and watched as the city grew wealthy and cosmopolitan. In Bosnia, she tried not to mention the comforts of home and avoided bringing news clothes or fancy gadgets so her old friends wouldn't think she'd changed.
THREE YEARS IN ENGLAND at Oxford University further complicated the issue. As Filipovic grew through her teens, a time when most people struggle to carve out an identity, she had more complex questions than most.
"You start thinking 'how am I going to make my life, where am I going to make my life?'" she says. "You battle the heart and the brain and at some point you stop and just live your life." A long-term return to Bosnia is possible, but opportunities are hard to find in a country with unemployment over 40 per cent and an increasingly outward-migrating youth population. Four years after completing a master's degree in International Peace Studies at Trinity College Dublin and more than 11 years after the initial move from France, Filipovic remains in her adopted hometown of Dublin, lending her voice to humanitarian efforts and literature (she recently edited Stolen Voices, a collection of children's war diaries from across the globe). Her work, she says, is a result of her own story and of all the other stories that find their way to her, in handwritten letters from all over the world. She believes that one story - one that transcends borders and languages - can have a major impact in a world filled with bad news.
"There's this idea called compassion fatigue, that there's so much bad stuff happening in the world that you have to switch off, stop listening," Filipovic says. "It's like studying history, with all the names and dates that you forget. If you complement that with a diary or an individual story, something can be inspired by or feel empathy towards, you connect." In some ways, then, Zlata Filipovic does have a plan. In one form or another, her story is likely to continue to attract attention and to put a face on children in conflict. The rest, she says, is left to the other links in the chain she's created.
"I've made lots of plans and none of them worked out, so I'm very cautious with that," she says. "I want to be useful and I want to be learning, but how that will all work out, I have no idea."
Zlata Filipovic will be participating in Words Are Not Enough, an event for the benefit of Amnesty International at 6.30pm tomorrow in the Listowel Arms Hotel, as part of Listowel Writers' Week (www.writersweek.ie / 068-21074)