Selected Longer Reviews

I Dream of Peace: images of war by children of former Yugoslavia

By Grant, James (ed.)

UNICEF/HarperCollins, London, 1994,
Price: 8.99 Pound Sterling
Shelf mark: 741.949703

In one celebrated dramatized production of Anne Frank’s Diaries it is said that the audience was so inflamed by the sheer creepiness of the heroine, played by Pia Zadora, that, when the Gestapo broke into the house, demanding "Where is she?", the audience responded lustily: "She’s upstairs". It is a bit like that with Zlata’s Diary.

There has been a lot lately about the possibility that the diary has been given a few grown-up touches to lend it political verisimilitude. I think that is perfectly plausible. But it is the undoctored passages that cloy. Zlata is the only child of a well-off family in Sarajevo who watches unlimited satellite television, and says things like: "I’ve finished studying and tomorrow I can go to school bravely, without being afraid of getting a bad grade. I deserve a good grade because I studied all weekend and I didn’t even go out to play with my friends in the park".

Yet you would need a heart of stone not to sympathize with her distress at her favourite trees being chopped down in the park for fuel or the birthday party where she is given vitamin tablets and a small bar of soap as a present.

Yes, there is a version of the war here. But rather than coming to grips with a situation in Europe where borders have been changed by force, and, from the start of the war in Croatia through the worst of the war in Bosnia, either facing up to military intervention, or refraining at least from intervening on the wrong side by the arms embargo, we have allowed ourselves to be distracted by poignant little girls like Irma and Zlata, and many other images of distress. We have been captivated by the symptoms of the war, not its causes. Zlata is not to blame for her ingenuous confessions. But it is worrying that so much concern is lavished on one Zlata, while the process whereby 200,000 of her fellow citizens died unjustly and horribly in the heart of Europe goes uncorrected.

I have rather more time for another product of the war from the hands of pathetic children who are among its victims. I Dream of Peace is a little book of pictures and prose from the children who have lived through the war and seen some of the worst of it. For an idea of the psychological disturbance that has afflicted some of the most vulnerable of the ethnically cleansed, look no further. Take this, from Alik, 13, a refugee: "From the group they chose the ones they were going to kill. They picked my uncle and a neighbour. Then they machine-gunned them to death. After that, the soldiers put the women in the front cars of the train and the men in the back. As the train started moving they disconnected the back cars and took the men off and to the camps. I saw it all". Poor child.

Melanie McDonagh

This review first appeared in The Tablet, 7 May 1994

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