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'My childhood was killed too': Bosnian museum presents war from kids' perspective

A doll provided by a woman is seen displayed at the War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on March 12, 2018. During the Bosnian War (1993-1995), the bear was the only thing that could console her after her older brother died. (Mainichi)

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- A beloved doll that was a child's only toy, a handwritten letter penned by a mother who died ... The War Childhood Museum opened here last year, telling the stories of those in the region now in their 20s to 40s who spent their childhoods during the Bosnian War (1992-1995) through their memorabilia.

"There were several reasons why I started this project. One of the reasons was that I was also personally part of this generation, of war children in Bosnia. So I wanted to make some kind of testament to our generation," said Jasminko Halilovic, the 29-year-old founder and director of the museum. "In Bosnia, we had many books, films and projects about the war from many different perspectives, but not many of them were from (a child's) perspective ... that is why I wanted to contribute to that field with the project from (this) perspective."

A native of Sarajevo, Halilovic was 4 years old when the conflict began. The city had a large population of Bosniaks, and was surrounded by Serbian forces and bombed continuously for roughly three and a half years from 1992 to 1996. The majority of children lived in underground bomb shelters.

The war is intricately weaved into Halilovic's childhood memories -- sharing one loaf of bread between a family of nine, the death of his 11-year-old first love ... However, once the fighting was over, there was nowhere for children like him to express their feelings about their experience.

"I think this experience is a very important part of this generation's identity," explained Halilovic about the need for a place like the War Childhood Museum. "Regardless if you suffered a lot or not, or if you were young or older, or if you succeeded later in life ... this is different, but for all of the people, this experience shaped their lives a lot (and is) an important part of their identities."

In 2010, Halilovic started to request comments from young people who had spent their childhoods in war-torn Sarajevo over the internet. "A sniper killed my brother and killed my childhood too," "Fear. I just patiently waited for peace," "Laughing and playing, I just tried to spend even a little bit of time better" -- Over 1,000 such messages were collected to fill the book "War Childhood."

But that was only the beginning for Halilovic. He called on an even larger number of people from around the country in a plan to gather items which were filled with their memories of the war, and received over 4,000 such items. The museum exhibiting the objects saw some 16,000 visitors in its first year of operation in 2017, and stirred up social discourse on the topic.

Now, Halilovic is busy with his next project: He is trying to gather messages and items from children in war-torn Syria and Ukraine, planning to also display them publicly.

"I think it is also important to focus on current conflicts because I think our museum is a good way to show to people how these children live, what their needs are, what the consequences of these conflicts are," he said. "I think the best way to support mutual understanding is through humanization of these experiences, and how we humanize experiences is we focus on personal stories ... I think if we meet (these) people in person, if we read their stories, if we see their objects, if we can identify ourselves ... I think that is a good way to bridge this fear and this gap of understanding (about the refugees), and to support the integration of these people."

This October, there will be a general election in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, as the region is divided into the autonomous governments of the mainly Bosniak and Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Serb-led Republika Srpska, nationalistic political parties from both sides have come to the forefront. Rather than aiming for unity under a single government, political movements prioritizing ethnic interest are attracting attention, seeming to further widen the rift between the peoples of an already deeply divided region.

"I think many people think too much about negative things," said Halilovic. "Our lives are quite short ... when you are in your best years, (if) you spend time (judging or fighting) with someone that is quite sad."

He has begun teaching guest classes at elementary and junior high schools. How important is it to preserve peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina? He would like to pass that question onto the next generation to consider.

(Japanese original by Koji Miki, Vienna Bureau)

This is the final part of a four-part series.

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