This post was last updated on 2 May 2020.
‘What was a war childhood for you?’
‘…waiting for Grandpa to come back from the market, but he still hasn’t.’
‘…a war childhood is when you have a crush at school, and she is killed by a shell.’
‘…childhood is childhood, even during a war…instead of napkins and chocolate wrappers, I collected shell shrapnel.’
These were just some of the answers given to Jasminko Halilovic, a war child himself, when he started asking other survivors of the Bosnian War, who had been children during the conflict, to submit their stories to him for his book, War Childhood.
Beginning in 2010, Halilovic used an online platform to collect memories from his peers about what a war childhood was for them. Over 1000 submissions later, Halilovic assembled them all into a book, which was published in 2013.
Ranging from lighthearted tales of collecting shrapnel to poignant recollections of how ‘A sniper killed my brother. It killed my childhood, too,’ War Childhood looks at the Bosnian War from a unique angle – the eyes of its children.
A report by UNICEF concluded that, of the 65,000 to 80,000 children in the city of Sarajevo during the siege, 40% had been directly shot at by snipers, 51% had seen someone killed, 39% had seen one or more family members killed, 19% had witnessed a massacre, 48% had their home occupied by someone else, 73% had their home attacked or shelled and 89% had lived in underground shelters.
When faced with numbers like these, it is easy to see how War Childhood is such an important project. The siege of Sarajevo impacted every single citizen there, and shaped many a childhood.
Four years after the book’s release, Jasminko Halilovic opened the War Childhood museum in Sarajevo, a museum that Halilovic believes is the only one of its kind in the world.
The War Childhood Museum | Museums in Sarajevo
Having been in Bosnia and Herzegovina for a few days and learning about the country’s tragic history, I was desperate to learn everything I could. My experiences spending the day with a war veteran and visiting the Museum for Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide had affected me so much that I couldn’t miss out on the opportunity to visit another of the important museums in Sarajevo – The War Childhood Museum.
It took my friend Roma and I a little while to find the museum as we hadn’t downloaded Google Maps for the area (rookie travel mistake #1), and everybody that we asked seemed to be intent on sending us on a wild goose chase. However, getting lost did mean that we stumbled across the bridge where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, so, uh, there’s that.
When we eventually found the War Childhood museum, we paid our 10KM entry fee (£4.50) and made our way into the exhibit.
The War Childhood Museum is comprised of a collection of over 4000 objects which were sent to Halilovic by his fellow war children. In order to allow every single object the recognition it deserves, the War Childhood Museum displays 50 objects at a time on a constant rotation. Every object is displayed on a pedestal in a glass case beside its owner’s explanation of what this object means to them, which is the really hard-hitting part of the exhibition.
When Roma and I visited, the War Childhood Museum was quiet – I guess the perks of visiting Sarajevo in the summertime are that everybody wants to be out enjoying the sun rather than exploring all of the museums in Sarajevo! As a result we were able to take our time, reading the descriptions of every single object, watching the documentary film that plays on a constant loop, and reading the War Childhood book (although the book is available for purchase, there are also copies left out at the end of the exhibition for visitors to flick through).
Although every object in the War Childhood Museum was heartbreaking in its own way, some of the ones that stood out to me were a scrap of material purchased to make a prom dress that was never needed, a red bike that carried its rider to safety as grenades began to fall, a half-finished letter that a child’s mother had been in the middle of writing as she was blown up in her kitchen and some drawings of Disney characters that a young girl’s sister used to draw before she answered the door one day and was killed by a shell.
Although statistics give us the facts about the Bosnian war, there was something so jarring about looking at these everyday items and reading about how they featured into the owner’s memory.
Looking at the Disney character drawings somehow made everything feel so much more real, as though tragedy can strike any one of us at any time, which is, of course, the whole point.
However, for almost every story submitted to Halilovic (4000 of them), another child died before they could have the chance to tell theirs.
More than 3500 children were killed in the Bosnian War between the years of 1992-1995 and it is important to remember that the tragic tales displayed in the War Childhood Museum are those of the ‘lucky ones’ (if anybody can be lucky in war).
Not only then, is the War Childhood Museum important from an educational perspective, but its existence also stands as a mark of respect to Bosnia’s war children themselves, both those who submitted their stories, and those who never got to.
Although it is a simple presentation to match the simple concept, the effect of the exhibition is incredibly powerful. It may not be not as shocking or horrific as the nearby Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide, but the War Childhood Museum still plays a very important role in educating people visiting Bosnia about what life was like for children during the war, and I think that both of these museums in Sarajevo complement each other beautifully.
I am a firm believer that we have a duty to learn about a country’s past when we visit it, especially if that past is as recent and as tragic as this one.
Sarajevo definitely has lots of beautiful sights to see, and you could easily spend your entire time there driving to impressive viewpoints and sipping Bosnian coffee in the market, but your appreciation of Bosnia will increase tenfold if you take the time to visit some of the museums in Sarajevo and learn about what the people living here went through not so long ago.
The War Childhood Museum can be found at Logavina 32. It is open every day except Mondays, from 11am to 7pm.
To learn more about the War Childhood project just click here.