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Telling stories of wartime childhood in Bosnian museum

09th February 2017, 12:00 Hrs



Ballet slippers, tinned food and drawings by a sister killed from shelling are found among the objects in a new Sarajevo museum used to tell stories of life during Bosnia's war through the eyes of children.

An unfinished letter, kept safe by a young Bosnian woman for 20 years, was started by her mother who perished when their apartment was shelled in the Balkan country's 1992-1995 civil war.

To obtain such personal and treasured possessions, "you have to create trust," said Jasenko Halilovic, the 28-year-old founder of the newly opened War Childhood Museum.

During Bosnia's inter-ethnic conflict nearly 3,400 children were killed, including 1,500 in the capital Sarajevo. The city was besieged for 44 months by Belgrade-backed Bosnian Serb forces, who launched shells and sniper fire from the surrounding mountains.

Sarajevo still bears the scars, from the bullet holes in buildings to curved monuments in a city centre square engraved with the names of hundreds of children who lost their lives.

Among them was 17-year-old Aida, hit by artillery shells at the entrance to her family's home. She loved to draw Disney characters, including Minnie Mouse with a tear sliding down her cheek. Her sister Selma donated the sketches to the museum. - 'Message against war' -

Some of the collection is less tragic but equally poignant. Mela Softic donated the ballet slippers she would dance in as a way to "disconnect from reality".

When she put on the ballet shoes and played some classical music, "I was no longer in war, in Sarajevo, but in a fairy tale," she recalled.

Softic, now 32, believes the museum is "the best place possible" for her cherished mementoes of that time in her life.

The collection consists of around 4,000 objects, accompanied by short texts, and those on display will be rotated so that the exhibition is renewed, said Selma Tanovic, a 36-year-old anthropologist and head of research.

Along with photos and diaries detailing the day-to-day drama, the dozens of exhibits now on display include a hat pierced with shrapnel, a makeshift stove, stuffed animals, a television and a bicycle.

"We do not mean, of course, to minimise the trauma that children have suffered," Tanovic said.

"But we want to emphasise the resistance of children, the way they overcame the cruel conditions of their childhood."

All the stories are meant to convey "a strong message against war," she said. - Art of survival -

Filip Andronik, who was 11 when war broke out, turned his months sheltering in the basement of his building into an exercise in the art of the survival.

When his family received their first supplies of tinned meat, provided by aid workers, he decided to keep the empty packaging to joke about once the war was over.

"But the war continued, and so did the humanitarian aid," said Andronik, now a comedian and comic book writer.

He collected more than 2,000 pieces of packaging from wartime food and toiletries.

"I handed over my entire collection to the War Childhood Museum."

Halilovic, who has also compiled a book of children's wartime testimonies, wants to make the museum a platform for "dialogue and reconciliation" in Bosnia, which remains deeply divided along ethnic lines of Bosniak Muslims, Croats and Serbs. - 'Common to all of us' -

The new museum mostly displays belongings of children from Sarajevo, a predominantly Muslim city, but Halilovic also wants to tell the stories of youngsters caught up in different sides of the conflict.

He is now looking for objects from places such as Banja Luka in the north, the capital of Bosnian Serbs, and the southern city of Mostar, divided between ethnic Croats and Muslims.

"I think it's a wonderful idea to tell the stories of children in all the cities... regardless of which side they grew up on," said Emina Omanovic, who donated her red bicycle to the museum.

"It's something common to all of us, the children who grew up during the war."

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