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Inside Sarajevo's War Childhood Museum


Jasminko Halilovic was 4 years old when the Bosnian war broke out, and he lived through the siege of Sarajevo. He says his memories of the earliest days of the war are foggy. But as the war continued, he formed stronger memories, difficult memories.

JASMINKO HALILOVIC: One of my friends during the war was killed, and she was killed by a sniper. And this was an event in 1994, which really, I would say, marked the war for me. And this was one of the reasons why I actually wanted to do something around this topic later, many years later.

MA: Driven by his own experiences of the Bosnian war, he founded the War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo. The museum collects and preserves stories and objects of people who have experienced war as children and also of children still living in war zones around the world. Jasminko hopes to offer a space where they can feel understood and heard. I spoke to him last week.

For those who have never been to it, can you talk about, like, what kinds of collections are in this museum? And what do you hope to accomplish by showing these to the world?

HALILOVIC: Well, today, we are seven years - like, very soon we will mark seven years since the museum opened its doors in 2017. And today, our collection includes over 6,000 personal objects and belongings from 18 different armed conflicts because I never wanted to limit this museum to the borders of our country or to our war. Now we have objects and stories from the Second World War to contemporary conflicts like the Russian aggression on Ukraine, for example. Of course, when people see War Childhood Museum, they expect toys. And it's true, we have many toys in our collection. But we also have some unexpected objects. We have everyday tools you use at home that children maybe used to play with. We have many handmade things. We have clothing. We have pieces of furniture. We have a bicycle. We have some artworks that kids created. We also film video testimonies - so the oral histories with survivors. So it's a very diverse collection in its nature when it comes to objects we documented but also when it comes to stories connected to these objects.

MA: You know, a lot of people might think about what happens in war, especially to children, and they think that this is a - kind of a difficult and an emotional subject, and it might just be too hard to talk about. What are your thoughts on that?

HALILOVIC: Well, you know, I'm, like, working in this kind of museum and creating it. I'm very well aware of that fact, and very often I hear it. I hear it from my best friend. Some of my best friends never visited the museum because they are kind of reluctant to do it because they are afraid that it would be too emotional experience. And, of course, everyone chooses with which kind of content they want to interact with, especially when it comes to people who share this experience. Some of my friends would never watch a movie about the war because they went through the war, and they don't want to be reminded of it. And that's completely normal.

And we - as a museum, we don't think that everyone wants to visit it. We don't think that everyone wants to share their story. For us, it's important that the platform exists for those who do feel to share their story or who do feel to visit. And also, what we really try to do as a museum - and maybe people sometimes have different expectations - when they think about war and children, they think only about suffering, and suffering is inevitably part of this experience.

But what we see through our collection and what we consider to be beautiful is that what comes out from these stories is also resilience of children. It's creativity of children. It's strength of children. And some expect that the - this exhibition would be only inspiring one feeling like some kind of sadness or bitterness. But this is actually not what survivors want. They want to inspire respect. They want someone to learn from their experiences. And they want their dignity to be preserved.

MA: Is part of the hope of that, that people also find healing?

HALILOVIC: You know, this process of giving your object or your story to the museum collection, it's not a mere donation. It has a lot of meaning attached to it because, first, you need to think, are you ready to do this? Then maybe you will discuss with your family what you would give. Then maybe you will discuss with your family, do they agree with you to - because these objects are often very precious to the whole family. So you will have these conversations in the family. Then you will make your decision. Then you will give the object to the museum. Then you will be invited when the object is exhibited. Then you will maybe bring your children now or your friends or your partner or your colleagues to see your object and your story. And this whole process for many people, it has this kind of healing effect. And this is something what's probably at the heart of our mission and our purpose.

MA: Given that you focus so much on trying to understand the experiences of what it is like for children to live through war, I want to turn to the conflict in Gaza right now. Thousands of children are caught in this conflict between Israel and Hamas, starting with Hamas' October 7 attack and continuing now for almost three months as Israel has laid siege to Gaza. Thousands of children have been killed or have been displaced. They're dealing with hunger and thirst and unsanitary conditions. So I'm interested in your thoughts about the children involved who are caught in this situation without a choice.

HALILOVIC: It's really difficult for - not only for me, but for our team as a museum, people who deal with this topic, many of them being war survivors themselves, to hear any new news about any new conflict anywhere. It kind of retraumatizes us in a way. And it's difficult to grasp that things are repeatedly happening, things like that. It's difficult to watch. It's even difficult, you know, to keep the belief in what we are doing as a museum because, you know, I'm telling you now about this experience. I'm telling you how it's important to give children a voice. I'm telling you how it is a complex experience, how we want to highlight children's resilience. I'm telling you all of these things. But at the same time, some children are being killed, and they will never have a chance to tell their stories. So it's, for me personally, this is very difficult.

We have a collection from Gaza, actually. We have a small, very small collection of 15 stories which were collected in 2021 and 2022 by our field researcher in Gaza. And we could not manage even to get in touch with most of these children. We don't know if they are alive. And we decided, OK, we have these stories in collection. We have to publish these stories at least now to get them out. So we publish them on our website and social media. But even that act, you know, you are publishing a story of your contributor who is, let's say, 15-years-old girl, and you cannot even verify she's alive. So it really questions everything you do and everything you believe in.

MA: I have to wonder, as somebody who has dedicated so many years to chronicling others' experience as children living through war, what would you say, if you could - what would you say to kids right now who are just trying to get through the day in this terrible conflict?

HALILOVIC: I mean, that - your - so the question is exceptionally difficult. To say something what would make sense is difficult. But your question also reminds me of one situation we had during our fieldwork in Lebanon with Syrian child refugees. And our researcher from Bosnia was there as well, and she met some of the children who contributed to our collection. She also talked to them about her own experiences and shared bits of her own story. And then these children told her that it is important for them to hear that there is someone who went through similar things and survived and became museum professional and now came to document their story. So it gives them, like, this kind of perspective that if they manage to survive, maybe there is also this kind of light at the end of the tunnel that they can build their lives, that they can build their careers, that they can fulfill some of their dreams.

So I just don't feel it's kind of a right thing to send any message to children who are more directly affected by the war. But I hope that some of the stories from our collection, from our museum as well can bring some hope back to these children that hopefully there will be peace and hopefully there will be justice and hopefully there will be opportunities to recreate their lives.

MA: That was Jasminko Halilovic, founder of the War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo. Additional reporting came from NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Adrian Ma
Adrian Ma covers work, money and other "business-ish" for NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money.

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