Author Collects Stories of Young Voices in Wartime Zlata Filipovic kept a diary in war-torn Sarajevo that chronicled her harrowing war experiences. Fifteen years later, she's collected an array of young people's war diaries, from World War II to Iraq. Filipovic and co-editor Melanie Challenger talk about Stolen Voices.
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Author Collects Stories of Young Voices in Wartime

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Author Collects Stories of Young Voices in Wartime

Author Collects Stories of Young Voices in Wartime

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And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

Zlata Filipovic was 11 years old and living in Sarajevo when "The Diary of Anne Frank" inspired her to start a diary of her own. At first it was a running account of a childhood in Bosnia's capital, but when war came to Sarajevo, Zlata's life of piano lessons and tennis matches vanished.

Over much of the next two years, she hid in her cellar to escape shells and gunfire. After she and her family escaped, her diary won international recognition after it was published as "Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Wartime Sarajevo."

Now 15 years later, Zlata and her colleague Melanie Challenger have edited a collection of young people's war diaries that span the 20th and the 21st centuries, from World War I to the war in Iraq, and make up what the book describes as one single voice of stolen childhood.

If you have questions about this project, if you've kept a diary under wartime conditions of violence or under stress, join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. E-mail us:

And Zlata Filipovic and Melanie Challenger join us from our bureau in New York. Again, their book is called "Stolen Voices: Young People's War Diaries from World War I to Iraq." And nice to have you today on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. ZLATA FILIPOVIC (Co-Editor, "Stolen Voices: Young People's War Diaries from World War I to Iraq"): Thank you.

Ms. MELANIE CHALLENGER (Co-Editor, "Stolen Voices: Young People's War Diaries from World War I to Iraq"): Thank you.

CONAN: And Zlata, given your experience of writing a diary under those terrible conditions, what did it do for you? I mean, you'd think that the last thing you'd want to do is set down your thoughts.

Ms. FILIPOVIC: Well, I don't know what it was. I think I just felt an urge to continue expressing myself. I mean I think I started writing before the war, thinking that I would be laying down memories for myself in the future. And when those memories changed from good ones to bad ones I still continued. I think it just felt like I had an urge to continue writing. I had a habit and an urge.

CONAN: And as you say in the foreword to this new book, one of the things that happens as you write a diary is that in a sense you escape into the page.

Ms. FILIPOVIC: You do. I realize that perhaps even more kind of now in retrospect. But I do remember that sometimes there were things that I felt sad about or worried about that I couldn't share with my parents because I didn't want to burden them. And they were the only people I was really sharing this time, that I wasn't socializing with any people of my own age.

So I think that page was a way for me to express myself and to put down things that I needed to get out. And the page wouldn't judge me and it would allow me this space which would be purely my own in which to unload everything inside me.

CONAN: A space you control as opposed to the circumstances of your life, which were certainly not yours to control.

Ms. FILIPOVIC: Exactly. There's an immense feeling of powerlessness. There's nothing you can change. I did two things during the war which I had power over. One was that I cut my hair and the other one is that I continued writing. That's the only two things that I could really control.

CONAN: And it's curious. If you write about yourself, you become, in a way, a character and you gain a little distance from the situation you're in.

Ms. FILIPOVIC: I think so, yeah. I mean I think generally as sort of a diary writer anyway, even today writing and living in peace that I am. I still kind of look, I'm able to look at my life and what surrounds me much more clearly once I write it down. So I gain that distance away from my own situation and can observe it and kind of digest it and analyze it better.

CONAN: Melanie Challenger, I wanted to ask you, as you look at the enormous diversity in time and in place of these diarists, one of the things that you noted in your foreword was that they seem to echo each other in a lot of different and interesting ways.

Ms. CHALLENGER: I think that's true. One of the things that we intended with this was certainly to encourage people to empathize across the boundaries that we normally place upon conflict, so across time, geography, circumstance, gender.

And one of the things that, for instance, I noticed was that when war seems to arrive, the mind deals with this new and alien concept of a life so cruelly being snuffed out and that the impinging violence upon lives seems to be meted out initially on a beloved childhood pet.

And not only do the circumstances seem to mean that animals are one of the first sort of first targets of cruelty, actually, and expressions of cruelty in these times of war, but it's also the first opportunity for many of these young people to examine and come to terms with the bereavement that's going to become a part of their lives.

CONAN: We're talking with Zlata Filipovic and Melanie Challenger. They are co-editors of a new collection called "Stolen Voices: Young People's War Diaries from World War I to Iraq."

Again, if you'd like to join this conversation, give us a phone call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. You can also send us e-mail: And we'll be happy to welcome your calls after we come back from a short break. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Right now we're continuing our conversation with Zlata Filipovic and Melanie Challenger. They co-edited the book "Stolen Voices: Young People's War Diaries from World War I to Iraq," which chronicles the diaries of young people living under the threat of violence and tyranny. If you'd like to join our conversation, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is

CONAN: And Zlata Filipovic, we usually think of children as naïve and perhaps overly optimistic. I wonder, do you think in some ways that children might see war more realistically than grown-ups?

Ms. FILIPOVIC: Perhaps they can see it more simply and they can see the black and white, which is that it's no good and that it changes their lives completely. So I think from that sense it's just giving us a very straight up honest observation of the conflict, because they are not going to always be understanding the politics and all the kind of intrigues involved. So I think they just give us a very honest opinion of it.

CONAN: One of the diarists, Melanie Challenger, wrote, You must never tell lies in your diary.

Ms. CHALLENGER: Well, I think that the reason that we chose a diary as a form rather than testimony or memoir is because we get as close as we possibly can to the human consciousness in its perhaps most honest-with-itself state. On the page when it is a diary, when it's being written, especially just for that individual, they're as truthful with themselves as we're likely to get.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail question we have from Paul in Buffalo, New York, and I think it's to Zlata.

In Sarajevo how did you obtain writing materials and keep them organized or even together?

Ms. FILIPOVIC: For my own diary, I just had a little notebook which I was continuing to fill up, trying to find. And when I ran out of one, I'd try and find another one. I mean you just sort of improvise and you try and find things and pens to continue writing.

CONAN: And paper?

Ms. FILIPOVIC: Paper, yeah, it was - my father is a lawyer and he had a lot of papers in his office left over. So I think I probably scribbled on some of his...

CONAN: On the backs of some of his briefs.

Ms. FILIPOVIC: On some of his notebooks, exactly.

CONAN: Yeah. Let's see if we can get some callers on the line. And this is Michele? Are we on line one here?

MICHELE (Caller): Yes. Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Go ahead. Michele calling us from Los Angeles.

MICHELE: Well, I grew up in South Africa and moved to the States in the - right after the elections in 1994. So I was 16 years old. And I kept a diary basically from '92 to - well, actually, from Mandela's release, so it was 1990 to about '94. And then I still spent a year in Iraq with the U.S. military and kept a diary then too.

And it's just amazing as a kid, I guess as a 16, 17-year-old, the optimism that you have that, you know, things will turn out OK. And then also just, you know, being able to see day to day how your views change. And some days are really bad and some days are really good.

And you know, I grew up as a very privileged white person in South Africa. So to me, even though I was still a teenager, I had a lot of guilt associated with what was going on. But at the same time, you know, things affected us.

And it's just interesting now looking back as an adult how I've written my diary going through what I did in Iraq and kind of equating the two in a lot of ways. And it's just - I think that you're right, it's a very personal, very honest view. And some things are quite funny. You look at it and you're like, gosh, you know, I was so unjaded then.

But I think it's still important, because it does help you write things off and as your guest said, you know, some things you can't talk to your parents about. So it's your relationship with the page.

CONAN: Hmm. Your relationship with the page, Zlata.

Ms. FILIPOVIC: Yeah, and an incredibly important one. I absolutely agree. I mean it's white. It's not going to judge you. It's not going to tell you that you thought that you - the thought that you have is stupid or the fact that you changed it from yesterday until tomorrow is bad. You know, you're just allowed. It is a friend.

CONAN: Hmm. Michele, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

MICHELE: You're welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Lesley. Lesley with us from West Bloomfield in Michigan.

LESLEY (Caller): Hi.


LESLIE: It's a Michigan day, isn't it?

CONAN: It is a Michigan day.

LESLIE: We have - well, we in Michigan just love NPR. Anyways, when I was a teenager - hello?

CONAN: Yes, you're on the air. Go ahead.

LESLIE: Okay. When I was a teenager, "The Diary of Anne Frank" - this is on its edited form, of course - was, you know, required reading as a teenager. And the one thing that - I'm sorry, I get choked up when I think about this - was how important everyday, mundane things became. You know, getting up, eating, fighting with our parents, fighting with - you know what I'm saying?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

LESLIE: That you got to know about her life more - I mean you got to know about her feelings, but you also got to know about her life, growing up, you know. And those things were more important than, say, than if she had not gotten...

(Soundbite of crying child)

LESLIE: the secret attic. Can you hold on? I'm being paged.

CONAN: Leslie, yeah. You seem to have another urgent situation there.

Let me ask you, Zlata Filipovic, as you're writing - as you were writing your diary - yes, it was about war and about people killed and about the loss. But it was also about mundane, everyday things, details that take on great weight.

Ms. FILIPOVIC: Yeah, I mean, it's - you know, it's actually, say the word also that I was incredibly bored during the war as well, because I wasn't going out of the house, because I wasn't meeting people my own age. And I mean it's all these things. It's boredom, it's immense fear, it's incredible humanity, the way that my neighbors and I and my family, we were sharing this time and sharing food, that you know, bird food was being passed from one bird in one part of the city to another.

I mean, even birds were sharing food. It's all these details. It's you know, the fact that my clothes were not fitting me anymore because I had grown, that I was kind of, you know, my face was changing. All of these things continue. And it really is that, it's really all these little details, all these different things sort of mix together that described this experience. You continue growing up, you continue hoping, you continue hoping for the future, planning your future. You have to, even though if your future is, at any moment in time, completely uncertain.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Go ahead, Melanie.

Ms. CHALLENGER: I was going to say I'd like to add that I think that one of the reasons, perhaps, that that young woman was so, was emotional in her response is because one of the things that we've been talking about that a diary does is silence your own inner voice, the consciousness, the observer of both the mundane and the important aspects of our life. That voice that we carry in our head all the time is silenced for a moment when you read a diary, and transforms into the other voice upon the page. So in many ways you become that person, and it can be a very powerful way of connecting with somebody else's experience and encouraging a great, great compassion and empathy for them.

CONAN: Leslie, you're back?


CONAN: Okay.

LESLIE: I've been listening. Thank you.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks very much for the call. And we're glad the other crisis was taken care off.

LESLIE: Oh, she'll survive.

CONAN: Thanks very much. I did want to ask you, Melanie, this diary does cover from World War I to Iraq. It is not as geographically varied as you would - as you might like; obviously the situation today in Africa where, you know, obviously many children and young people are at risk in many different ways.

Ms. CHALLENGER: Absolutely. I think this, that the book functions on two levels. One the hand it functions in terms of the voices that we have in this diary. And then there's - then there's a silence. The way in which the book also functions is the voices that we couldn't include in this. And these are individuals either who, for whom diary writing is not a tradition, and that means of coming to terms of their experiences, perhaps through testimony or through poems or song and so forth, all - they're not literate, and therefore they've been denied the opportunity to describe their experiences and for us to come to terms with them, which can be certainly a significant issue in parts of Africa, for instance.

But the other issue, of course, is just the circumstance - the circumstances of war are prohibitive for writing. So when we talk about stolen voices, often it's stealing something back from potential love, because the nature of war is to annihilate the human voice, and so it can be terrifically difficult to find these diaries.

CONAN: And similarly, you might think young people are always victims. Sometimes they are both victims and perpetrators.

Ms. CHALLENGER: Yes. I mean, we felt it was very important for us to include the many different, complicated and perhaps uncomfortable aspects in which children get appropriated in times of war. Of course they go into war with guns in their hands. And we would have loved to if been able to give a voice to a child soldier, perhaps in Africa, which is a huge problem that we need to deal with. But we don't have those diaries.

But what we do have is some young men who are fighting, who are still terrifically young. And the consciousness that they're bringing into a wartime is going to be so affected by their experience. These are 19, 20-year-old men who are fighting in the Second World War and also in Vietnam.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Carol. Carol with us from Larkspur in California.

CAROL (Caller): Yes. I was in Rwanda in 1994 when the genocide started. I'm not a Rwandan. I'm American. But I had a small portion of my diary that was published when I returned. And one of the things that I felt, and I think that that's confirmed by what both of your guests are saying, is that having a foreign voice was not really sufficient enough to, I mean it certainly, it was, you know, published in major papers in the U.S., but it wasn't enough to really give voice to the Rwandan people, in a way.

And I ended up actually going back to Rwanda late in '94, in October of '94, and seeking testimony. And you know, Rwanda is a place that - as your guest was just saying - that people were not - there was not a tradition of journaling. And the testimony and the essays - I ended up publishing it as a volume of essays and of testimony that was all by Rwandan voice, when I - actually five years after the genocide ended, and really felt like that was a far more, you know, it's significant, historical document than certainly my small essay that I had - or my small journal that I have published when I returned.

CONAN: And Melanie Challenger, you write about the importance of these diaries as historical documents.

Ms. CHALLENGER: Yes, absolutely. Although I'm specifying historical documents as a diary, which is quite a Western tradition - it has to be said - in terms of Rwanda, I work predominantly (unintelligible) and in a different capacity I came cross many poems that were being written from Rwanda. There was one that sticks out to my memory. The young man, unfortunately, I forget. But his poem was called "Rwanda Spill No More Blood." And it was written at the time that he was witnessing these things and describing his feelings of loss, both personally but also in terms of his country.

And it's an extraordinary document, form of expression. They do exist there. And I think one of the things that we all have to do very much is acknowledge that it's not difficult - it's not easy for these pieces of literature to come into the public domain and to be accepted. They maybe there in Africa somewhere, but they're not finding their ways into publishing houses. We're not looking at them and coming to terms with this history fully, which we very much need to do.

CONAN: Carol, thanks for the call.

CAROL: It was certainly my experience when I returned and tried to find someone to publish this book. It took us many years to even find a publisher who was interested in publishing it at all.

Ms. CHALLENGER: It doesn't surprise me, I must say.

CAROLE: Most major books that came out about Rwanda came out much later than the book that Howard University published, "Genocide in Rwanda: A Collected Memory."

CONAN: Carole, thanks very much.

CAROLE: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Zlata Filipovic and Melanie Challenger, co-editors of "Stolen Voices: Young People's War Diaries from World War I to Iraq." You can read an excerpt from the book online. We've posted it at And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's get Lee on the line. Lee is calling us from Illinois.

LEE (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, Lee.

LEE: Yes. I started keeping a diary on December the 8th of 1941. I had been born in '32. And the last entry was the 23rd of August of '45. I came across that diary when my mother passed away in the late '80s and it was like reading something that a stranger had wrote. I didn't recognize myself and the way I'd been affected, I guess you could say, by day-to-day headlines and movies and stuff like that went on during the war.

CONAN: I wonder if you could give us an example of something that surprised you, reading it back after all these years.

LEE: I guess - I hate to use the word propagandize, but the way the movies affected me and the way the newspapers affected me, I - you know, I wanted to become a Russian, and then I wanted to become Jewish, and just feelings that I didn't even know that I had.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Because you really were so desperate to get involved in something that you thought was overpoweringly important?

LEE: I - you know, you wanted to help somebody.

CONAN: Wanting to help - Zlata, I wonder if that was something that occurred to you. You were helpless in that cellar.

Ms. FILIPOVIC: I was, and there was nothing else that I could do but write and occasionally, you know, maybe run into the room and play the piano. But there's one thing that I would really like to add on to what your caller was saying, is that I think there's really interesting thing that happens with memory as well. And sometimes when I'm thinking - and this is a war that I was in that only kind of ended 12 years ago and I was living in it 14 years ago - but it's really interesting, what happens with memory, in that it plays these tricks on you and how with time, you know, you transformed your memories and experiences. And actually, when you go back to a diary, you really go back into that moment. And it even happens to me as well.

Sometimes going back to my own diary I'm surprised with certain things, because memory really plays tricks. That's why we really also wanted to have these diaries, because they really take us back into that moment.

CONAN: Lee, memory plays tricks. Would you agree with that?

LEE: Oh, definitely.

CONAN: Lee, thanks very much for the call.

LEE: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: And let's see if we can begin to answer - we just have a minute left - this e-mail from Terry in San Francisco. The youth in urban - she, by the way, praises you both for your - your participation in a Right to Read library program in Alameda County Juvenile Hall last week. But she writes, The youth in our urban cities are living their own wars. It's amazing to see them captivated by a young woman sharing her story of war and violence under such difficult circumstances.

Ms. FILIPOVIC: Yeah. It is incredible. I mean, they read, even the freedom writers, who have kind of become quite big now, they were reading, you know, Anne Frank's diary. They were reading individual stories. They were reading "The Night" by Elie Wiesel. They read my diary from the Bosnian conflict. And there is a very interesting response that happens to an individual story. And if that story, you know, it's almost looking at your own conflict via another by looking at another and coming to terms with your own experiences by looking at the same experiences similar to yours.

CONAN: Thanks to you both. We appreciate your time today. Thanks very much for coming in.

Ms. FILIPOVIC: Thank you.

Ms. CHALLENGER: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Zlata Filipovic and Melanie Challenger, co-editors of "Stolen Voices: Young People's War Diaries from World War I to Iraq." They joined us today from the studios of our member station in Boston, WBUR. Ira Flatow's here tomorrow with SCIENCE FRIDAY. We'll see you Monday. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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