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Dreams of Peace : When Zlata Filipovic began her diary, she did not know her words would launch her family's escape from the war in Bosnia. Now free from mortar shells and hunger, the girl is hoping the journal--a best-selling book--will aid the children of Sarajevo.

March 15, 1994|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — "I keep wanting to explain these stupid politics to myself, because it seems to me that politics caused this war, making it our everyday reality. War has crossed out the day and replaced it with horror, and now horrors are unfolding instead of days." --"Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo," Nov. 19, 1992

*

Zlata Filipovic is here today, out of a cold cellar, safe from mortar shells, liberated from the war in Bosnia.

She is wearing a new Swatch watch, pondering luxurious pastries on a breakfast buffet and watching the skaters in Rockefeller Center.

"I'm not really hungry," she says.

But in a while, she gives in to a treat, switching from hot tea to hot chocolate with whipped cream. She sips it carefully.

It is not easy to be a little girl who is also very much a grown-up--to love sweets and best friends, yet know hunger and sniper fire; to have a darling heart-shaped face yet a childhood blasted apart by war.

The guilt is heavy. The emotions confusing.

"I don't know how I came here," says 13-year-old Zlata, again watching the skaters. "It's like being on another planet from where I was. But it doesn't matter if it's the distance from U.S. to Bosnia or Croatia to Bosnia. When there is war, every place is far away."

For the last four months, she raced around Europe promoting "Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo," her chronicle of two years as war erupted around her. Now she is in America doing the same--the "Today" show, "Charlie Rose," cover of Newsweek, bookstore readings, a meeting with President Clinton.

Although her promoters have called her "the Anne Frank of Sarajevo," the comparison is absurd to Zlata. Unlike the Jewish girl who never knew her diary would reach the world and eventually died in a Nazi concentration camp, part of Zlata's journal was published before she had finished it. That brought her to the attention of the French minister of defense, who helped Malik and Alica Filipovic and their only child escape in December.

"I am safe," says Zlata, who fled to Paris. "Anne Frank was never safe."

Zlata is something of a youthful sensation, particularly in guilt-ridden Western Europe, which until recently was staying out of the brutal conflicts of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Zlata's diary became a bestseller in France as well as selling in 12 other countries. And last week, Viking issued 200,000 copies in English and a Hollywood studio paid $1 million for the rights to her story. Somewhere along the way, the Filipovics expect to earn enough money to help them put their lives back together.

Zlata has been with so many journalists that they have become her "best friends." She even wants to be one when she grows up.

"They tell the world things to make it better," she says, which leads her to explain more about how she lives with hot chocolate in her tummy and the knowledge of her niece and her best friend, Mirna, starving in Sarajevo. "I am trying to help the children of Sarajevo," says Zlata, who started learning English at age 4. "I just started the diary like millions of others, but now it's become something that can help."

*

Zlata began keeping a diary innocently enough in September, 1991, before she was to start fifth grade. The daughter of a lawyer and chemist, her life was comfortable--all birthday parties, MTV, tennis and piano lessons. Her problems were school tests and colds. A sinus infection almost ruined her 11th birthday: "I am so unlucky," she writes. "Why am I sick?? Boo Hoo, Boo Hoo!!"

The beginning of the diary seems ordinary enough.

But by April, 1992, her reasons to cry accelerated as war prompted her parents to contemplate splitting up the family so her mother could get Zlata to safety. She writes, "Mommy can't make up her mind--she's constantly in tears."

The diary turns into a person, almost. She names it Mimmy. She talks to it as a friend and signs "Love Zlata" after many entries.

As she explains in an interview, "I needed friends. My real ones were leaving or I couldn't see or talk to them."

Indeed, her best friends leave Sarajevo; another young friend, Nina, dies from shell fire, and the bombardment breaks every window in Zlata's house, periodically trapping her family in the cellar. Zlata disdains the politicians, known as "kids," for their paltry efforts at peace. "The 'kids' really are playing, which is why us kids are not playing," she writes. "We are living in fear, we are suffering, we are not enjoying the sun and flowers, we are not enjoying our childhood. WE ARE CRYING."

Zlata's writing is alternately compelling and self-conscious. In parts it brings the reader deep inside the normal existence of a little girl; other times she seems to be parodying adult political discussion she overhears.

But Zlata always sounds sincere.

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