Days of Despair

updated 03/21/1994 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1994 01:00AM

WHEN ZLATA FILIPOVIC BEGAN HER DIARY two and a half years ago, at age 10, she wanted to write about all the usual schoolgirl things—"music, friends, maybe boys," she says, smiling mischievously. Growing up in Sarajevo, the only child of a middle-class couple of Muslim, Croat and Serb descent, Zlata was an A student who took tennis and piano lessons and had a passion for pizza, MTV and Michael Jackson. "I wanted to have a happy memory from a happy childhood," she says. "I wanted 20 years after to open that funny book and read the things that happened."

But by April of 1992, the bombardment of Sarajevo had begun, and Zlata's serene little world was shattered. For the next two years her diary—much like Anne Frank's, which Zlata had read—became a chronicle of the suffering and the struggle for survival of a young girl and of all the innocents trapped in the besieged Bosnian capital.

But Zlata's war story has a happier ending than that of Frank, the Jewish girl who died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945. Zlata's diary found its way to the French publisher Editions Robert Laffont/Fixot, which also arranged her family's evacuation to Paris last December. The French edition became an immediate best-seller, 25 foreign editions are in the works (Viking has just published Zlatas's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo in the U.S.), and Universal Studios has paid $1 million for film rights. Critics say that Filipovics diary does not match Frank's as literature, but Zlata's admirers argue that in a world numbed by so many accounts of wartime atrocities, her touchingly naive observations have made people feel once again.

Wholesome, soft-spoken and precociously poised, young Zlata arrived in the U.S. for a promotional tour last week. "So many things! It's strange for me," she says of her unimaginable good fortune. It was not being abroad she found so odd, "but any town where there is peace. When we went to Paris, it was Christmas, and families were together, and people were buying presents, laughing. One moment you're in war, then you're flying, (lying, and you are in peace, in the center of a world of life. It was a shock, but I'm getting used to it."

Zlata began her diary-on Sept. 2, 1991, after a long hot summer spent with her father, Malik, a lawyer, and mother, Alica, a biochemist, and her close-knit family of grandparents, aunts and cousins; ahead was a new year at school. But by spring the sniper fire and bombing from Bosnian Serbs was all around her. "Today a shell fell on the park in front of my house," reads her entry on May 7, 1992. "A lot of people were hurt. AND NINA IS DEAD. A piece of shrapnel lodged in her brain and she died.... We went to kindergarten together.... I cry and wonder why? She didn't do anything." As the siege drags on. water, electricity and phones are cut off, food becomes scarce, and the family is forced to take shelter in "the cold, dark, revolting cellar."

Zlata sees the toll exacted on her parents. ("Daddy...really has lost a lot of weight. I think even his glasses are too big for him. Mommy has lost weight too. She's shrunk somehow. The war has given her wrinkles.") And at moments, she too is overcome with despair. ("I can't take it anymore.... There's a growing possibility of my killing myself.... I'm so sick of it all.") Yet she also enjoys small pleasures and consolations—stripping a cherry tree of its ripe fruit, the friends who found birdseed for her pet canary, the neighbors who shared their meager supplies. "And people laughed, even though it was so bad," she says. "You had to have a light of life there, in that dark, in that hell and death."

Fate intervened in October 1992, when Zlata's diary was chosen from more than a hundred others by Sarajevo authorities who wanted to publish such a document for UNICEF. Journalists began visiting in droves; among them was French photographer Alexandra Boulat, who took excerpts of the diary to Paris and returned with a contract from Laffont/Fixot—as well as the promise to get Zlata and her parents out of Bosnia. Despite assurances from all three warring factions that they would let the Filipovi?s leave, the Serbs withheld permission at the last moment; a few weeks later, just before Christmas, French authorities arranged to have the family flown out on a U.N. plane.

There has since been no surcease from the media and certainly no time to keep up her diary. Zlata has already toured much of Europe, visited Anne Frank's home in Amsterdam and even appeared on TV with Gen. Philippe Morillon, former United Nations commander in Bosnia. She and her publisher are contributing part of the diary proceeds to relief projects, such as distributing 5,000 ski jackets in Sarajevo. Personally, too, Zlata has left a profound impression. Says Susanna Lea, director of foreign rights at Laffont/Fixot: "She's very lovable, very modest and not remotely spoiled. And her moral education is extraordinary. I really admire her parents."

But the Filipovi?s have not fared as well as their resilient daughter. Though reasonably healthy physically, both are emotionally devastated by the carnage they have seen and the separation from parents and siblings. Alica takes tranquilizers; she and her husband, nonsmokers before the war, now chain-smoke. "My mother is quite bad, always crying. My father doesn't cry, but sometimes you can see in his eyes he's also sad," says Zlata.

Zlata plans to attend an English-language school in Paris starting next month, but beyond that the future is uncertain. Because her parents do not speak French and are unlikely to find work, the family is considering moving to Slovenia, where they have relatives. Though Zlata says she "cannot imagine" settling anywhere outside her beloved Sarajevo, she is prepared to accept whatever fate has in store for her. "I don't believe in God, but I believe in destiny," she says. "I think everything is written somewhere. Destiny finds you."

PAULA CHIN
CATHY NOLAN in Paris

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