111 pages 3 hours read

Zlata Filipović

Zlata's Diary

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | YA | Published in 1993

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Summary and Study Guide


Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Wartime Sarajevo is an eyewitness account of the Bosnian War as told through diary entries written by Zlata Filipović. Writing between her 11th and 13th birthdays, the diary traces the daily experiences of childhood during the Siege of Sarajevo, from 1991 to 1993. Though unflinching in her descriptions of The Absurdity of War, Loss Due to War, and the emotional toll of Coming of Age During War, Filipović also recounts the acts of kindness and The Support of Friends and Family that ultimately allow her to maintain Hope and Perseverance.

At first a way to process and externalize her experiences and emotions, the diary became a lifeline when it was selected by a small Sarajevan press and released for UNICEF week to raise awareness of the war in Bosnia and to encourage international interventions for those impacted by the war. Eventually, the publicity led to a book deal with French Publisher Fixot et Editions Robert Laffont to translate and release the full diary. This study guide refers to the English translation from Croat by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić, rereleased with a new preface by Zlata Filipović in 2006 by Penguin Books.

Content Warning: The source material features graphic depictions of war-related death, destruction, and terror, forced displacement from homes, physical violence, catastrophic injury, and suicidal ideation. The source material also features use of what is now a political pejorative and ethnic slur, “Chetnik,” in reference to the specific Serbian nationalist paramilitary groups identifying themselves politically with the name. This term is referenced in this guide here and in the Index of Terms for the purposes of contextualization.


Zlata is an only child living with her mother, a chemist, and father, an advocate, in a middle-class apartment in Sarajevo. Early diary entries recount a happy prewar childhood. A diligent student, Zlata enjoys her woodworking, piano, and solfeggio classes and sees her studies as her responsibilities. The extended family vacations together at their shared summer home in nearby Crnotina and at a ski resort on the Olympic mountain of Jahorina.

Zlata is well-liked by peers and attends many parties, writes about her favorite music and television shows, and looks forward to her 11th birthday party. She lives a comfortable life, disrupted by common setbacks such as an illness that postpones her birthday celebrations, a class trip with some rowdy peers, and the boredom of a winter holiday spent cooped up at home.

Scenes of war and violence in neighboring Croatia fill the television. Zlata’s father is called to serve in the police reserves. The possibility of war hangs in the air even as the holidays approach, and Zlata joins an aid group in creating care packages to send to Dubrovnik, Croatia, for the New Year. Zlata’s winter holiday is full of sledding, cocoa, and sleepovers with friends, but the adults around her talk endlessly of politics. The ethnic conflicts and political repercussions of the dissolution of Yugoslavia seem ridiculous to Zlata, but she worries for those in Dubrovnik, which is home to friends of the family.

By March of 1992, Zlata writes about growing ethnic and political tensions in Bosnia following the February 29 and March 1 referendum for independence, boycotted by the majority of Bosnian Serbs. Resulting fighting leads to the barricade of the city, and Zlata, her family, and others march for peace. Zlata recounts touch-and-go tensions as the ethnic and political conflicts escalate through March. Rumors of advancing soldiers from Pale upend school and cut neighborhoods off from one another. In a moment of recognition, Zlata names her diary “Mimmy,” connecting her experiences to those of Anne Frank.

Zlata’s life spirals out of control as war erupts in Sarajevo. Artillery shelling sends the family scrambling at all hours for shelter in their neighbors’ cellar. Running water, gas, and electricity, cut off by the occupying forces, become distant memories. The family learns to brave long lines threatened by sniper fire for jerrycans of drinking water and to chop furniture for heat. Her mother faces bullets as she crosses the bridge to and from work. Zlata’s friend, Nina, is killed while playing in the park. Cut off from other neighborhoods due to the danger, Zlata cannot visit family and friends. She languishes, vacillating between high anxiety and great boredom and frustration. Though she is eventually allowed out to visit grandparents and her best friend, Mirna, the shattered buildings, clear-cut parks, and influx of displaced refugees are constant reminders of death and destruction.

Still, Zlata has the love of her pets, Cicko and CiCi, and Mimmy, her diary, in whom she confides regularly. She also has the support of parents, neighbors, and close friends, who look out for one another, gather to celebrate birthdays, and share food, supplies, and shoulders to cry on. Despite the horror, the war brings the neighborhood together, and they weather their first winter under siege. Nedo, a young refugee in their building, and the Bobars next door keep Zlata upbeat. She especially comes to rely on the Bobars’ daughters, Maja and Bojana, though both girls are older. Maja encourages Zlata to send her diary for publication through a school contact.

Zlata’s work is chosen, but setbacks delay the promotion of the work repeatedly: It is not until July of 1993 that Zlata’s diary is released. She makes a poignant speech to a small crowd, comparing her plight with that of a long-distance swimmer dropped into cold water with no shore in sight. Journalists continue to visit Zlata following the release, and though she gains an international platform, she worries about her parents’ mental states and the looming winter, which the family will face without enough firewood. They have few supplies and even fewer friends left in Sarajevo. She celebrates birthdays and weddings, reads letters, attends school, and visits friends, but these acts of normalcy begin to feel like mere shadows of life.

In early December of 1993, Zlata and her family receive news that the French publishers of her diary will take the family to Paris. The family scrambles to pack and say their goodbyes, but complications delay their exit. Zlata agrees to sit for a live TV show with the French defense minister, François Léotard, who promises to get her family out. The family waits two weeks until the minster’s advisor, Jean-Christophe Rufin, negotiates with the warring parties for her family’s safe departure to Paris. On December 23, the family departs. Though overjoyed to leave the chaos, Zlata remains deeply saddened for her friends, family, and country left behind, and the diary ends with a question mark, as she does not know what the future holds.