A Girl Named Zlata And a New View of Life

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THOUGH it has been months since I first read it, I still remember my reaction to the book ``Zlata's Diary'' (Viking).

As I stood staring in the mirror, brushing my teeth before bed, my mind wandered over the usual: Pick up milk at the grocery store; don't forget change for the laundry machines; pay the bills this week; and when the weatherman says rain, remember to take an umbrella.

But somewhere between the toothpaste and my checkbook, a 13-year-old girl named Zlata Filipovic spoke to me from the pages of her book about life in war-torn Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. She said: ``boredom! shooting! shelling! people being killed! despair! hunger! misery! fear!'' And I realized that whether I got wet on the way to work the next day or didn't pick up a carton of milk was not a matter of life or death.

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Not so in Sarajevo.

Though news of the almost three-year-old war in the former Yugoslavia is everywhere, few of the daily developments had stuck with me. It was Zlata, before she was airlifted to Paris last December, who made me pause from my daily routine that evening.

Her story is a jarring one of hunger, fear, and cold. She has seen the destruction of her neighborhood, her city, and her country. She's watched her friends leave for safer places, one by one. She's been trapped in her house - in her cellar at times - wondering if her parents would return from work, waiting for ``those lunatics up in the hills,'' as she calls them, and the ``kids'' around the endless negotiating tables to stop fighting.

Zlata had begun to haunt me. When I walked through the numerous rows of food at the grocery store, I thought of how hungry she must have been. She strolled with me through the Victory Gardens near my house, demanding that I stop and appreciate the daffodils. And at night when I turned on the water for my shower, I caught myself staring at the luxury of the hot, pelting beads cascading into my tub.

Her diary has forced me to think about what stance the United States and Europe should be taking against the violence. This violence was so much a part of Zlata's world that her family nicknamed the firing bullets near their home.

The war was a topic of my dinner conversations after NATO bombed Sarajevo. I talked about ethnic cleansing with my parents on the phone after we'd both seen the movie ``Schindler's List.'' But in my world, dinner ended, the movie was over, and I hung up the phone. Not so for Zlata.

Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I had known this was happening. I knew that when women were killed standing in line for water or dozens of ordinary people were shot at in a run-down marketplace, all was not right in the world. But it was the glib words of a teen that made me stop and think for a moment.

I was also moved by the Sarajevans tenacity, their spirit of going on with life even while surrounded by difficulties. How could they keep living a life that must have seemed so destitute compared to what they had had? What would I do without my cozy apartment to go home to each night and a job filled with challenges and rewards? Could I keep cooking, reading, and meeting with friends if I had to do it with no food, no light, and by rushing from my home to theirs under the rain of sniper fire?

That was three months ago, and Zlata's story has faded a bit from my mind. Over the months, various criticisms have been made about her book: that parts of it were written by editors; that it doesn't compare to Anne Frank's diary; and that the media hype surrounding Zlata's slim volume diminishes any value it may have had.

These comments cannot be easily dismissed, but they have not stayed with me the same way that Zlata's account has.

The fighting is over in Sarajevo now. The news story there is one of rebirth. Lilacs are blooming. People are walking in the streets without fear for the first time in two years, and are learning what it takes to put a city together again.

And as the Sarajevans are rebuilding theirs, I find myself more at home in my own city, a place unknown to me when I moved here in October. I am growing into my surroundings, finding a comfortable daily pattern and building a life.

It hasn't been easy adjusting to a place so unlike my North Carolina home. The city is noisy and on ``urban time.'' People live alone and close together. I've missed driving my familiar shortcuts to the suburban strip malls that evoke childhood memories.

BUT as spring flows into summer, I have made enough memories here for this to feel like my home. I am feeling more grounded, putting down roots. I no longer have to peer intently at my surroundings, trying to absorb each detail. I know now what is there.

These realizations bring me back to Zlata. The most striking element of her diary was its chronicling of the everyday, how people live their lives in the midst of war. Through the smallest details, I began to feel as though I knew her, as though she were my friend. Now I wonder how she is faring in Paris, her new city.

Thinking again of Zlata and her story reminds me of my good fortune. Zlata talked to me as if I were her friend - and I won't easily forget this conversation.

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