SARAJEVO—Twenty-eight year-old Jasminko Halilović paces as he talks on the phone pressed to his ear. Between calls, he inspects every detail of the construction of his new museum dedicated to the experience of childhood in wartime. He stops at a display case and points out that he can see the glue connecting the window pane to the plaster wall.

This will not do. “It is poor design,” he says with a sheepish smile. He returns to his phone to solve the problem. Slender and tall, he speaks directly but gently.

Long anticipated, the opening of the War Childhood Museum has faced challenges due to lack of funding and government support. The project arose from Halilović’s book, which collected 1,000 crowd-sourced testimonies from children who lived through the Bosnian wars of the early 1990s. This permanent museum dedicated to childhood spent in war has been in development for nearly four years. More than 3,000 objects have been collected along with more than 70 hours of recorded testimony from child survivors.

Halilović’s attention to detail is not a superficial matter, he says. Each memory and artifact is to be treated with dignity and care, displayed with the utmost respect. As Halilović corresponded with the contributors to his book, he realized that many kept objects from the war.

“I started to think how great it would be to have a museum where we preserve all of these items in a safe place,” he says.

But it wasn’t always easy to ask for personal stories, let alone meaningful mementos. Halilović stresses that building a relationship with each participant was crucial. Trust has been integral to creating the museum, which has asked people to donate personal objects to the museum’s collection.

“If you want someone to give you, for example, a letter her father sent her from the concentration camp,” he explains, “and she has held that letter in her wallet for the past 20 years, and now you want her to take it out from her wallet and give it to the museum collection, then you need to build real trust.”

Trust was not the only challenge. According to Halilović, the Bosnian government has given little institutional or financial support to the museum, instead favoring projects celebrating war heroes or the efforts of specific battalions. Such projects tend to fall along ethnic lines, continuing a post-war legacy of regional ethnic tensions exploited by politicians.

“[We try] to bring people together. This is not in line with what our government does,” he says. “While they promote fear…they use media to divide people, we bring people together and give them an opportunity to talk.”

Cultural funding is also generally weak in one of Europe’s poorest countries. When Halilović began his project in 2012, even the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina was closed due to lack of funding. “To start a museum in a country like Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has many problems…indeed was a challenge.”

To address this problem, Halilović focuses on sustainability and resourcefulness. The building that will now house The War Childhood Museum was once a community center, but since the war has not seen much use. The municipality granted Halilović use of the space for his museum just a few months ago.

The collection’s items range from food ration cans to toys and books to a pair of ballet shoes. The shoes once belonged to a Sarajevan girl who was eight when the Bosnian Serb forces began the four-year-long siege of the city in 1992.

Halilović also contributed an item to the museum—a small napkin with a drawing of himself on a bike drawn by a family friend.

“It is a symbolic story,” he says. The friend lost his own son in the war just a year before he drew Halilović. But this image of him represents a larger lapse of documentation during wartime. “We have photographs before the war, and after the war, but during the war there was no possibility to make photos … This is one of the rare documents that shows what I looked like at the time.”

As far as personal memories from the war, Halilović says, “There are some nice things,” such as watching as the World Cup final. He says he cried when Italy’s “talisman” Roberto Baggio missed the crucial penalty shot in the 1994 game between Italy and Brazil. Yet he also has his share of tragedies, like the day he discovered that his childhood friend was killed.

Yet he insists that he does not like talking about his personal experiences.

“I am more focused on what we can learn from our experiences, what we can do for children that are going through their own wars all around the world,” he says.

Halilović says that the museum has two main goals. The first is to provide a platform for war children to share their own stories. The project has expanded internationally to collect voices from the Bosnian diaspora living around the world, so that the voices of those who fled as children are also shared in the museum. The second is to educate those who do not know what it is like to grow up during war. The museum will be complemented by educational programs for children and teachers, to offer “an alternative and inclusive narrative of our recent history.”

But Halilović says the museum is not about looking into the past, but rather toward the future. He says that the War Childhood Museum may help children of war find common ground across conflicts and regions.
“Although the war childhood museum is about memory, is about memorialization, it is not a memorial,” he says. “We want to celebrate children’s creativity, children’s resilience.”

Halilović pauses the onslaught of incoming calls to his cell phone, which has been vibrating almost continuously in his pocket. After a few minutes’ break, the job is calling him back. But the young museum director smiles and straightens in his chair with purpose.

“We want to initiate a dialogue,” he says. “We think that without dialogue there cannot be mutual understanding, and without mutual understanding there cannot be a better future for our country.”

Posted by Carol Schaeffer

Carol Schaeffer is a freelance journalist specializing in central and southeastern Europe and is an M.A. candidate in European/Mediterranean Studies and Journalism at New York University.

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