Zina Besirevic was 13 when the Serbian army laid siege to Sarajevo. It was April 5, 1992. She and her family, Bosnian Muslims, lived in fear for the next 31⁄2 years as shells rained down on the Bosnian capital and Serbian snipers picked off civilians in the streets. More than 10,000 people died — among them her parents.
Zina shared her story last week at the opening reception of “Survival in Sarajevo,” a photo exhibit by Ed Serotta on display at the San Francisco Public Library’s Main Branch through March 16.
She told us that right before the war, her class was assigned “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Something in those words penned 50 years earlier by a Jewish girl her age, hiding in an attic with her family in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, resonated with the frightened Bosnian teenager holed up with her own family in Sarajevo — resonated so strongly that Zina, who had been keeping a diary since she was 9, started writing her daily entries to Anne. And did so for the rest of the war.
“The way Anne would write to her cat, I would start each with ‘Dear Anne,’ ” recalls Besirevic, 35, who now lives in San Francisco and teaches human rights at U.C. Berkeley. “I was actually writing to her as if we were having a conversation. I picked up on things she wrote, like, ‘I know what you mean by being in the dark and looking out a window and not being able to go outside.’ It wasn’t exactly the same, of course. I could go out, and a person wouldn’t get me, but a bullet could.
“I told her, ‘You think you had it rough.’ ”
As I listened, I thought of how many times Anne’s diary has been refracted through different lenses — the films, the plays, the classroom readings, even the parodies. But something in Zina’s experience was different. It wasn’t just a book she had to read for class; Anne Frank became a lifeline to the outside world, a personal friend who understood what she was going through.
Jews weren’t foreign to Zina and her family. Sarajevo before the war was a multiethnic city shared by Serbian Orthodox, Croatian Catholics, Bosnian Muslims and Jews, and all of them were welcome at her family’s home. It was the solidarity of Sarajevo’s ethnic groups that kept the city from capitulating in the face of Serbian efforts to turn them against each other.
Sarajevo was “a great place to be a Jew,” Zina told me a few days later when I visited her at home. “The Jews weren’t part of the war. No one had a beef with them.”
That’s why, she said, Sarajevo residents asked their friends and family outside the city to send in aid packages through the Jewish aid organization, the Benevolencia. All of the other faith-based agencies would rip apart packages sent to members of rival ethnic groups.
“Everyone wanted to be on the Benevolencia list,” she said. “You’d walk past the synagogue, there would be crowds of people looking at the list to see if they were on it.”
When the Joint Distribution Committee started organizing convoys out of the city, the rumor spread that you had to be Jewish to get on the bus. It wasn’t true, but Zina says a stampede headed to the synagogue, folks banging on the door and asking to convert.
“When you think of Jews and Muslims today, you think of them pitted against each other,” she said. “But in that little space and time, Muslims were trying to pass themselves off as Jews to get on that convoy and go to Israel!”
Zina marvels at how many of her friends from Sarajevo who got out safely have gone on, like herself, to work in human rights. Something about their shared experience during the siege bound them together, making them reject the ethnic divisions that tore their country apart. Years later, when she read about “survivor guilt” in Holocaust literature, she knew that’s what she and her peers were feeling.
“When you go through something so horrendous, you come out thinking that there’s no hardship you can’t endure, nothing that can keep you from your goal,” she told me. “From that comes a kind of energy — you want to justify your survival. You want to make a change in the world.”
Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at email@example.com. Here is a translated excerpt from Zina’s diary, provided by the author:
Jan. 13, 1993
I was thinking about what you said, how boring it is to be locked up and hiding, to not be able to go outside. There is only so much you can do, and it isn’t much. Now when the days are so short in the winter, it gets dark at 4 in the afternoon and it’s lights out for any reading or writing. I try to sit by the window to catch the last drops of that dusk light, but then my mother starts shouting — Are you out of your mind! Get away from the window before a bullet gets you. You know they can see us!
I wonder who “they” are and why it bothers them that I am sitting in the window and reading?
Dad says it bothers them because they are not the reading sort, he says they are a bunch of thugs sitting up there in the hills, getting drunk and firing out bombs just to meet the daily requirement for carnage. There are also no more candles. The Catholic church is not giving them out anymore, they say they’ve handed out all they had, they’ve none left. I think they are lying. Maybe you need to be a Croat to get some. It would be nice to have some light, because in the dark I really get bored. Then I think about all the other stuff. Like how cold it is. Then mom starts to lead her exercises: Jump up and down and that. We all feel stupid. You’re right, Anne, the worst thing is the nights are so long.
We got a Red Cross message from my aunt, she says she sent a package through Benevolencia. Mom’s been going round there checking the list every day, but there’s nothing yet. They don’t open the packages, the Jews don’t, like the others. So everything that was put in there you get!!! If my aunt has any sense, there will be some chocolate in there.
Well, I can’t write anymore, it’s too dark. There is nothing important happening. Couldn’t get over the road today to see Dzejna. I don’t know anything about her boyfriend situation. Keep you posted on that.