Jasminko Halilovic looks more fashion model than leading conflict researcher. Yet as soon as the 29-year-old — named to this year’s Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list for law and politics — begins to speak, the gravity in his voice is unmistakable. “My first memories are of war,” he says.
Halilovic was 4 years old when the Bosnian War, Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II, started in 1992. Like many Bosnians his age, his earliest memories are of the four-year conflict, but he insists that he was among the luckier ones: “I didn’t lose any family, I wasn’t wounded myself, and being young I wasn’t so aware.”
Even so, those years left their mark, and in 2017, Halilovic founded the War Childhood Museum, the world’s only museum of its kind and one that seeks to create the largest archive related to the experience of growing up during wartime. Earlier this year, it won the Council of Europe Museum Prize, with the jury saying that it stands as a model to be replicated in other conflict and post-conflict zones. “It is a truly inspiring example of grass-roots initiative,” says Adele Gambaro, the Council of Europe’s rapporteur on the Museum Prize.
For Halilovic, it’s the latest step in a long journey. Born in Sarajevo to academic parents, Halilovic’s war years were filled with periods of hunger, the death of his first crush, and cramped living conditions as the family moved four times to try to escape the threat of the violence (they spent 15 months sleeping in his father’s office). Later, after the war had ended, Halilovic was studying business at the University of Sarajevo when he founded Urban Association, which has become one of Bosnia’s largest cultural nongovernmental associations.
Yet the war continued to exert a pull. “I would hang out with friends, and the conversation would end up with war experiences,” Halilovic says. He decided to create a website asking young Bosnians to share their recollections of growing up during wartime. The response was staggering, and eventually a book took shape with entries from more than 1,000 people. They shared moments of everyday life and stories of hope and humor as well as tragedy. “Our experiences weren’t only personal losses,” Halilovic says. “It was equally our resilience, our creativity, our strength.”
Among the artifacts: a blue “dress of spite” worn by a girl to defy snipers, a pair of ballet shoes a young dancer used “to disconnect from reality.”
War Childhood came out in 2013 and has been translated into six languages. One year earlier, Halilovic had written a treatment for the War Childhood Museum, but it would take until 2015 to assemble a team and enough resources to push ahead with the project.
In trying to raise funds for the project (from crowdfunding, private foundations and grants) and secure a space for the museum, Halilovic had to navigate the at times charged political environment in the region, where the repercussions of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the wars that accompanied it in the 1990s are still being felt. “There are a couple of official narratives about the war that are usually accepted, and when something is going beyond these narratives it can be challenging,” he says.
The museum’s executive director, Amina Krvavac, adds, “More than 20 years after the war, there is no common ground on historical perspective of what happened,” with each side sticking to its own version of the past. “We are stuck,” she says.
A museum built around reliving hardship and resurfacing painful memories might seem a peculiar way of trying to move forward. But by allowing young Bosnians to tap into experiences they’ve kept buried, the museum offers a sort of therapy. “There is definitely some kind of cathartic effect — that if they leave these memories in the book or the museum they can somehow distance themselves from them,” says Halilovic. And for some, it’s less about delving into the past than sparking conversations with those around them — even husbands and wives who’ve never spoken of their childhood memories.
The War Childhood Museum is an immersive experience. Visitors are given an introduction by a staff member before moving into the exhibition space, which is filled with items chosen from the 4,000-plus objects donated by individuals who lived through the Bosnian War as children, accompanied by their written testimonies. Among the artifacts: a blue “dress of spite” worn by a girl to defy snipers, a pair of ballet shoes a young dancer used “to disconnect from reality,” a burned book pulled from the rubble of Sarajevo’s National Library. The museum has also collected over 150 hours of video interviews.
Already, the museum’s impact is being felt outside the region: Halilovic and his team are consulting on a project focused on internally displaced children from eastern Ukraine, and they are collaborating with other organizations on an exhibition about Syrian child refugees in Lebanon. Halilovic says they were initially cautious about getting involved in ongoing conflicts, as those affected have far more pressing concerns such as medicine, food and shelter, but when they visited refugee camps, families said it was crucial that their stories be heard.
There’s even a project underway in Washington, D.C., to collect testimonies and personal objects related to childhoods affected by war. “Even in developed countries you have these communities of people whose childhood was affected by war,” Halilovic explains. “It doesn’t have to be a lived experience. It could be an American whose father was killed in a conflict abroad. It is present everywhere in the world.”
I ask Halilovic what’s next for him, and he says he had hoped to transition to other types of work, but the War Childhood Museum claims “at least 90 percent” of his time. And he’s fine with that.
“We live in a time of mounting extremism and a time of growing tensions around the world,” he says. “I think any voice of peace is precious, and I think the War Childhood Museum is definitely a voice of peace. If you can understand the consequences of war for children, you can understand the responsibility of adults to create a safer world.”
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