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Book Review
Last Updated: 03/10/2005
The Little Children
Simic Olivera

Then They Started Shooting breaks stereotypes about “traumatized war children” by talking about children’s resilience in dealing with war hardship. In the aftermath of the Bosnian conflict, very few children showed lasting signs of trauma; instead, thoughts of their personal futures filled their minds. In her analyses of individual psychological health, Jones points out that children who avoided searching for explanations for past events have better psychological health than those who did not. Truly, distancing oneself from the past can be protective, but it can also cost the community as a whole. In the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it seems that ignoring the past and lacking the will to deal with it can reopen the wounds that never properly healed.

Book Review

Lynne Jones

Then they started shooting: Growing up in wartime Bosnia

Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2004

This report from child psychiatrist Lynne Jones will enrich not only the literature on Bosnia and Herzegovina but the study of children and war in general. In a combination of ethnography, storytelling, thoughtful reflections and narrative analyses, Jones draws images of Muslim and Serb children who grew up in war time Bosnia and Herzegovina. She highlights child resilience in her portrayal of individual lives and breaks the usually unchallenged assumption that a large number of children would be traumatized by war and would need psychological assistance, finding that the majority of children with whom she worked did not fit this image. The research took place in the Drina valley, and focused on two cities namely Gorazde and Foca, the homes of Muslim and Serb ethnic groups. The research was carried out between 1996-1998 when Jones was living in the area and 2002 when she came back to Bosnia and Herzegovina to write the final chapter of her book.

The book is divided into three parts. In the first part, Jones describes the war through the children's eyes. She presents children's perspectives on what happened, their fears and concerns that were often startlingly different from those of adults. The first part is further divided into three chapters that analyze children's first impression of war and the feelings that arise when the Fighting begins (chapter one). Children describe moments of their lives that were interrupted by the beginning of the war. But while at first they felt horrified and frightened, once they realized that The war goes on (chapter two) the children began to adjust to horror and death surrounding them. In each chapter, Jones offers the reader personal stories of Muslim and Serb children and their different ways of coping with fear and hardship. Finally in the last chapter of the first part of the book, Adjusting to Peace, Jones leads the reader through children s mixed (but in the majority positive) emotions upon returning home. Returning from refugee camps, the children were happy to be united with the family members they left behind, mainly males who were in combat.

Part two, Understanding What Happened, has four chapters and includes not only the children s understandings of the issues raised by the conflict, but also their parents . In the first chapter, Why did we fight? Jones explores Bosnian people s reasons and justifications for the war, as well as their feelings before and after the war. While children cannot quite spell out (do not know) the reasoning for not liking other ethnic groups after the war, adults are more likely to blame each other, or accuse political leaders of wanting the conflict. Jones emphasizes that Bosnia and Herzegovina was a mixed community where people from different ethnic and religious background lived happily and where a majority of children did not know their ethnic origin, nor could they identify the difference between Serb, Muslim and Croatian children. There is an almost unanimous sentiment among the Serb and Muslim families interviewed that everything was fine before the war, and they mourn for that past. 

In the second chapter, What became of our neighbors? , Jones asks children and their parents about their former neighbors what happened to them, and if their refugee status bothers them. Sentiments of indifference and disinterest pervade the children s statements, not only in regard to the fate of their friends from different ethnic groups, but also in regard to the search for a reason why their homes were destroyed in the first place. In the vast majority of cases, Jones notes that there is no dialogue between parents and children on war and its consequences. Both parents and children say that they want to protect each other from distress which could be triggered by memories of the war. While exploring the question of responsibility for the war, Jones said that almost all said that they had worked these things out from themselves by watching television or listening to adults talking .

What country is this? might sound like an odd question to ask children, yet in the first paragraphs of the third chapter Jones assures readers that it is not, especially in a country like post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina. What would seem to be a simple question to ask a child is not in post-Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina. Children from both entities were equally puzzled about and ignorant of their neighboring entity. Therefore, the majority of Serb children thought that Bosnia and Herzegovina had ceased to exist, while Muslim children believed that Republika Srpska was down in Belgrade and belongs to Yugoslavia now. Jones points out that Dayton Peace Agreement reinforced ethnic divisions and caused a huge exodus of ethnic groups who wanted to find final refugee within their own ethnic communities. The migration of the population and strict division among entities resulted in the creation of pure ethnic groups, spelling the end of interaction between children from different ethnic backgrounds. As a consequence, the children believed that they lived in separate countries rather than one with two entities.

All the same, many children felt that no matter how good relationships had been before, war had generated so much hatred that living together now would be impossible.   Finally, while living together for Serb children would mean loss of the war and their parents struggle and sacrifices had been for noting, for Muslim children only a unified and mixed Bosnia could signify victory.

The last chapter of the second part, Where do they come from? , is an exploration of Muslim and Serb origin, history and identity. Jones also addresses the issue of the current educational system that tends, in both ethnic groups, to play the history game, with the selective use of facts. The result is that the children from the two ethnic groups have two different historical perspectives of the same events. Looking back at the time of the Ottoman Empire and World War II, one could find evidence to support every perspective and to justify every new outrage of the recent war . Still, Muslim families do not want to live in a mono-ethnic state but feel they should live with their Serb neighbors once more because life would be without sense if Muslims live alone. On the other hand, Serbs do not recognize Bosnia and Herzegovina as their state and do not believe it exists. Jones also points out that the war had not been caused by conflicting perceptions of national identity, but it had certainly created them in this younger generation. Finally, in contrast to Muslim children who want to live in Bosnia in the future, Serb children did not want to live there but just wanted to get out .

The last part of the book addresses the war s impact on the children s psychological and social well being. The third part has been further divided into four chapters and begins with War and well-being, which talks about scientific achievements accomplished in the last century with regards to knowledge on war trauma and behavior of children who experienced war. Jones also addresses the discovery of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), its misuse and its wrong interpretations. While children who have experienced terrible events might have nightmares and difficulty concentrating in school, these symptoms could be regarded as an understandable response to tragic events and not necessarily as being abnormal or pathological. Overall, she says, there should be more emphasis on resilience and coping than on vulnerability and illness.

War, unlike natural disasters, continues Day after Day, and in Bosnia and Herzegovina it went on for almost four years. In the second chapter, Jones addresses the issue of trauma, depression and anxiety, since many children experienced a whole series of catastrophic events one after the other. She gives a picture of children s well-being both in symptomatic terms and on the basis of their own and children s parents understandings of how their experiences had affected them. In exploring the effects of the children s experiences of war, Jones points out that specific events could produce quite specific feelings. Yet, she continues, those feelings were hard to relate directly to longer-term psychological ill-health.

Making sense of Madness and being able to give meaning to one s experience appears to be protective, both when terrible events occur and afterward. In the third chapter Jones discusses with children the meaning of the war. Jones findings contrast with those of many studies of children in other countries: in Bosnia and Herzegovina the children who avoided looking for any meaning and distanced themselves felt psychologically more comfortable than those tried to make sense of things. Yet unwell children did not want individual therapy; they knew that their personal recovery was bound up with the recovery of their social and political communities. Finally, Jones suggests that we should pay more attention to avoidance as a constructive rather than pathological coping mechanism.

Crimes and Punishments , the final chapter of Jones book, was written in late 1996, four years after her initial trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina. She came back to Drina valley to visit children she had interviewed between 1996 and 1998 to see if the children s perception had changed particularly in terms of willingness for reconciliation.

In the Epilogue, Jones briefly describes her experience from Iraq and Sierra Leone in 2003 while working with children there. Finally, the reader can also find a comprehensive Chronology on the last century of the Balkan history.

Olivera Simic is from Bosnia & Heztegovina. She is a masters candidate in the Gender and Peace Building department at the University for Peace.