Kiev, Ukraine – Daria Rybalchenko was 16 years old when war broke out in her hometown of Stanytsia Luhanska in eastern Ukraine. In the summer of 2014 she bought a copy of the French adventure novel “The Count of Monte Christo” by Alexandre Dumas in Russian. She remembered reading it one evening when the sound of grenades woke her grandmother.
The couple heard gunfire in the distance, Rybalchenko said, a product of the ongoing fighting between soldiers in the area controlled by the Ukrainian army where they lived and militants supported near Russia. They decided it was far enough away not to worry. She read on.
Rybalchenko read other books this summer, such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic satire “The Master and Margarita,” she said. But the early days of the war in eastern Ukraine are inextricably linked to “The Count of Monte Christo”.
“This book was my alternate reality,” she said in a recent interview. She read it for long nights in the basement, which protected from fire, by the light of a solar-powered flashlight. Her family’s home was out of power, so she immersed herself in Dumas’ story of justice, vengeance, and forgiveness.
Seven years later Rybalchenko donated the book to the War Childhood Museum, an organization based in Bosnia and Herzegovina that has just opened a guest exhibition at the Kiev History Museum until July 12th. The War Childhood Museum was established to reflect the experiences of those who were children during the Bosnian War 1992-1995, but is now expanding its scope to include the experiences of children in other conflicts.
The museum has collected more than 4,000 objects from around the world: its collection includes objects from the recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Eritrea, and even from World War II. The items don’t have to be expensive or rare – they just have to be important reminders of life in conflict. People donate books, toys, soft toys, backpacks, improvised games, drawings and documents.
The exhibition in Kiev shows a selection of hundreds of items donated by individuals who were children seven years ago when the war in Ukraine broke out. These include an oversized teddy bear that a mother gave her son after a grenade tore off two fingers of his right hand, and the train ticket a girl used to leave a town in eastern Ukraine after it was occupied by pro-Russian militants.
According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Social Policy, since 2014, more than 13,000 people, including 146 children, have been killed in the conflict and around 200,000 children have been internally displaced as a result of the conflict.
The War Childhood Museum was born from an idea of its director Jasminko Halilovic in 2010, he recalled in a recent interview in Kiev. Over coffee and drinks in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, which was besieged for more than three years during the war, his friends sometimes shared absurd, funny, and often painful memories from their wartime childhood, he said.
Halilovic was 4 years old when the war started in 1992; he said he remembered learning to ride a bicycle two years later, during the rare breaks from the shelling. In 2010 he called on Facebook with the simple question “What was the childhood of war for you?” and received more than 1,000 responses. He published it in 2013 as a book entitled “War Childhood”.
Two years later, the book was translated into Japanese, and Halilovic said the universality of war experiences struck him on a promotional tour in Japan. There he met survivors of the American nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“When I met 85-year-olds in Japan who were children during World War II and who fully identified with the experience of a Bosnian child in the 1990s, I realized there was no limit to that shared experience,” he said.
This revelation, coupled with the realization that so many childhood memories were connected to objects, became the idea of the museum, he said: It opened in January 2017 and won the Council of Europe Museum Prize the following year.
In addition to exhibitions, the museum also offers workshops for teachers and parents who deal with the sensitive issue of conflict with children at home and in class. The education system in Bosnia and Herzegovina is fragmented and many children either learn nothing about the war or learn contradicting narratives written by politicians rather than historians. The museum focuses on promoting peace in its programs for children.
The museum is now growing thematically and geographically. Two new exhibitions opened in Sarajevo this month: one documents the stories of children born from war rape and women who survived sexual violence during war; a second shows objects from child asylum seekers who traveled on the so-called “Balkan route” from the Middle East and North Africa to Western Europe and are stuck in Bosnia.
The museum recently opened new offices in New York City and Kiev and is planning one in The Hague. Halilovic said he hopes to open an exhibition through the United States from 2023 and expand the museum’s activities to all war-hit lives. The United States not only collects items donated by people who survived childhood conflict, but also from the children of war veterans and war reporters.
“I believe this museum can change the way we see conflict and how we see children,” he said.
“Everyone had a childhood – whether in war or in peace,” he added. “Regardless of their individual experiences, this enables the museum to communicate.”
Rybalchenko, now 23, said the exhibition in Kiev was one of the first experiences she was seen and understood. Today she lives and works in the city, around 800 kilometers from the front line of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Although there are around 200,000 internally displaced people among Kiev’s 2.8 million residents, the war here feels a long way off. This city, full of trendy bars and cafes teeming with people in designer clothes, hardly feels like the capital of a country at war.
“We talk a lot about veterans who have come back and victims who have been killed,” said Ms. Rybalchenko. “But nobody speaks of people who weren’t there with weapons, but had to survive there. When I start talking to someone about the war, the territory, they don’t understand. “
Iuliia Skubytska, a childhood historian who leads a team of researchers in Ukraine for the War Childhood Museum, collects oral traditions to build an archive of children’s experiences. Your team has worked on both sides of the conflict, speaking with IDPs across Ukraine and with people in areas controlled by armed groups loyal to Russia.
“Often we are the first to want to hear the stories,” said Skubytska.
Halilovic said he hoped the museum’s focus on individuals’ accounts would highlight the horrors of the conflict while emphasizing the resilience of the civilian population, especially young people.
“When people leave most of the Eastern European history museums, the goal is to see how strong their country is,” said Halilovic. “When people leave our museum, we want them to feel that people are strong, that children are strong.”