Reading Then They Started Shooting made me realize how little I actually know about the Balkan wars. Part way through the first part I found myself perusing maps and Wiki pages to give myself a better understanding of the entire scope of the wars. I actually thought I had a good grasp on what happened at the time, although I was only in my early teens: I watched the news, read books like Zlata’s Diary and even participated in meetings on how to help refugees at the time, but obviously I didn’t gain enough knowledge about the conflicts at all. I suppose this is a good example of how we tend to focus on areas that the media focuses on. In terms of being an educational source, Then They Started Shooting is exactly that in more ways than one.
Lynne Jones was stationed in Gorazde in 1996 by an aid agency to work as a child psychiatrist. She made it her mission to gather narratives from children who had found themselves on different sides of the war in Bosnia. She divided her time between Gorazde (predominantly Muslim) and Foca (predominantly Serb) in order to gather narratives from about 40 children. She then followed up with some of them years later, using the voices of about 8 of the children for this book. Then They Started Shooting ends up being an account of how war effects children in the long term, of how children tend to process trauma in different ways, and also in how we are generally not looking at how we can help children who have been traumatized by war in the right way.
The book is divided into several sections, with a lot of background information on the wars, politics of the time, ethnical divides, and atrocities committed. It’s not an easy book to read, obviously because we are discussing war and children, but also because the children’s narratives can be quite dry and detached. There is no way you can read the book in one sitting, compelled to keep turning page after page. I found it easier to read a chapter, do my own research, and then come back to the book a little later.
There are quite a few disturbing parts in the book, apart from the obvious depictions of loss and death, and the ethnic cleansing that was perpetrated during the war. What also disturbed me was the lack of understanding of the war, and the common theme of detachment and ease of blaming “the other”. Obviously this is not the children’s fault at all, but I think proves a very important point on how we shape the minds of our next generations literally by claiming a truth and then proving a point by going to war (obviously I am oversimplifying here, but you catch my drift). I did find that there was more optimism towards the end of the book when Lynne Jones revisits the children as adults, but I can’t help wonder how they have talked about the war with their children, if they even have. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia only closed last year too, so many years after the wars ended.
Reading this book left me feeling even more worried about the future than I did before. From a child psychology point of view the studies are a really important read, and it made me happy to see how the children were able to move on in their lives and leave the trauma behind for the most part. But I was left with a really large feeling of discomfort at how easy it is to hate “the other”.