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A Museum Where Every Object Helped a Child Endure War

KYIV, Ukraine — Daria Rybalchenko was 16 when war came to her hometown, Stanytsia Luhanska, in eastern Ukraine. That summer, in 2014, she bought a copy of “The Count of Monte Cristo,” the French adventure novel by Alexandre Dumas, in Russian. She recalled reading it one evening when the sound of shelling woke her grandmother.

The pair heard shooting in the distance, Rybalchenko said, a product of the ongoing fight between soldiers in the Ukrainian army-held territory where she lived and nearby Russian-backed militants. They concluded it was far enough away that they had nothing to worry about. She continued reading.

Rybalchenko read other books that summer, like Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic satire “The Master and Margarita,” she said. But, in her mind, the early period of the war in eastern Ukraine is inextricably tied up with “The Count of Monte Cristo.”

“This book was my alternate reality,” she said in a recent interview. She read it by the light of a solar-powered flashlight during long nights in the basement sheltering from shelling. Her family home no longer had electricity, so she immersed herself in Dumas’s tale about justice, vengeance and forgiveness.

Seven years later, Rybalchenko donated the book to the War Childhood Museum, a Bosnia and Herzegovina-based organization that has just opened a guest exhibition at the Kyiv History Museum, running through July 12. The War Childhood Museum was founded to capture the experiences of those who were children during the 1992–1995 Bosnian War, but it is now expanding its remit to present the wartime experiences of children in other conflicts.

The museum has collected more than 4,000 objects from all over the world: Its collection includes items from the recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Eritrea and even from World War II. The items don’t need to be expensive or rare — they only need to be important reminders of life in conflict. People donate books, toys, stuffed animals, backpacks, improvised games, drawings and documents.

The exhibition in Kyiv shows a selection of the hundreds of items donated by individuals who were children when the war broke out in Ukraine seven years ago. It includes an oversized teddy bear that a mother gave to her son after a grenade blew off two fingers of his right hand, and the train ticket a girl used to leave a city in eastern Ukraine after it was occupied by pro-Russian militants.

More than 13,000 people, including 146 children, have been killed in the conflict since 2014, and approximately 200,000 children became internally displaced because of the conflict, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Social Policy.

The War Childhood Museum grew out of an idea its director, Jasminko Halilovic, had in 2010, he recalled recently in an interview in Kyiv. Over coffees 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 childhoods, he said.

Halilovic was 4 when the war started, in 1992; he said he remembered learning to ride a bike two years later during the rare breaks from shelling. In 2010, he put out a call on Facebook with the simple question “What was war childhood for you?” and received more than 1,000 replies. He published them as a book called “War Childhood,” in 2013.

Two years later, the book was translated into Japanese, and Halilovic said the universality of the war childhood experience struck him on a promotional tour in Japan. There, he met survivors of the American nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“In Japan, meeting 85-year-olds who were children during World War II and completely identified with the experience of a Bosnian child in the 1990s, I realized that there are no borders to this shared experience,” he said.

This epiphany, combined with a realization that so many childhood memories were connected to objects, became the idea for the museum, he said: It opened in January 2017, and won the Council of Europe Museum Prize the following year.

In addition to staging exhibitions, the museum also puts on workshops for teachers and parents focused on how to discuss the sensitive topic of conflict with children at home and in the classroom. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the education system is fragmented, and many children either do not learn about the war, or learn conflicting narratives crafted by politicians rather than historians. In its programs for children, the museum focuses on peace building.

The museum is now growing, thematically and geographically. This month, two new exhibitions opened in Sarajevo: One documents the stories of children born of wartime rape and of women who survived wartime sexual violence; a second displays items from child asylum seekers who were traveling along the so-called “Balkan Route” from the Middle East and North Africa into Western Europe and are stuck in Bosnia.

The museum recently opened new offices in New York City and Kyiv, and is planning one in The Hague. Halilovic said he hoped to open an exhibition that would travel across the United States starting in 2023, and to expand the museum’s operations to include all lives touched by war. In the United States, it seeks to collect items donated not only by people who survived conflict during their childhoods, but also by the children of war veterans and war reporters.

“I believe this museum can change the way we see conflicts, and the way we see children,” he said.

“Everyone had a childhood — regardless of whether it was during war or peace,” he added. “Regardless of their individual experiences, this allows the museum to communicate.”

Rybalchenko, now 23, said the exhibition in Kyiv was one of the first times her experience had been seen and understood. She now lives and works in the city, around 500 miles from the Russia-Ukraine conflict’s front line. Although there are approximately 200,000 internally displaced people among Kyiv’s 2.8 million inhabitants, the war feels distant here. This city, replete with 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 came back, and about victims who were killed,” said Ms. Rybalchenko. “But no one talks about people who didn’t participate with guns but had to survive there. When I start to talk with somebody about the war, the territory, they don’t understand.”

Iuliia Skubytska, a historian of childhood who leads a team of researchers in Ukraine for the War Childhood Museum, collects oral histories to build an archive of children’s experiences. Her team has worked on both sides of the conflict, speaking to internally displaced persons across Ukraine as well as people who remain in territory controlled by armed groups loyal to Russia.

“Often we are the first people to want to hear the stories,” Skubytska said.

Halilovic said he hoped the museum’s focus on individuals’ accounts would make plain the horrors of conflict while emphasizing the resilience of civilians, especially young people.

“When people leave most Eastern European history museums, the goal is for them to see how strong their country is,” Halilovic said. “When people leave our museum, we want them to feel that people are strong, that children are strong.”

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