War through the eyes of children: a Europe of security and values for the 21st century


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jasminko Halilović
Jasminko Halilović

Founder and CEO of the War Childhood Museum and 2023 European Young Leader (EYL40)

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State of Europe is a fixture and a highlight of the European calendar. The reason is simple: it is a forum for today’s top leaders from the worlds of politics, business and civil society, from Europe and beyond, to connect, debate and develop ideas on key policy areas that will define Europe’s future.

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When you think of what connects us in the world, as human beings, few things come to mind. Language? That’s how we communicate. Shared experiences? That’s how we understand each other.

Did you know that having your childhood affected by war is one of the most shared experiences of humanity? More than 460 million children are affected by armed conflict today. This is 1 in 6 children in the world – or 17%. To put this into perspective, that is precisely the same number of people worldwide who speak the English language – 17%.

Yet, before the War Childhood Museum was opened, none of over 50,000 museums in the world dealt only with this experience of war childhood that is shared by so many. The purpose of the War Childhood Museum is to serve as a platform for all those who share this experience, to enable them to tell their stories with dignity, and to educate the world about multilayered and long-lasting consequences of wars for children.

I have been working on this project for 13 years, so for most of my adult life. As a child, I lived through the Bosnian war that happened in Europe in the 1990s. The War Childhood Museum started as a small organic initiative in Bosnia and Herzegovina but has expanded to become an international organisation with offices in Ukraine and the Netherlands. As a museum, we have welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors, exhibited in over ten countries and undertaken documentation work in over 20 countries. Today, our collection includes more than 6,000 objects from 20 different armed conflicts. Besides exhibitions, our collection is used in our peace and justice educational resources, which are utilised by thousands of teachers and children.

Out of these 6,000 objects, I brought two with me to share at Friends of Europe’s State of Europe roundtable.

Let’s first discuss security

The first object is a book from Ukraine. The War Childhood Museum has been working in Ukraine since 2018. Why did we work there before the full-scale invasion? Four years after the occupation of Crimea and the start of the Donbas war, there were already millions of internally displaced people in the country. Thousands and thousands of children like Nastya were forced to start their lives in new environments hundreds of kilometres from their homes, to change schools and friends and to live in other peoples’ homes.

I was in Donbas in 2017, visiting the frontlines with my friend. I saw children going to school through military checkpoints. I saw schools destroyed by shells just like my school was in Bosnia in the 1990s. That is when I decided that the War Childhood Museum had to work in Ukraine to document the experiences of children and youth affected by this war

However, regardless of the fact that this was happening so close and affected millions, the Donbas war and occupation of Crimea were not enough of a warning sign for most in Europe to get engaged and interested. If it was, we would be in a different position now. If it was, Ukraine would be in a different position. If it was, maybe the full-scale invasion would never have happened.

One displaced child is too many. And that this kind of warning should be taken seriously.

Let’s now discuss values

Another object is a scarf from Palestine. The War Childhood Museum worked in Gaza during 2021 and 2022 to document the experiences of children living under the blockade. A researcher who worked with us is now out of Gaza, but her two own children are there and cannot go out. When I received the last update, they were still alive.

I know that not everyone agrees on the Israel-Palestine war, and I know not everyone agrees on whether there should be international pressure for an immediate ceasefire or not. We could see this during the vote in the United Nations, where the EU countries’ vote was split into three blocks.

The European Union was founded on six values: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law and human rights. Its founding aims include promoting its values globally and contributing to peace on Earth.

Rose, who donated her scarf to the Museum, is 15 years old today. We were not able to get in touch with her family, so we do not know if Rose is well at this moment. Actually, we do not even know if Rose is alive.

The European Union has not thus far managed to contribute to peace in Israel and Palestine during the latest escalation of violence. This fact has consequences both within the EU and also when it comes to the EU’s role in this world.

As I spend most of my time outside of the EU, I can tell that, for most people outside of the EU, the EU failed to deliver on its promise. By not contributing to peace, it has failed in one of its founding aims. By not standing for human dignity, the rule of law and human rights, for most people – myself included, it has failed in another founding aim: promoting its values.

Whatever your position is over what is happening and what should be done, you should be aware that the inability of the EU to speak with one voice and its inability to deliver on its promises will have long-term consequences for its credibility, particularly outside of the EU.

Some voices share the importance of looking at Europe not only as an isolated entity but as a part of the wider world.

We should not forget that, in this world, there are many people and children who believe in the European idea and the values that Europe says it stands for

Every time the EU fails to deliver, part of this idea dies.

Finally, let’s discuss the 21st century

A few years ago, I met Esma, who was born during the Second World War. Soon after she was born, the news arrived that her father was killed in war. Esma grew up without her father: her childhood was affected by the war that she does not even remember.

Seventy-seven years later, Esma visited the War Childhood Museum. When Esma entered the museum, she said: “after so many years, I finally feel that I have found my home.”

Someone who might have looked into Esma’s story in the 50s, 60s, or 70s of the 20th century probably thought that this story belongs to the 20th century. When childhood is affected by war, the war remains with people forever. And it often remains with their children and sometimes with their grandchildren. Esma’s story is not only a story of Europe in the mid-20th century but also the story of Europe in the 21st century, where millions of people are still profoundly affected by the Second World War, some of them, in Esma’s words, “still looking for their home”. The war and its consequences do not end when the fighting ends; they stay with us.

When looking at these two objects from Ukraine and Palestine, we might also be looking at Europe of the 22nd century. The consequences of war for children are not only multilayered and complex; they stay with them and they stay in our societies. We should remind ourselves of this so that we know how long-lasting the consequences are of the decisions we are making today.

This article is derived from the author’s ‘idea-sharing’ session at Friends of Europe’s high-level State of Europe roundtable, ‘10 policy choices for a Renewed Social Contract in Europe’, held in Brussels on 9 November 2023. The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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