The light,' says Zlata Filipovic. 'Our eyes, they hurt so much.' She blinks hard, remembering. 'I was used to the dark in the cellar in Sarajevo, or just one candle. But in Paris there was light everywhere. My first day in Paris, it was the worst and the best day of my life.'

Zlata is a most extraordinary 13-year-old. She sits, calm and composed, with pale, transluscent skin and dark grey eyes, sipping tomato juice in a Kensington hotel, and explains how her wartime diary - published in London today and already No 1 on the French bestseller list - meant that she and her parents could be air-lifted out of Sarajevo to the freedom of Western Europe.

Zlata began her diary in September 1991, a few months before the war broke out. Originally published in Serbo-Croat by Unicef, it was read by a French reporter and taken to Paris. The publishers Robert Laffont/Fixot liked it and sent back a contract. 'I was happy, but it wasn't enough,' Zlata says. 'We wanted to get out. My mother, my father and me, we wanted to leave.'

But she had mixed feelings: the sheer relief at escaping the shelling, but the utter despondency at leaving the place and the people she loved. 'You see, Grandmother and Grandfather, they are still there.' Zlata takes a deep breath, fiddles with the peace symbol on a chain round her neck and continues: 'One day they called me to the TV station in Sarajevo to speak to the French Defence Minister, Francois Leotard. He said, 'Zlata, I promise we will try to get you out for December 8th.' We packed, we waited and we cried to say goodbye to the people that were left. But they didn't come to take us.

'On December 22nd they promised again. We didn't believe, so we didn't cry. But they came in a UN truck and they took us. Through the small window I saw my house, my post office, my buildings, my Sarajevo. I felt so many feelings I thought I might burst. I couldn't take everything with me; there were some teddy bears and things I had to leave.'

For the first time, this very serious teenager smiles. She smiles again when asked if her parents are proud of her. 'Yes, I'm sure they're proud, but they don't want me to get . . . how do you say?' she lifts her palms to her head, 'a big head. I don't have, but I think I grew up too fast.'

It is with extraordinary maturity that Zlata talks of her childhood slipping through her fingers. It disturbs her deeply. In her diaries she writes of being 'a child without games, without friends, without nature, without birds, without fruit, chocolate or sweets . . .'.

Now she has all that, but her childhood remains elusive. 'I'm always with adults,' she says. 'I want to go to school, I want to go backwards.'

Zlata will start at the International School in Paris in April, but she can't go backwards. You can't have tea with John Major in the Cabinet Office, as she did on Tuesday, and then pretend you know nothing more than Madonna and hopscotch. You can't have your face on the cover of Newsweek and then pretend it hasn't happened. She may want to put it all in the past, but other people will remember.

She is caught in a trap of wanting to reject her sudden fame, but at the same time wanting her diary to represent the voice of all the children of Sarajevo. 'I'm just Zlata. I'm Zlata and I'm only 13. Or maybe I'm not just Zlata. I'm Zlata with a message.' How many copies have been sold to pass on that message? She asks her father, Malik. He replies in Serbo-Croat and Zlata translates: '80,000.'

'Too much,' says Zlata's mother, Alica. 'All too much.'

Throughout the interview, Alica has been shaking her head, nodding, damp-eyed and smiling all at the same time. She begins to speak in broken English. 'I am confuse, very confuse. We have come for Zlata. We have to come for Zlata, but my family is there. And my best friend, she in London. She in Jewish convoy. Can you find her?' She begins to sob.

Everyone seems so caught up in the hype surrounding Zlata that they have forgotten that these are displaced people. They are living in France as refugees, but they do not speak French. Alica is a chemist, Malik a lawyer, but they cannot work. They hate the thought of their little girl as the breadwinner, but they have no choice. They are traumatised, but no one can find a councillor in Paris who speaks their language. Alica says she feels guilty every time she switches on the light. And the Filipovics are entirely dependent on Robert Laffont/

Fixot, which has the worldwide rights to Zlata's diary. 'We brought Zlata and her parents out,' says Susanna Lea, a spokeswoman, 'and we're not about to let them go.'

She meant they are not going to stop looking after them. The publishers have done everything from finding the family a flat to finding Zlata a dentist and a school. On the one hand, the Filipovics could not have done without their help. But on the other, it is not unadulterated philanthropy. Bringing the Filipovics out of Sarajevo has provided exceptional publicity for the company.

No one is suggesting that it would have been better for them to stay in a cellar in Sarajevo, but since they arrived in Paris the schedule they have had to keep to promote the book would have brought even the toughest, let alone the traumatised, to their knees.

'Cologne, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, London. Now Canada and US. How can we?' asks Alica. There is desperation in her eyes.

But they will. Until 23 March, when Zlata's publishers have promised to call a halt to the interviews. 'I will stop Js,' says Zlata. 'You know what I mean, J is for journalist. They make me tired and then I get a sore throat.'

Robert Laffont/Fixot has just sold the film rights to Universal Studios. It is hard to believe that Zlata will not be called on to promote the movie. And what of the money from the book? Where is it going?

'They ask me if I want to give one part for jackets for children and they will give one part. I said yes, it is so cold in Sarajevo,' says Zlata. Robert Laffont/Fixot did send 10,000 children's jackets to Sarajevo through the charity Medecins Sans Frontieres, and say they are open to suggestions about helping in other ways.

Zlata says she has not received any money and does not know how much she will get. 'We don't see the money. They help us live, but we don't have the money yet.' She will eventually be paid royalties, but for all her success, she and her family are on unfamiliar ground and not in a strong position. They have a contract with Robert Laffont/Fixot, but they do not have their own lawyers. They have had to use the publishers'.

Walking through Kensington Gardens, Zlata talks of the excitement of being in the open and being free. 'In Bosnia I could not go out, but here, look, it is so green and there are ducks,' she says and laughs. 'At home my canary Cico died because of the war. We didn't have enough food for him.'

Zlata will make it. She is young, resilient and brilliant. But for her parents it is a different story. Yesterday Zlata's mother heard that her best friend from Sarajevo had been found in London, with the help of the Central British Fund, and they were to be reunited. Crying down the telephone, she said: 'I am happy, but I feel so bad.'

Perhaps that is the moral of the story.

'Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo' (Viking, pounds 9.95).

(Photograph omitted)

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