Music in the Shadow of Genocide

Artwork By Nicole Sizer


Dressed in formal black tails and a white shirt, the musician took his place. Taking a deep breath, he looked around himself, the light peaking in from the looming walls catching his watery eye. He took a bow and sat on the stool with his cello between his legs and let the soft melody of Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor fill the air.

However, this renowned musician did not play in a concert hall. Nor did he look out at a captivated audience, a sight once so familiar. Vedran Smajlović sat in the ruins of Bosnia’s National library in Sarajevo where the day before, 22 people had died. Against the challenge of sniper bullets whirling around him, he played in the heart of sorrow.  

Smajlović was the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Opera and also played in the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Symphony Orchestra and the National Theatre of Sarajevo. However, in early 1992 following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, life changed for everyone in the Balkans. The ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Serbian Nationalists entailed intimidation, forced expulsion and the killing of the Bosnian Muslim civilization. Houses and apartments across Bosnia were systematically ransacked or burnt down with civilians being rounded up into camps, beaten or killed in the process. The capital city of Bosnia, Sarajevo, was held under siege for 44 months, the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. The Serb forces situated themselves in the surrounding hills of Sarajevo, creating an inescapable ring and inflicting suffering on civilians to force the Bosnian authorities to succumb to Serb demands. The European city that had escaped two World Wars with only minor damage became more murderous by the day.

On May 27 1992, a mortar shell fell and killed 22 people who had queued up at one of the few remaining bakeries. Smajlović, who lived close to the bakery and assisted the wounded, was appalled by the disarray of body parts and rubble. Neither a politician nor a soldier, the sense of powerlessness that blanketed the city too began to exhaust the musician.  However, determined to reclaim the humanity in a city ravaged by brutality, Smajlović turned to his cello. For the next 22 days, his elegy echoed amidst the destruction, striking chords in the hearts of those listening that went beyond what language could. He played not only for each person killed, but for each person who had lost someone, or perhaps lost a bit of themselves in the banal terror. He continued even after commemorating these victims to play in graveyards, at funerals and at other sites where shells had taken the lives of Sarajevo’s citizens. Sniper fire persisted and mortars persistently rained down, but Smajlović continued to play and the people continued to gather and listen. In the daily ordeal of finding food and water amid enduring shelling, Smajlović’s music became a symbol of hope. His performances, whilst varying in shattered locations, remained constant throughout the siege.

Sarajevo became a skeleton of the thriving, accomplished city that it was. It became an unrecognizable wasteland of blasted mosques, museums, churches, hospitals, libraries and sports stadiums punctured by rockets and fractured in animosity. The unprecedented callousness of the war challenged the expectations of everyday life. Events and preoccupations of civilian existence, which appeared so compelling under ordinary circumstances, began to appear trivial when compared to the death and destruction that war brought. This abrupt loss of meaning was perilous. Yet, it was those like Smajlović who reached for an anchor amid the chaos, however small, that were able to carry themselves back to the stable, reasoned life that they led before. It is this hope that is created, however faint and hesitant, that reminds people of a treasured past and encourages faith in a future. If nothing else, it is a subtle way in which the citizens of Sarajevo reclaimed their humanity in a city which attempted to steal it away from them.

Smajlović once proclaimed, ‘You ask me am I crazy for playing the cello? Why do you not ask if they are crazy for shelling Sarajevo?’

If it is crazy to bring hope into a city engulfed in distress, to create a sense of harmony when division systematically fissures reality, and to encapsulate the suffering of people with a delicacy that words could not exude… then perhaps Smajlović’s crazy is what Sarajevo needed.

Emina Besirevic

The author Emina Besirevic

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