By Swati Chopra
What do we do when faced with unspeakable horror?
Play music is what a resident of Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia, did, even as bombs rained around him. His is a story
of courage and grace in difficult times
A musician walks on stage to the sound of deafening applause. He is in his coattails, dressed in black. He bows, sits down on a concert chair and takes an instrument in his hands. Let’s say it’s an old cello the colour of burgundy. A few quiet moments as he prepares himself. And then, the music flows.
This is a routine every Western classical musician is familiar with. As was Vedran Smailovic, principal cellist of the Sarajevo Opera, when he decided to perform it in the middle of the war zone that his neighbourhood had become. The year was 1992. The former Yugoslavia had erupted in ethnic strife and beautiful Sarajevo, with its rich theatre and art traditions, had transformed into Europe’s “capital of hell”.
At 4 pm on May 27, as a long queue waited patiently for bread in front of one of the last functional bakeries in the city, a mortar shell dropped in the middle of it, killing 22 people instantly. Smailovic looked out of his window to find flesh, blood, bone, and rubble splattered over the area. It was the moment he knew he had had enough.
Smailovic was 37 at the time, widely recognised as an exceptionally talented cello player. Till 1992, he had been occupied with his involvements in the Sarajevo Opera, the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Symphony Orchestra RTV Sarajevo, and the National Theatre of Sarajevo, as well as playing the festival circuit and working in recording studios.
Looking back on that period, Smailovic describes himself and his associates as being “totally naïve”. So great was their confidence in their unity and plurality, he says, that even when they were watching what was happening in other parts of Yugoslavia, they felt absolutely certain that similar destruction could never happen in Sarajevo, that it would be impossible to destroy such strong unity. That dream was shattered by 1992.
Smailovic felt enraged by what was happening around him and powerless to do anything about it. He was neither a politician nor a soldier, just a musician. How could he do anything about the war? Did that mean he would just stand by and watch people die, fearing all the while for his own life? In the long, dark night that followed the bread-queue massacre, Smailovic thought long and deep. With the dawn of a new day, he had made up his mind that he would do something, and that something would be what he knew best—make music.
So every evening after that, at 4 pm, Smailovic would walk to the middle of the street, where the massacre had occurred. He would be dressed formally, as for a performance. There he would sit, on a battered camp stool placed in the crater made by the shell, his cello in his hand, playing music. All around him, mortar shells and bullets would fly. Yet he would play on regardless, perhaps substituting the war noise with applause in his mind.
For 22 days, one each for the people killed, Smailovic played in the same spot. He played to ruined homes, smouldering fires, scared people hiding in basements. He played for human dignity that is the first casualty in war. Ultimately, he played for life, for peace, and for the possibility of hope that exists even in the darkest hour. Asked by a journalist whether he was not crazy doing what he was doing, Smailovic replied: “You ask me am I crazy for playing the cello, why do you not ask if they are not crazy for shelling Sarajevo?”
Smailovic continued to play his music of hope until December 1993, in graveyards and bombsites. He had decided to “daily offer a musical prayer for peace”, he said. As his story began to filter into the press, he became a symbol for peace in Bosnia. An English composer, David Wilde, was so moved by the story that he wrote a composition for unaccompanied cello, simply called ‘The Cellist of Sarajevo’, into which he poured his own feelings of outrage, love, and brotherhood with Vedran Smailovic.
Celebrated cellist Yo Yo Ma played this piece at the International Cello Festival in Manchester, England, in 1994. Pianist Paul Sullivan, who was present, describes it thus: “Quietly, almost imperceptibly, the music began, stealing out into the hushed hall and creating a shadowy, empty universe, ominous with the presence of death, haunting in its echoes. Slowly it built, growing relentlessly into an agonised, screaming, slashing furore, gripping us all, before subsiding at last into a hollow death rattle, and finally, back to the silence from which it had begun.
“When he had finished, Yo Yo Ma remained bent over his cello. His bow still rested on the strings. No one in the hall moved, not a sound was made for a long, long time. It was as though we had just witnessed that horrifying massacre ourselves. Finally still in silence, Yo Yo slowly straightened in his chair, looked out across the audience, and stretched out his hand toward us. All eyes followed as he beckoned someone to come to the stage, and an indescribable electric shock swept over us as we realised who it was: Vedran Smailovic—the cellist of Sarajevo himself! He rose from his seat and walked down the aisle as Yo Yo came off the stage and headed up the aisle to meet him. With arms flung wide, they met each other in a passionate embrace just inches from my seat.
“The drama was unbelievable, as everyone in the hall leaped to his or her feet in a chaotic emotional frenzy: clapping, weeping, shouting, embracing, and cheering. It was deafening, overwhelming, a tidal wave of emotion. And in the centre of it at stood these two men, still hugging, both crying freely. Yo Yo Ma, the suave, elegant prince of classical music worldwide, flawless in appearance and performance. And Vedran Smailovic, who had just escaped from Sarajevo, dressed in a stained and tattered leather motorcycle suit with fringe on the arms. His wild long hair and huge moustache framed a face that looked old beyond his years, creased with pain and soaked with so many tears.”
In the years since his heroic anti-war statement, Smailovic has relocated to Belfast, Ireland, where he performs, composes, conducts, and produces music locally and internationally. But the message of this story is greater than the man who made it. As American philosopher Robert Fulghum says in his book Maybe (Maybe Not): Second Thoughts From a Secret Life: “Listen. Never, ever, regret or apologise for believing that when one man or one woman decides to risk addressing the world with truth, the world may stop what it is doing and hear. There is too much evidence to the contrary. When we cease believing this, the music will surely stop. The myth of the impossible dream is more powerful than all the facts of history. In my imagination, I lay flowers at the statue memorialising Vedran Smailovic—a monument that has not yet been built, but may be.”
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