Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Cellist of Sarajevo

It was May 27th in 1992 at 4pm in the afternoon, a mortar shell dropped in the middle of a long queue who were then waiting patiently for bread in front of one of the last functional bakeries in the market place. 22 people were killed instantaneously on the spot. Vedran Smailovic looked out of his window to find remnants of flesh, blood, bone, and rubble splattered over the area. It was at that moment where he knew he had had enough.

Smailovic, who was 37 at that time, was the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Opera and was also widely recognised as an extraordinarily talented cello player too. Till 1992, he was 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.

Smailovic felt infuriated by what was happening around him but helpless to do anything to stop it. He was neither a politician nor a soldier, but just a musician. But did that mean he would just stand by and watch people die, while fearing for his own life all this time? 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, and that was to make music.

So every evening after that, for the next consecutive 22 days at exactly 4pm in the afternoon, Smailovic would walk to the middle of the street where the massacre had occurred. He would be dressed formally in his black coattails as if for a performance. There in the middle of the street, he would sit on a battered camp stool placed in the crater created by the mortar shell, with his cello in his hand, playing music. All around him, mortar shells would fall and bullets would fly. Yet he would play on regardless.

For 22 days, one day each for the people who were killed in the bread queue, Smailovic played his cello in the same spot at the ruined Sarajevo market place. He played to ruined homes, smouldering fires, as well as the terrified people hiding in basements. He played for human dignity that was the first casualty in war. But most importantly, he played for life, for peace, and for the possibility of hope that will exist even in the darkest of nights.

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 and inspired by the story that he wrote a composition for unaccompanied cello, simply called “The Cellist of Sarajevo”.

World renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma played this piece at the International Cello Festival held in Manchester, England, in 1994. When he finished playing the piece, Yo Yo Ma remained bent over his cello and his bow remained resting on the strings. No one in the hall moved, not a sound was made for a long time. Finally still in silence, Yo Yo Ma slowly straightened in his chair, looked out across the audience, and stretched out his hand toward them. All eyes followed as he beckoned someone to come forward to the stage. He was none other than Vedran Smailovic, the Cellist of Sarajevo himself. He rose from his seat and walked down the aisle as Yo Yo Ma came off the stage and headed up the aisle to meet him. With arms flung wide, they met each other in a passionate embrace. The audience then exploded into a chaotic and emotional frenzy of applause and cheering.

More recently, a young Canadian novelist, Steven Galloway, was also similarly inspired so much so that he wrote a poignant short novel in the same setting as the actual incident itself and whose title was also called “The Cellist of Sarajevo”.

So what does “The Cellist of Sarajevo” really stand for? It is the name of a bestselling book. And it is also the name of soul stirring cello composition. But most importantly, it is the name of life, of peace, and of the possibility that hope will exist even in the darkest of nights.

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