Today the last military leader wanted for war crimes during the Bosnian War of 1991-1995 was arrested.
On May 27, 1992, during the siege of Sarajevo, 22 people queued for bread, anxious to feed their families from one of the only working bakeries left in the city. A shell hit the bakery and all 22 people were killed.
Observing the horror from a few feet away was Vedran Smailovic, principle cellist of the Sarajevo Opera. Grief-stricken at the way his city and its people were being torn apart, Smailovic responded in the most profound, and maybe only, way he knew how. He dressed in his formal concert attire, took his cello, sat outside what was the bakery and began to play Albioni’s Adagio in G minor, in mourning for his people.
He played there for 22 days, one day to remember each of the dead.
Over the next two years, Smailovic played his cello on the streets of Sarajevo, often playing for free at funerals, despite the fact that these were targets for Serbian snipers.
“What is the good of playing music in the middle of a war zone?” you ask.
Sometimes music is the only way left to respond, because some things are so terrifying and horrific that there are no words for them. Music is the only thing that can seep in between the brokenness and somehow give it an expression. There is no better place to articulate grief, loss and lament than in the middle of a war. There is no place where reminders of beauty, hope and grace are more desperately needed.
Moved by his story, English composer, David Wilde, wrote a piece for unaccompanied cello in Vedran’s honour, entitled “The Cellist of Sarajevo.” Yo Yo Ma played it at the International Cello Festival in 1994.
Paul Sullivan describes the performance this way:
When he had finished, Ma remained bent over his cello, his bow resting on the strings. No one in the hall moved or made a sound for a long time. It was as though we had just witnessed that horrifying massacre ourselves.
Finally, Ma looked out across the audience, and stretched out his hand, beckoning someone to come to the stage. An indescribable electric shock swept over us as we realised who it was: Vedran Smailovic: the cellist of Sarajevo.
Smailovic rose from his seat and walked down the aisle as Ma left the stage to meet him. They flung their arms around each other in an exuberant embrace. Everyone in the hall errupted in a chaotic, emotional frenzy – clapping, shouting and cheering.
At the centre of it all stood these two men, hugging and crying unashamedly…
We were all stripped down to our starkest, deepest humanity at encountering this man who shook his cello in the face of bombs, death and ruin, defying them all.