I’ve been to countless Bosnian memorials: Srebrenica where Serb militiamen massacred more than 8,000 Muslim men; the bridge in Sarajevo where snipers gunned down two students who were the first victims of the war; the square in Tuzla where dozens of Croat, Serbian and Muslim youths were partying together when a mortar shell erased their lives. When I heard of Smajlović’s musical memorial—an elegy played as sniper bullets whizzed around—I knew I had come to the heart of sorrow as well as a healing courage. I can’t read his story without weeping for all my Bosnian friends.
You ask me am I crazy for playing the cello? Why do you not ask if they are not crazy for shelling Sarajevo?
Vedran Smajlović (b. 1956)
The musician took his place, dressed in the customary formal black tails and white shirt. He sat on the stool with his cello between his legs. He took the bow and began to play Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor. He was not in a concert hall. Instead he sat in a crater where the day before, 22 people had died.
Vedran Smajlović (sometimes spelled Smailovic) was the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Opera. He also played in the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Symphony Orchestra RTV Sarajevo
and the National Theatre of Sarajevo. In the early 1990s, though, life was difficult for everyone in Sarajevo as war broke out. Yugoslavia was splintering into various nations, including what would become Bosnia and Herzegovina. Serb nationalists surrounded Sarajevo and laid siege. For Smajlović and the other residents of the city, life was a daily ordeal of trying to find food and water amid the shelling and sniper fire that claimed many innocent lives.
On May 27, 1992, a long line of people had queued up at one of the still-functioning bakeries. A mortar shell fell into the middle of the line, killing 22 people and creating a bloody mess of body parts and rubble. Smajlović lived close to the bakery and was appalled by what he saw as he helped the wounded. He felt powerless as he was neither a politician nor a soldier—he was a musician, who could speak truth to the heart beyond any language.
Smajlović took his cello to the spot where those waiting for bread had been butchered and began to plaintively play. He played in a daze but in an incredibly evocative way. In spite of the risk, people gathered to listen. When he was finished he packed up his cello and went to a coffee shop. Quickly people came up to him expressing their appreciation, “This is what we needed.” Smajlović went back the next day and the next 22 days, one for each person killed. Sniper fire continued around him and mortars still rained down in the neighborhood, but Smajlović never stopped playing.
Then he went to other sites where shells had taken the lives of Sarajevo’s citizens. He played there, and he played in graveyards. He played at funerals at no charge, even though the Serbian gunners would target such gatherings. His music was a gift to all hiding in their basements with rubble above their heads, a voice for peace for those daily dodging the bullets of the snipers. As the reports of Smajlović’s performances on the shattered streets spread, he became a symbol for peace. A reporter questioned whether he was crazy to play his cello outside in the midst of a war zone. He countered, “You ask me am I crazy for playing the cello, why do you not ask if they are not crazy for shelling Sarajevo?”
His courageous performances inspired other musicians. Composer David Wilde wrote “The Cellist of Sarajevo” for cello in his honor, and Yo-Yo Ma, perhaps the world’s most famous cellist, recorded it and later embraced Smajlović following a performance of the piece. Various folk songs and even a children’s book have been written about his action.
In late 1993, Smajlović left Sarajevo. He has continued his musical career as a cellist, and still composes and conducts. He moved to Northern Ireland where he collaborated with Tommy Sands, an Irish folk musician with a large peace repertoire. Their “Sarajevo to Belfast” album celebrates perseverance, peace and healing through situations of violence.
Vedran Smajlović Performing “The Cellist of Sarajevo:”