Artists of any kind, writers, musicians, painters, dancers and others respond to war and disaster in an individual way, but some of the greatest are those who have transcended fixed identities of religion and nation.
So many forces are involved in disaster situations that it is difficult to believe that one person, who is not a political leader, can make a difference. But the cellist Vedran Smailovic did just that. In Yugoslavia, the complex forces of history were at work. President Josip Broz Tito, who had kept the country and its component republic states together, died in 1980, Daily Pioneer writes.
A few years after this the Soviet Union began to dissolve, and meanwhile Yugoslavia’s states struggled for independence, among them being Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Sarajevo, located in a valley through which the Miljacka river flows, was its capital. It was here in 1914 that the archduke of Austria was assassinated, leading to the First World War. After the war it became part of Yugoslavia.
Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia on 6 March 1992, but the Serbs did not accept this. The Serbs founded a new state, Republika Srpska, that would include some Bosnian areas. Radovan Karadzic , a Serb, was the president of the Republic of Srpska from 1992-96, launching the Bosnian war, aiming to bring other areas under his control.
Though one cannot go into the complications of the war here, Sarajevo, Srebrenica other places suffered, Srebrenica being infamous for the massacres that took place. Sarajevo, with a largely Bosnian population, was besieged at first by the Yugoslav army, and then by Srpska forces from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996. A siege force of about 13,000 encircled the city on the hills, and attacked with artillery, tanks and guns. Though there were 70,000 Bosnian troops in the city, they were poorly equipped. The siege of Sarajevo was possibly the longest siege of modern times. Sarajevo at that time was a city of about 500,000 people, but thousands were killed and 70,000 Sarajevo Serbs left and went to Republika Srpska.
History records several massacres at Sarajevo. In the Markale marketplace massacre on February 5, 1994, 68 civilians were killed and 200 wounded; there was a second Markale massacre on August 28, with 37 killed, 90 wounded. The besieged city soon had no electricity, no gas, no water, no schools, phones, transport or industry.
According to UN estimates, almost 11,541 people were killed, and 56,000 wounded. Fifteen hundred children were among those dead and 15,000 among the injured. Hundreds of shells hit the city every day and in one case, July 22, 1993, there were 3777 shells counted. Finding ways to survive, ‘Sarajevo Roses’ was a poetic name given to craters created by shells. Ten thousand apartments were destroyed, and thousands more damaged.
But during this terrible time, there was one man who became a symbol of hope. On the afternoon of May 27, 1992, mortar shells hit a group of people waiting to buy bread in a market. Twenty-two people were killed and more than 70 were injured.
Vedran Smailovic, a well-known cellist of the city, saw it and was deeply disturbed. The next day he came to the spot, by then covered with flowers as tribute, and began to play his cello. He had not planned this, but he did it instinctively, and as people gathered around him, there was a sense of healing.
He continued to play there for 22 days, honouring the 22 killed, playing the same piece, Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor. There were snipers on the hills, and the cellist could have been killed at any time, but he played on. For another two years, he played at different places in the city, in the midst of ruined buildings, dressed in a white shirt and black tail coat, as if he was playing on the stage in an orchestra. Soon he became a symbol of courage for Sarajevo, and for the whole world. People called him mad, but he responded that it was the war that was mad. Inspired by him, classical and other music was composed, books were written, and other artists and musicians came to Sarajevo. There are more than 20 books, films, plays, and songs, on the siege, as well as video games.
Joan Baez joined him one day, Susan Sontag came to Sarajevo, as well as other world famous artists. Locally too, there was a surge of creativity, even while the city was dying. But the man himself did not want publicity. He left Sarajevo in December 1993 and moved to northern Ireland, where he lives in Warren point in an attic flat overlooking Carlingford Lough, composing music and playing chess.Vedran Smailovic did not try to become a leader. His was an independent act of ‘cultural resistance’, a defiance of power, an assertion of normal life, even in the midst of chaos. Somehow or the other, even though he played in full view, he was never hit by a sniper, though once his cello was destroyed.
His story became known throughout the world, narrated in newspapers and depicted on television. The world was indifferent to the siege, but the publicity he generated, without looking for it, and the numerous artists inspired by him led to an increased focus on the terrible conditions of the city. Vedran was a Muslim like most other Bosnians, but that was not his identity. He said, “I am a Sarajevan. I am a cosmopolitan. I am a pacifist. I am nothing special. I am a musician, I am part of the town.” In an insane situation, his was an act of sanity, of beauty and harmony, that brought hope to many.