The cellist of Sarajevo

Rev. Yme Woensdregt of Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook tells a powerful story

A musician walks onto the stage, wearing black coattails. He bows, sits down and takes his cello in his hands. A few quiet moments, and then the music begins to flow.

Every Western classical musician is familiar with this routine, including Vedran Smailovic, principal cellist of the Sarajevo Opera. That routine changed in 1992 when he decided to perform in the middle of the horrific war zone in his city, Sarajevo. This beautiful eastern European city, with its rich theatre and art traditions, had become Europe’s “capital of hell.”

On May 27, 1992 at 4 p.m., a mortar shell dropped in the middle of one of the few operational bakeries in the city. Twenty–two people were killed, most of them standing in line to get bread. 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 and widely recognised as an exceptionally talented cello player. Until that day, he was busy with his music commitments. Looking back on that time, Smailovic describes himself as being “totally naïve”. He didn’t believe that such destruction could happen in Sarajevo, even though it was happening everywhere else in the former Yugoslavia.

Although Smailovic was enraged by what was happening around him, he felt powerless to do anything about it. He was not a politician or a soldier, just a musician. How could he do anything about the war? But neither could he just stand by in fear, watching people die. By dawn of the next day, he had made up his mind to do something. He would do what he knew best. He would make music.

Every afternoon after that, at 4 p.m., Smailovic walked to the middle of the street where the massacre had occurred. He was dressed formally, as for a performance. He sat 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 played on, a symbol of hope in a desperate place.

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 until December 1993, in graveyards and bombsites. He had decided to “daily offer a musical prayer for peace.” He became a powerful symbol of hope. 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.

In 1994, celebrated cellist Yo Yo Ma played the piece at the International Cello Festival in Manchester, England. A person in the audience described the concert: “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 agonized, 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.”

Since then, Smailovic has relocated to Belfast, Ireland, where he performs, composes, conducts, and produces music locally and internationally. But the message of his story continues and grows. American author Robert Fulghum says, “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 memorializing Vedran Smailovic—a monument that has not yet been built, but may be.”

We dare never give up hope. Even if all we can do is make music, or pray, or be silent in the face of horror, we do it and dare to imagine that it makes a difference.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook