The Cellist of SarajevoA violinist was playing in the subway on Baker Street Station. He had positioned himself at the corner of the space where the stairs from the Metropolitan line met the escalators that descended to the Bakerloo and Jubilee lines. I could not name the piece he was playing but it was so poignant I stepped out the flow of commuters rushing like ants through the tunnels, leant against the wall and listened. It felt like a refuge, a moment of peace among the mounting chaos and insecurity of our collective lives.

I thought of the Cellist of Sarajevo, the subject of Steven Galloway’s recent novel. During the four year long siege of that once beautiful Bosnian city, ringed by hills, a sad looking man with tousled hair and dressed in a dusty full evening dress suit, stepped into the market square at four o’clock every afternoon, positioned his stool in the bomb crater and played Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor. He has been playing the same piece in a window overlooking the square when a mortar bomb exploded outside and killed 22 people queuing for bread. He had stood motionless at the window all night and for most of the next day. Then at 4pm, he carried his cello into the square, and began to play He continued to do this every day for the next 22 days, one day for each victim. People stopped and listened, oblivious to the risk from snipers and shelling from the hills, and for a brief time forgot about the war. Then he got up, gathers his stool and his cello and walked slowly to the door of his house and disappeared. He could have been killed by the men on the hills besieging the city or any of the snipers sent to infiltrate the population, but he wasn’t. On the last day, he picked up his stool, tossed his bow on to the pile of flowers that people have placed at the spot and went inside for the last time. The Cellist of Sarajevo is a work of fiction, but is based on the courage of Vedran Smailovic, who had played for the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Sarajevo Opera before the war.

The Balkans have been in the centre of conflict since Greco-Roman times. For many years part of the Roman Empire, then part of the Ottoman Empire, then the Austro-hungarian Empire, it was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo that precipitated the First World War, firstly as a conflict between Serbia and Austro-Hungary, then between Russia and Germany; finally Britain and France were drawn in because of their alliances. Under the Treaty of Versailles, the Balkan States were subsumed under a single nation, called Yugoslavia (southern Slavs). During the Second World War, the region was occupied by the Axis powers, but it regained its independence under Marshal Tito at the end of the war and was drawn into the orbit of the Soviet Union as a client communist state. When Tito died in 1980, old nationalist ambitions resurfaced. Serbia had ambitions to reunite the country under their control, but Bosnia-Herzegovina and other Balkan states including Croatia and Slovenia, which had a sizeable Serbian population resisted.

The Seige of Sarajevo

Bosnia declared independence in 1992 and almost immediately were attacked by Serbian forces. Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia; a modern city with a population the size of Bristol, was besieged for four years, much longer than Stalingrad and Leningrad 50 years earlier. The Serbians set up artillery positions in the hills that ringed the city and sent snipers into the city to terrify the population. 11,000 defenders were killed. There was scarcely a house that was not damaged or destroyed by bombs. The main targets were the hospital, government buildings, schools and libraries. The images of high rise buildings on fire resembled the recent Grenfell Tower disaster in London. All services, electricity, water supply, sewage and transport, were cut.

Steven Galloway’s book charts the life of three of the inhabitants during that time. Arrow is a Bosnian sniper who has been ordered to protect the cellist from Serbian snipers sent in to kill him, but she ultimately becomes a target of her own side when she refuses to fire on Serbian civilians. Dragan is a baker, whose family have managed to escape to Croatia, leaving him behind. Kenan runs the gauntlet of sniper and mortar fire every day to cross the river to get water for his family and the elderly widow, who lives in the same block of flats. Life for the 400,000 or more people living in Sarajevo was a matter of life and death every single day.

Galloway’s characters are based on real people, worn out by war, fearful of what might become of themselves and their families. Only the cellist and his music bring hope and respite from fear. For a brief moment every day, it seems that mankind is still capable of humanity and the war has not destroyed everything.

In the last two years, London has been the scene of random terrorist attacks, creating a low level sense of anxiety every time I go down. The music in the underground helps to reassure. Everybody should stop and listen for a few minutes.

 

Alarmed by the atrocities committed by the besieging Serbian forces and what resembled ethnic cleansing, the United Nations joined the conflict in 1996 and bombed the Serbian positions. Eventually a peace treaty was signed giving autonomy to Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovenia and Macedonia. The only state not given nation status was Kosovo and this remains unresolved. The Serb leaders were tried for war crimes at The Hague and sentenced to life imprisonment.