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

Just Posted

Residents line up outside the Vernon Recreation Complex for their COVID-19 vaccine Saturday, June 5. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
No appointments necessary for first dose COVID-19 vaccine: Interior Health

People can just show up at clinics, register on the spot and get the shot

Ryan McKenzie of the Kimberley Trails Society made an in-depth presentation to City Council describing the initial steps of the Electrify the Mountains eBike trails project. This is a look at the project one map.
Kimberley City Council hears details on Electrify the Mountain project

At the meeting of City Council on Tuesday, June 8 Ryan McKenzie… Continue reading

The Kimberley Public Library invites kids of all ages to join the 2021 BC Summer Reading Club. Kimberley Public Library file
Kimberley kids invited to join summer reading club at Public Library

The Kimberley Public Library invites kids of all ages to join the… Continue reading

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry on Thursday, June 10, mentioned Grand Forks among two other COVID “hot spots” in B.C. Photo: Screenshot - YouTube COVID-19 BC Update, June 10, 2021
PHO Henry says West Kootenay city is a COVID ‘hot spot’ in B.C.

There are 11 cases of COVID-19 in the Grand Forks local health area, according the BC CDC

At an outdoor drive-in convocation ceremony, Mount Royal University bestows an honorary Doctor of Laws on Blackfoot Elder and residential school survivor Clarence Wolfleg in Calgary on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘You didn’t get the best of me’: Residential school survivor gets honorary doctorate

Clarence Wolfleg receives honorary doctorate from Mount Royal University, the highest honour the school gives out

The Great Ogopogo Bathtub Race has been held in Summerland as a fundraising event. Do you know which Canadian city introduced this sport? (Black Press file photo)
QUIZ: A summer’s day at the water

How much do you know about boats, lakes and water?

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod laughs while playing with Lucky the puppy outside their Chilliwack home on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: B.C. family finds ‘perfect’ puppy with limb difference for 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy has special bond with Lucky the puppy who was also born with limb difference

A million-dollar ticket was sold to an individual in Vernon from the Lotto Max draw Friday, June 11, 2021. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Lottery ticket worth $1 million sold in Vernon

One lucky individual holds one of 20 tickets worth $1 million from Friday’s Lotto Max draw

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

“65 years, I’ve carried the stories in my mind and live it every day,” says Jack Kruger. (Athena Bonneau)
‘Maybe this time they will listen’: Survivor shares stories from B.C. residential school

Jack Kruger, living in Syilx territory, wasn’t surprised by news of 215 children’s remains found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School

A logging truck carries its load down the Elaho Valley near in Squamish, B.C. in this file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chuck Stoody
Squamish Nation calls for old-growth logging moratorium in its territory

The nation says 44% of old-growth forests in its 6,900-square kilometre territory are protected while the rest remain at risk

Flowers and cards are left at a makeshift memorial at a monument outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to honour the 215 children whose remains are believed to have been discovered buried near the city in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Pick a Sunday:’ Indigenous leaders ask Catholics to stay home, push for apology

Indigenous leaders are calling on Catholics to stand in solidarity with residential school survivors by not attending church services

Most Read