During a season of violence and terror in Sarajevo, a handful of brave musicians responded to brutality with beauty, risking their lives to feed the spirits of their fellow citizens.
A disclaimer before I begin. This episode includes a number of names that are foreign to my anglophone eyes and ears – and I apologize in advance for any mispronunciation.
Imagine a beautiful European city, both medieval and modern, surrounded by mountains, intersected by a blue-green river, filled with white stone mosques and soaring churches, hi-rise apartments and terra-cotta roofed houses. Imagine a cosmopolitan city of half a million people, with universities and libraries, art galleries and theatres, office buildings and sports stadiums and music schools.
This was the city of Sarajevo before 1992. It wasn’t a paradise – Sarajevo was in Yugoslavia, and for decades Yugoslavia was under communist rule. But even then its citizens enjoyed more liberties than those of most other Eastern Bloc countries. And Sarajevo was a city made richer by its cultural diversity - Serbs and Muslims and Croats living side by side for more than five centuries.
But on March 3, 1992, Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia – with Sarajevo as the new capital. Within months, hostile Serb forces had surrounded the city, and on April 6 they began a military siege that would go on for almost 4 years. It was the longest siege in modern history – a year longer than the siege of Leningrad; three times longer than the Battle of Stalingrad.
Life for the people of Sarajevo – of all ethnic backgrounds – turned upside down overnight. By the 2nd of May, Serb forces had established a total blockade of the city, cutting off all major access roads, severing supplies of food and medicine, and shutting down the city’s utilities. For the next four years its residents had no running water, no electricity, no modern heating.
Snipers positioned in the surrounding hills gunned down soldiers and civilians alike, in a daily campaign of terror. No one was safe. As the body count rose, the city’s parks were turned into makeshift cemeteries. Fresh graves climbed the hills, getting ever closer to the guns responsible for their existence.
The destruction reached every quarter of Sarajevo, cratering its streets, turning its architectural treasures into fire-gutted skeletons. Nothing was sacred, not its National Library, not its mosques or churches or synagogues, not even its hospitals.
To survive the shelling, people huddled for days on end in basement bunkers – mothers and toddlers, doctors and taxi drivers all mixed together – emerging only as necessary to line up for bread and water. It was surreal at first. Before the siege, Sarajevo was a place where you could buy 20 different cuts of beef, or 20 varieties of vinegar. Now its residents were forced to stand in long lines at the few bakeries that remained open.
But an act as simple and necessary as standing in line for bread meant exposing yourself to danger – literally risking your life. And so it was that on the morning of May 27, not quite two months into the siege, a line of people queued up at a central bakery was targeted with several high-explosive rounds. When the rubble was cleared away, 22 people were dead and more than a hundred were seriously injured.
How does anyone make sense of such senseless carnage?
There was a man named Vedran Smailovic who lived the site of the blast. He was 36, the son of Muslim parents, but he defined himself simply as a “Sarajevan and a musician.” He was the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Opera, and in the wake of the breadline massacre, he did the only thing he could think to do. Others brought flowers to the blast site; he brought music.
The day immediately after the attack, Vedran put on his concert tuxedo, picked up his cello and a folding chair, and set out for the ruined square. Explosions and shell fire rocked the city – but still, he took his cello out of its case, and began to play Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor. When he was finished the mournful piece, he put his cello back in its case, refolded his chair, and left.
It was supposed to be a one-time performance; at least that was the plan initially. But people came to the cellist immediately, expressing their appreciation. “This is what we need,” they said. And so, Vedran resolved to return the next day, and the next, and the next – for 22 days in total. One performance for each person murdered while waiting for bread.
He played at a different time each day in an attempt to minimize the danger, but still, his performances were acts of tremendous courage. He was exposed while he played – and therefore incredibly vulnerable. From their position in the hills, snipers were randomly targeting any individual they could see.
Vedran continued to risk his life, playing at funerals and other sites of destruction as the siege went on. It was away to defy the violence and brutality with beauty. As he told one journalist, his cello was his special weapon.
As Vedran’s story became known around the globe, his friends grew increasingly concerned that he would be targeted. So in December 1993, they smuggled him out of the city, through the underground tunnel that had been built to connect Sarajevo with territory beyond the Serb blockade. He eventually settled in Northern Ireland – where he continued to play his cello for the cause of peace in the years leading up to Northern Ireland’s own ceasefire.
But Vedran Smailovic wasn’t the only musician playing in Sarajevo during its years under attack.
The Sarajevo String Quartet – 2 violinists, a cellist and a viola player – had existed in one form or another for 75 years when the siege began. During the first month of the siege, its four current members put their rehearsals on hold – believing that the world would soon intervene to bring the violence to an end. But after the breadline massacre in May, they decided to resume rehearsals after all – as a way to stay active together.
Less than a month into these rehearsals, the quartet received an invitation to play at a Jewish Synagogue that had been damaged by a bomb just the week before. They agreed, although Dijana Ihas, the viola player and only woman in the quartet, secretly doubted anyone would show up.
Sure enough, on their way to the synagogue sirens went off, warning of an impending bomb attack. “What do we do now?” the musicians asked each other. The 2nd violinist said his wife was waiting for him at the synagogue and that he had to meet her, so the remaining three musicians said they’d go as well.
It was a beautiful June afternoon, and the concert was in an outdoor atrium. At first there were only the musicians’ spouses in the audience, but as the quartet began playing Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, passersby began to trickle in. Despite the accompaniment of explosions in the background, by the end of the concert every seat was full.
Dijana was only 29 at the beginning of the siege; she was the youngest member of the quartet. As she looked out at that first audience, she saw people in tears – and it was a revelation. For the first time she realized that playing music wasn’t just about entertainment. It was about feeding the human spirit; reaching people at a much deeper level than she’d ever understood before.
“When will you play again?” the audience asked.
“Soon,” the quartet promised.
That concert was the first of many. The four musicians agreed that this is what they could offer Sarajevo in its time of crisis. And so they began playing all over their city.
Tragedy surrounded them constantly – and then it entered their midst. Their first violinist, Momir Vlacic, was killed by a grenade while walking home from a rehearsal at the end of that September. Despite their grief, and despite their fear for their own safety, the remaining members were determined to continue, and so they invited Dzevad Sabanagic to take the position of first violin. But then in October, less than a month later, their second violinist, Kamenko Ostojic was also killed, this time in a random sniper attack.
In the immediate aftermath of this second death, the quartet temporarily played as a trio. Ed Vuillamy, a war correspondent, attended the blacked-out National Theatre to hear them play. Outside the theatre it was another brutal day – more bombings, more deaths. But inside, there was beauty, humanity. The women in the audience wore makeup and their best dresses; the men who weren’t in combat fatigues wore their finest linen suits.
At one point during the performance of Hayden, a mortar landed so close to the building that Dijana’s music stand fell over. There was silence while the stand was put upright again, and the music replaced – and then – the trio played on.
As the siege continued, so did the quartet, playing all over the city, with Hrvoje Tisler joining as second violinist. With the city under curfew and no electricity, concerts had to take place during the day. No one had money for tickets, so the audience expressed their appreciation with roses instead. Seats never went empty.
Two years into the siege, the quartet celebrated their 100th concert with a special performance for a group of government dignitaries. The war continued in the streets outside, but after two years, both the musicians and the audience had learned to tune out the never-ending explosions and artillery fire.
The quartet was playing a piece by Schubert, when a press secretary crept over and whispered something in the prime minister’s ear. Dijana was close enough to see a tear form in the prime minister’s eye. She thought the music had touched him, but when the musicians paused between movements, the prime minister stood and announced that there had just been a substantial attack at a nearby market. It would turn out to be the biggest massacre in Sarajevo since the beginning of the war, with 68 deaths and another 144 people wounded. The prime minister excused himself, but asked the performers to continue. “This is no longer a war between armies,” he said, “this is a war between good and evil, and music is on the side of good.”
A few months after that event, the string quartet was asked to present a concert featuring Bosnian composers. Dijana was apprehensive; she was pregnant, and the concert was scheduled for July 16, just two days before her baby’s due date. Just as she feared, she went into labour the night before. But two years of war had toughened her in ways that most of us will never understand. Dijana showed up for the performance, played through her contractions (without anyone beside her husband knowing she was in labour) – then delivered her son exactly 40 minutes after the concert was over.
In all, the Sarajevo String Quartet performed 206 times before the war officially ended in December, 1995. In Dijana’s words: “We never said no. Front lines, broken schools, broken churches, broken hospitals – everywhere people needed a sense that they were still human beings, we played.”
Incidentally, when power was restored to the city after the war, Dijana’s son, now a toddler, screamed in terror. He had never seen electric lights, or heard running water flowing from a tap.
Twenty-five years have passed since the end of the siege, but Sarajevo’s scars remain close to the surface – in the graves of the almost 14,000 people who were killed during the siege, in the shrapnel holes still visible on sidewalks and apartment buildings, in an entire generation of children traumatized by four years of horror.
But there are signs of hope as well. Thanks to significant foreign investment, most of the city’s damaged buildings have been restored and reoccupied. In 2010, The Lonely Planet named Sarajevo one of the top ten cities in the world to visit. In 2019, it was designated a UNESCO Creative City for placing culture at the center of its development strategies.
As for the five musicians?
Vedran Smailovic, the Cellist of Sarajevo, still lives in a small community in Northern Ireland. He returned to Sarajevo to perform in a 20th anniversary memorial. His performances in the wake of the breadline massacres left an enduring legacy, inspiring songs, concerts, musical compositions and books.
Dzevad Sabanagic , the surviving 1st violinist of the quartet, still lives in Bosnia, where he’s currently a member of the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra.
Hrvoje Tisler and Miron Strutinski both found their way to Canada in the aftermath of the war. Miron is a proud grandfather and avid photographer in Saskatchewan, while Hrvoje teaches and performs in New Brunswick.
As a mixed-ethnicity couple, Dijana Ihas and her husband applied for asylum in the United States following the war. Dijana earned a doctorate at the University of Oregon, and is now an associate professor of music at Pacific University. In January 2021, she was named Oregon’s Music Educator of the Year.
I found all of my sources for this episode on-line. They include:
- An article by John F. Burns from the New York Times Archives, dated June 8, 1992 titled “The Death of a City: Elegy for Sarajevo.”
- “And the Quartet Played On,” an essay by Elizabeth Mehren on immigrantstory.org;
- Dijana Ihas’ five part Youtube video presentation, ART & HUMANITY IN THE MIDST OF WAR: The Story of the Sarajevo String Quartet;
- and excerpts from Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob’s book “Sarajevo Roses: The War Memoir of a Peacekeeper” and Ed Vuillamy’s book “When Words Fail: A Life with Music, War and Peace.”