The Cellist of Sarajevo – A Heartwarming Story
Vedran Smajlovic was the famous lone cellist dressed in full evening suit, seen on television all over the world, who refused to stop playing his cello on the streets of Sarajevo after his Opera theater was destroyed and twenty two of his neighbors were killed by a mortar while standing in a bread queue. When asked by a CNN reporter if he was not crazy for playing his cello while Sarajevo was being shelled, Smajlovic replied, “You ask me am I crazy for playing the cello, why do you not ask if they are not crazy for shelling Sarajevo?”.
He was born on November 11, 1956, the fourth of five children born into a celebrated musical family in the heart of Sarajevo. Throughout his early adult years, Vedran played in symphonic and chamber orchestras and also played traditional, folk and pop-rock music. A prominent performer, he also conducted, composed and produced. Highly regarded as he was for his music, he was also well loved for his fidelity to the traditions of Sarajevo, ‘the soul of the city’. He particularly loved ‘Fijaker’, the traditional use of horses and traps, and continued to use this means of transport long after it had been relegated to the realms of tourism, creating a fiesta wherever he went. Up to 1992, Verdran Smajlovic was fully occupied by his involvement in the Sarajevo Opera, The Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra, The Symphony Orchestra RTV Sarajevo, and The National Theater of Sarajevo, as well as playing the festival circuit and working in recording studios.
Looking back now and remembering that period, Vedran describes himself and his associates as ‘totally naïve’. So great was their confidence in their unity and in their plurality, he says, that even when they were watching what was happening in Slovenia, they felt absolutely certain that similar destruction could never happen in Sarajevo - that it would be impossible to destroy such strong unity. That was the dream. Sadly the reality was sheer horror...and by 1992, ‘Sarajevo was the capital of hell’. After the notorious bread-queue massacre in May of that year, in which 22 people lost their lives, Vedran made his decision to “daily offer a musical prayer for peace” playing in ruins, bomb sites and graveyards, becoming the inspiration for civil resistance in Bosnia. He continued his Music for Peace initiative until December, 1993, when finally “with the help of God and nice people” it became possible for him to leave Sarajevo.
Widely celebrated in poetry, story, music and song, Vedran now lives in Northern Ireland, performing, composing, conduction, arranging and producing music, locally and internationally.
The Cellist of Sarajevo
On May 27th, 1992, a bakery in Sarajevo, which happened to have a supply of flour, was making bread and distributing it to the starving, war-shattered people. At 4 p.m., a long line stretched into the street. Suddenly, a shell fell directly into the middle of the line, killing 22 people outright and splattering blood and gore over the entire area. A hundred yards away lived a 37-year-old man named Vedran Smajlovic. Before the war he had been the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Opera Company—a distinguished and civilized job, no doubt. When he saw the massacre outside his window, he was pushed beyond his capacity to endure anymore. Driven by his anguish, he decided he had to take action, and so he did the only thing he could do. He made music. Every day there after, at 4 p.m. precisely, Mr. Smailovic would put on his full formal concert attire, and walk out of his apartment into the midst of the battle raging around him.
He would place a little campstool in the middle of the bomb-craters, and play a concert to the abandoned streets, while bombs dropped and bullets flew all around him. Day after day he made his unimaginably courageous stand for human dignity, for civilization, for compassion, and for peace. When this vigil had ended, he would go to the infamous “Lion Cemetery”, infamous, because of the snipers who would lurk there and pick off civilians as they came to bury or mourn their dead. In an act of fearless defiance bordering on madness, Mr. Smajlovic, beautifully dressed, braved sniper fire, to play for the dead, as though he could reach them; as though he could comfort them. As though protected by a divine shield, he was never hurt, though his darkest hour came when, taking a walk to stretch his legs; his cello was shelled and destroyed where he had been sitting. The news wires picked up the story of the extraordinary man, sitting in his white tie and tails on a camp stool in the center of a raging, hellish war zone—playing his cello to the empty air.