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The Cellist of Sarajevo

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The siege had left the citizens of Sarajevo with little but their survival instincts. One man attempted to dodge rifle fire in order to obtain bread from the bakery where he worked. Another sought water from the clean underground spring that fed the brewery. Then there was the woman whose mission was to kill the snipers who were killing her city. She, too, was a sniper. Her name was Arrow.

This day, as Steven Galloway wrote in his novel, “The Cellist of Sarajevo,” Arrow’s job was to protect a man whose personal statement against this war and its indiscriminate terror involved pulling on a dusty tuxedo and playing his cello on the cratered site of one of the siege’s early tragedies.

Galloway wrote, “Arrow crosses and sits in the spot where the mortar landed, the spot where, later today, the cellist will sit. She knows that twenty-two people died here and a multitude were injured, will not walk or see or touch again. Because they tried to buy bread. A small decision.”

It is a work of fiction, but the cellist is real.

In 1992, Vedran Smailovic played for 22 straight days on the site of the attack, in the second month of the nearly four-year siege of Sarajevo by Serb forces. Eighteen years later, the spot on Ferhadija Street — a pedestrian-only shopping street, fronted mostly both clothing stores and their big display windows — is marked by a gray stone plaque, one of many put up by the city to mark its most tragic places. The plaque has been altered in subsequent years. Now it says 26 people died as they waited in line for bread.

On the pavement, the place is marked by one of the city’s remaining Sarajevo Roses, a mortar hole filled in by red resin, highlighting the explosive bloom against the concrete gray. Eighteen years later, people walking by pay it no particular attention.

In the 2008 book, beautiful and spare, the cellist and the city provided the framework for the work’s three voices: Dragan and his journey for bread; Kenan and his search for water, and Arrow. There is enough true geographic detail, especially of the area surrounding Sarajevo’s old town, Bascarsija, that the novel can serve as a kind of haunting guidebook to a city where gleaming glass and steel can still stare across the street at a building pockmarked by war.

It has always been a city of contrasts and curiosities. Today, young people crowd in late to a place called Hacienda, which is a Mexican restaurant that morphs into a dance club with a disco ball as the night progresses. The artisans in Bascarsija will sell you a classic Turkish tea set or an ashtray made from a spent mortar shell. Church bells can be heard simultaneously with the Muslim call to prayer.

In this complicated place, Galloway set the crucial scene almost immediately, one you recognize today as you raise your eyes and turn around while standing anywhere along the narrow river that cuts through the city, the Miljacka. As Galloway writes, “The geography of the siege is simple. Sarajevo is a long ribbon of flat land surrounded on all sides by hills. The men on the hills control all the high ground…”

To read the book and then to walk the city is to feel those hills always perched upon your shoulders. To walk an east-west block in the middle of town, shaded by buildings, is to imagine a respite of safety. But to cross into an intersection in the center of the city — say, near the pale yellow Holiday Inn, built to house dignitaries for the 1984 Winter Olympics, later home to the world’s war correspondents — is to be exposed now, from the north and south, to the hills that feel close enough to touch. To see those hills is to understand the terror that accompanied Dragan as he zigzagged his way to the bakery.

“He’s heard foreigners call this street Sniper Alley, and this makes him laugh, because it seems to him that every street in Sarajevo could have this name,” Galloway writes. “Were the streets running along the banks of the Miljacka not worthy? What about every single part of Dobrinja or Mojmilo?”

This day, I was being driven to Dobrinja by Haris Omerovic, who works at the Hotel Michele, a small, ecelectic place near Bascarsija. Dobrinja was the site of the Olympic journalists’ village. When I stayed there, as a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, the buildings were new enough that you could smell paint and wipe plaster dust from the window sills. But it was the site of some of the siege’s most persistent fighting and, today, the bustling apartment blocks are the most scarred buildings I will see in the city. The familiar Olympic logo, as well as a drawing of Vuchko, the Olympic mascot, still adorn some of the buildings, along with dozens of bullet and mortar holes.

As we made the drive back, Haris told me about Sniper Alley. He was a teenager during the siege, drafted into the military. He said, “I drove this many times. Sometimes the car was hit by a bullet, sometimes not. It was like the lottery. I was very young and stupid.

Reading the novel, you are struck by the risks people took merely to survive. Clean water was sometimes delivered to neighborhoods in trucks but often had to be collected in any available container from one of the few safe sources, such as the brewery. For many, that involved crossing the Miljacka over one of its small bridges. One is the Latin Bridge, the place where Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in 1914.

As for the brewery, it now includes a restaurant, Pivinka HS — as well as its own plaque, commemorating another tragedy, another bombing of people waiting in another line, trying simply to survive. Inside, the steak and beer are good and the background music is from the ‘80s.

During Kenan’s journey to the brewery, Galloway wrote, “As he enters the old Turkish neighborhood of Bascarsija, he feels as though he’s returning to the scene of the crime. He hasn’t been here since the day the library burned, and though he’s still a distance from it, he can feel its proximity.”

The library still stands there today, grand and gutted. It was one of the first targets, as was the ornate building that was the Olympic Museum. As the museum’s director, Edin Numankadic, said, “They targeted the National Library, the Oriental Institute, the Olympic Museum, the National Gallery — all things with the identity of the culture of Bosnia and Herzegovina, destroyed. But many other things. This Olympic hall, also.”

We were sitting in Numankadic’s office in the Zetra Arena, the site of Olympic figure skating, ice hockey and the closing ceremonies. It, too was bombed during the siege but since rebuilt. It also houses a small new Olympic Museum, with exhibits that survived the original bombing only because Numankadic feared what might be to come and packed up the museum’s holdings in the basement of the original building. “I told people, ‘We will paint the museum,’” Numankadic said, explaining his ruse. “…So they shot an empty museum.”

Zetra sits next to Kosevo Stadium, a soccer venue today that was the site of the Olympic opening ceremonies. The Olympic torch remains on display, though sadly cold and unlit. The entire complex is ringed by graveyards, with gray monuments that almost all bear the years 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995.

In “The Cellist of Sarajevo,” Galloway placed Arrow, the sniper, on this spot:

“She thinks about the funeral she attended last month. When her neighbor Slavko was killed by a sniper on his way back from collecting water, shot clean through the neck, they took him to the Kosevo Stadium, now made into a burial ground. His wife thought he’d like to be buried near to where he’d enjoyed so many football matches.”

The city remains enchantingly complicated: Turkish and Hapsburgh and bullet-marked and modern architecture, almost side by side; old men kibbitzing over a chess match with pieces 3 feet tall in a public square next to young men chainsawing a fallen tree, hustling to make a living in a difficult economy; kids playing soccer in the field behind Zetra with those burial monuments dominating the nearby vista.

Back in his museum office, Numankadic said, “Generally, we rebuild. But it is difficult to rebuild spirit, hope.”

 

 

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