Thinking about the Cellist of Sarajevo on the Day Radovan Karadzic is Found Guilty of Genocide

Vedran Smailovic plays cello in the rubble of Sarajevo’s National Library, 1992.

This week, after more than 20 years, Radovan Karadzic, the “Bosnian butcher,” has been found guilty of war crimes and genocide by the UN war crimes tribunal. Since Slobodan Milosevic died before his trial, this is the first major conviction of the leaders of the Balkan war and the slaughter of more than 100,000 people in the former Yugoslavia.

I was greatly affected by that war — and traveled twice to the region during that time. Here’s one memory:

Sarajevo Orchestra cellist Vedran Smailovic playing Albinoni’s G minor adagio once a day for 22 days in 1992 outside the bakery where a Serb shell had killed 22 people. It was the most courageous act of art in war that I had ever seen. “My mother is a Muslim and my father is a Muslim,” Mr. Smailovic said, “but I don’t care. I am a Sarajevan, I am a cosmopolitan, I am a pacifist.” Then he added: “I am nothing special, I am a musician, I am part of the town. Like everyone else, I do what I can.”

In 1994 famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma played a newly composed piece by English composer David Wilde at the International Cello Festival in Manchester, England.  The piece entitled “The Cellist of Sarajevo” haunted those who were there. Pianist Paul Sullivan described it this way in Readers Digest:

“When he had finished, Ma remained bent over his cello, his bow resting on the strings.  No one in the hall moved or made a sound for a long time.  It was as though we had just witnessed that horrifying massacre ourselves. Finally, Ma looked out across the audience and stretched out his hand, beckoning someone to the stage.  An indescribable electric shock swept over us as we realized who it was…

Smailovic rose from his seat and walked down the aisle as Ma left the stage to meet him.  They flung their arms around each other … everyone in the hall erupted into a chaotic, emotional frenzy… We were all stripped down to our starkest, deepest humanity at encountering this man who shook his cello in the face of bombs, death, and ruin, defying them all.”

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