With suffering and destruction all around him, a Bosnian cellist honored the dead with the only gift he had.
For 22 consecutive days in the spring of 1993, Sarajevo Opera cellist Vedran Smailovic dressed in his tuxedo at midday. Carrying his black cello case and a straight-backed chair, he made the perilous journey from his apartment to a downtown street. It was there that 22 of his closest friends had died when a Serbian artillery shell landed in their midst. The Bosnian War had filled local soccer fields with hastily dug gravesites. Most markers bore the death dates, 1992 or 1993.
Unable to stop the madness that had ripped apart the former Yugoslavia, Smailovic honored the memory of his friends and defied their killers by doing the only thing he was good at. Placing his chair in the middle of the street, he took out cello and bow—musician and instrument melding into a single defiant force. Eyes closed to the surrounding destruction, he rendered the mournful Adagio in G minor by Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni.
On one of those days, at the end of his lonely concert, he opened his eyes and saw the American singer and peace activist Joan Baez standing reverently at his side. They embraced, brother and sister united in a seemingly futile cause. As Smailovic packed his instrument and prepared to leave, Baez hesitated, then sat in his empty chair. Closing her eyes, she sang a heartfelt “Amazing Grace,” whose lyrics echoed Albinoni’s funereal mood. As her crystalline voice pierced the bystanders’ hearts, she blotted her tears with her sleeve.
Often, my daily tour of the world, via electronic and print media, leaves me feeling powerless to address humanity’s wide-ranging ills. Rather than yield to the despair of my littleness, I take courage from the example of those who offer what small gifts they possess to the cause of peace. Vedran Smailovic, now known worldwide as “The Cellist of Sarajevo,” played music. At any moment, he could have been targeted by snipers and gunners in the nearby hills. Playing the cello in the street was his statement that honoring life and beauty is more powerful than bullets. Joan Baez contributed by “being there” at the nadir of Sarajevo’s suffering. Powerless to do more, she offered the people her gift of song.
My daily challenge is to do something to make a positive difference in the world, even if it seems insignificant amid the deadening weight of the day’s headline stories.