The Cellist of Sarajevo

Posted by on Apr 26, 2011 in Creativity, Ingredients | 0 comments

The Cellist of Sarajevo

I have some friends who are creative in the most literal sense of the word. They can think of a scene, abstract or real, and then depict it amazingly just using a plain old #2 pencil everyone has used at some point to take a multiple choice test. I am continually amazed at this talent because it never fails to bring something unique and beautiful into the world. While this is the most obvious form of creativity, I’m sure we can all list numerous other ways people all over the world express their creativity. What often gets lost in this jumble of ideas are actions, particularly actions people take every day to build peace, equally as unique, beautiful, and creative as any work of art. Typically, peacebuilding is boiled down to a few limited actions: negotiated peace agreements, diplomacy, mediation, ceasefires, United Nations peacekeeping forces, etc., but what about those who aren’t involved in these actions? What about those who don’t get to participate because their voice is not equally valued at the proverbial “table” where influential decisions about how to build peace are made? Are they left out of the peacebuilding process? Not necessarily…they just need to be more creative.

I read the book The Moral Imagination, written by John Paul Lederach, an internationally renowned peacebuilding scholar and practitioner, for a class in graduate school and it became one of my favorites, particularly because of one powerful short story. In this compelling narrative, Lederach uses the well-known story of one man in Sarajevo, Vedran Smailovic, to exemplify how a courageous and creative act can convey hope and strength and even change the tide of seemingly intractable situations.

“On May 27, 1992, in the center of Sarajevo, a bread shop opened for a few short hours. A long queue snaked from the door out into the streets as people waited…on a hill miles away, snipers locked their sights down on the bread line. A shell exploded at the feet of the people waiting. As people scrambled to help the injured, the snipers began to shoot emergency workers and anyone who ventured near the explosion. Twenty-two people died. The bread store was in the neighborhood of Vedran Smailovic…he rushed to the square that afternoon and passed a frightful night of anguish watching more neighbors die senselessly.

He recounted, “Filled with sorrow, I eventually fell asleep at dawn, and was awakened by new explosions and the shouts of my neighbors, who were awake carrying children and blankets to shelters. I went to the shelter myself and returned home after the shelling was over. I washed my face and hands, shaved, and without thinking, put on my white shirt, black evening suit and white bow tie, took my cello and left home. Looking at the new ruins, I arrived at the place of the massacre. It was adorned with flowers, wreaths and peace messages; there were posters on local shops saying who had been killed. On a nearby table was a solemn book of condolences, which people were signing. I opened my cello case and sat down, not knowing what I would play. Full of sadness and grief, I lifted my bow and spontaneously made music.”

When his spontaneous playing was done, Smailovic discovered that people had gathered to listen near the square. Around coffee late that evening close friends told him how meaningful it was and begged him to play again, that they felt better when he played…he decided to return to the Bread Massacre Square and play every day for twenty-two days in a row, one for each person killed in the massacre. Shelling never ceased during those days, but neither did his music…on one occasion, during a lull in the shelling, a TV news reporter approached the cellist seated in the square and asked, “Aren’t you crazy for playing music while they are shelling Sarajevo?” Smailovic responded, “Playing music is not crazy. Why don’t you go ask those people if they are not crazy, shelling Sarajevo while I sit here playing my cello.”

…A creative act that transcended the madness of violence, was found in the hands of a cellist who sat fast in the midst of the geography of hate.”



  1. Bridge Over Troubled Water | Critical Peace - [...] my second post, The Cellist of Sarajevo, I described how one Bosnian man became a symbol of peace and…
  2. Bridge Over Troubled Water: Music and Peacebuilding | GearPipe | Musical Instrument News, Deals, and Giveaways - [...] a previous post, The Cellist of Sarajevo, I described how one Bosnian man became a symbol of peace and…
  3. Never ask a violinist if a cellist is crazy « Snippets of random - [...] go ask those people if they are not crazy, shelling Sarajevo while I sit here playing my cello.” [link]…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *