The Bosnian War and a review of The Cellist of Sarajevo

Whenever we visit a new place, we try to learn a bit of it’s history. We usually have an idea of a time period we want to know more about and we scan the internet for information. We listen to history-themed podcasts (Tides of History is a particular favorite). We also try to read a non-fiction book and at least one historical fiction so we can get a feel for the lived experience of our chosen timeframe. Having previously visited Croatia – and more recently Albania and Montenegro – we felt that we knew too little about the breakup of Yugoslavia and the formation of the resultant independent states (even though we were both young adults when it happened). For our trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina, we decided to listen to the audiobook version of The Cellist of Sarajevo written by Steven Galloway, narrated by Gareth Armstrong, and set during the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War of the 1990s.

Perhaps nothing can really prepare you for the reality of a place decimated by war – even a war that ended 30 years ago. One week in Mostar was all it took to bring the 90s conflict into focus. Although beautifully rebuilt now, Mostar’s iconic Stari Most bridge was destroyed by shelling (divers recovered chunks of it from the river to use in the reconstruction). It felt like every city block featured shelled husks of buildings, pock-marked ruins, and/or graveyards comprised of markers all eerily carrying the same death date: 1992 in one graveyard, 1993 in the next.

The fighting in Mostar was intense, but Sarajevo was besieged for 4 YEARS. As we drove out of Mostar, we listened to a podcast interview with a Bosniak who was a young man living in Sarajevo when the siege began. He said that one day he and his friends were driving up into the mountains to go skiing, and the next they were being shelled and shot at from those same mountains. Before the siege was over, he said that there were just not enough spaces in the existing graveyards to bury the dead – instead they conscripted courtyards, parks, and whatever few square feet of dirt they could find, and they dug. After finishing that podcast, we started listening to The Cellist of Sarajevo. We finished it during the beginning of our 6-week stay.

By pure chance, the first airbnb we booked was in the Sarajevska Pivara (Sarajevo Brewery) complex, the setting for a major action scene in the book. This apartment had been part of the compensation package for our host’s father who had worked at the brewery during the siege. It was immersive: we were listening to the audiobook from an apartment above the brewery as the scene of a shelling of said brewery unfolded in the book. The scene couldn’t have felt more immediate, nor more surreal. The author described the underground spring accessed in the brewery basement that Sarajevans would risk their lives to draw water from; when we walked the dogs we could hear water gushing underground from the hills toward the brewery.

In the book, you learn about the “men in the hills”. They are not named, but we learned that these were the Serb and Bosnian Serb aggressors. In the aforementioned podcast interview, we learned that before it actually happened, people in the city had no idea that war was about to break out. What they did know was that there were men in the hills with heavy equipment “making repairs” to the roads, to the towers, etc. It turns out that the men were from Serbia, and they weren’t there to make repairs, they were there to fortify the hills for a siege. Bosnia had, like Montenegro before it, declared its independence from Yugoslavia. Serbia thought they could quickly force Sarajevo into a surrender and the rest of the country would fall in line. As we rode the cable car into the hills – the same cable car line that had been used for the 1984 Olympics but dismantled a scant six years later during the war – we couldn’t help but look down onto the topography and try to pinpoint where the “men in the hills” had set up their artillery and their sniper nests.

The first word that comes to mind in trying to describe The Cellist of Sarajevo is visceral. Almost every time we took a break from the book, we both felt like we’d been punched in the gut. Galloway makes readers feel like they are living in Sarajevo during the siege and experiencing first hand the cruelty of men against men, and the unfathomable reality of a city at war. The characters feel so real, the action feels so real, the settings ARE so real (especially when you’re sitting in them!) – that for us, it literally evoked a physical reaction. We took many breaks.

The book has both a huge scope and a narrow focus. The writer and the narrator – whose style and inflection were a perfect match for the prose – do a superior job of putting the reader right into the streets of a Sarajevo under siege and into the bodies and minds of the characters. There are three main characters – two of whom would be about the same ages we’d have been at that point in time. They are very real, fleshed out with their believable thoughts, feelings, and actions – not all of which shine favorably on them. We see what it takes for these people to survive. Physically, yes, but even more so emotionally. We see how war effects all your choices: will you cross the street under sniper fire to help a friend? Risk your life to go across town to bring water to an elderly neighbor? Kill unarmed civilians – who are nevertheless your enemy – because your commander ordered you to?

The descriptions of the characters’ actions – in the world they travel through as well as in their own heads – is economical and not at all flamboyant, and they are all the more powerful for their simplicity. We see exactly what it takes for these people to survive. We see how day-to-day living through the siege stripped the characters to their very essence both physically and mentally. Like the fat man at the funeral who jokes that he used to be even larger – “you should have seen me before the war” – pre-war they all had padding. They held comfortable thoughts about themselves. Just as the food shortages caused everyone to lose weight, the constant risk of death caused everyone to shed all but the most essential psychology needed to stay alive. We see them knowingly, reluctantly, shedding the perceptions of the selves they wished they were and accepting the reality of the selves that live to see another day and risk another bridge crossing to the brewery for clean water.

The whole point of the book, we think, is to show how paired down the psyche can be before it reaches those few emotional elements that, should they completely disintegrate, would make a good, regular person no longer good. Humanity comes in small things, and everyone has a limit they can not cross. That limit may be surprising and is different for different people. Perhaps it is what makes up the emotional essence of a person. Perhaps the difference between good and evil comes from holding on to that essence. When you lose it, you become as bad as those besieging you. You order the killshot of an unarmed civilian. You assassinate a fellow resistance commander because they are unwilling to go as far as you will. You ferry a washing machine – sold cheap to pay for food and unusable anyway when there is no electricity – through the humanitarian relief tunnel to someone “of influence” looking for a bargain. You turn into a thug in a track suit profiting off your own neighbors.

Or you don’t. You survive so that one day you can rebuild. You preserve the dignity of the fallen. You sacrifice yourself before sacrificing your soul. You risk your life to play a song every day in tribute for innocent victims of a mortar attack whom you did not know. Does it make a difference? The book does not say, it’s just what some people do; others do not.

For us, The Cellist of Sarajevo packed a huge emotional punch and helped us make sense of the manifestations of the war we can still see in Sarajevo today. It was the perfect marriage of being in a place and learning about it, living here today while experiencing some tiny scrap of what it must have been like to live here 30 years ago. It made us cry. We highly recommend it.

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