Under Siege

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

This past week I read a powerful little book…The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. It is a fictionalized account of 4 people’s lives during the Siege of Sarajevo, which went on from 1992 to 1996. For a short piece of the history, here’s an introduction by wikipedia.

It was fought during the Bosnian War between poorly equipped defending forces of the Bosnian government, who had declared independence from Yugoslavia, and the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and Bosnian Serb forces (Army of Republika Srpska) (VRS) located in the hills around Sarajevo, who sought to destroy the newly-independent state of Bosnia and Herzegovina and create the Serbian state of Republika Srpska (RS).

It is estimated that of the more than 12,000 people who were killed and 50,000 who were wounded during the siege, 85% were civilians. Because of killing and forced migration, by 1995 the population decreased to 334,663 – 64% of the prewar population.

As Galloway tells us in the afterword of the book, it is based on a true story of something that happened during the siege.

At four o’clock in the afternoon of May 17, 1992, during the Siege of Sarajevo, several mortar shells struck a group of people waiting to buy bread behind the market on Vase Miskina. Twenty-two people were killed and at least seventy were wounded. For the next twenty-two days Vedran Smailovic, a renonwned local cellist, played Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor at the site in honor of the dead. His actions inspired this novel.

One of the characters portrayed in the book is a woman who’s pseudonym during the siege is “Arrow” because she is hired by the government forces as a sniper to fire back at the enemy in the hills conducting the siege. She explains that she has adopted the pseudonym while she does this in order to draw a definitive line between the person she was before and the person she has become in hopes that someday she can return.

Here is one of our first introductions to Arrow.

Ten years ago, when she was eighteen and was not called Arrow, she borrowed her father’s car and drove to the countryside to visit friends. It was a bright, clear day, and the car felt alive to her, as though the way she and the car moved together was a sort of destiny, and everything was happening exactly as it ought to. As she rounded the corner one of her favorite songs came on the radio, and sunlight filtered through the trees the way it does with lace curtains, reminding her of her grandmother, and tears began to slide down her cheeks. Not for her grandmother, who was then still very much among the living, but because she felt an enveloping happiness to be alive, a joy made stronger by the certainty that someday it would all come to an end. It overwhelmed her, made her pull the car to the side of the road. Afterward she felt a little foolish, and never spoke to anyone about it.

Now, however, she knows she wasn’t being foolish. She realizes that for no particular reason she stumbled into the core of what it is to be human. It’s a rare gift to understand that your life is wondrous, and that it won’t last forever.

So when Arrow pulls the trigger and ends the life of one of the soldiers in her sights, she’ll do so not because she wants him dead, although she can’t deny that she does, but because the soldiers have robbed her and almost everyone else in the city of this gift. That life will end has become so self-evident it’s lost all meaning. But worse, for Arrow, is the damage done to the distance between what she knows and what she believes. For although she knows her tears that day were not the ridiculous sentimentality of a teenage girl, she doesn’t really believe it.

All of the characters in the book struggle with this loss of humanity as their fear in simply trying to survive takes over and their hatred of the men in the hills grows.

One of the other characters, Dragan, is asked by a friend of his why the cellist plays and what he hopes to accomplish.

“Maybe he’s playing for himself,” he says. “Maybe it’s all he knows how to do, and he’s not doing it to make something happen.” And he thinks this is true. What the cellist wants isn’t a change, or to set things right again, but to stop things from getting worse. Because…it can always get worse. But perhaps the only thing that will stop it from getting worse is people doing the things they know how to do.

And Arrow wonders about a couple of young girls who leave flowers for the cellist.

Arrow wonders about the two girls who laid flowers in front of the cellist. Do they hate the men on the hills as much as she does? Do they hate them for being murderous bastards, killers without remorse? She hopes not. That’s too easy. If they hate the men on the hills, then they are forced to hate her too. She kills just the same as they do. On days like today when she doesn’t kill, she feels a loss that reveals a hostility within her that goes deeper than the lack of remorse. It’s almost a lust.

She hopes that the girls, and the rest of the city, hate the men on the hills for the same reason she does. Because they made her hate. They started a war, saying that the people of Sarajevo hated each other, and the people fought back, saying they didn’t, that they were a city without hatred. But then the men on the hills started to kill and mutilate and destroy. And little by little they got what they wanted, a victory as clear as it would be if they could drive their tanks through the town. They made her, and people like her, hate them.

But the cellist finally breaks through that hatred in Arrow.

Arrow let the slow pulse of the vibrating strings flood into her. She felt the lament raise a lump in her throat, fought back tears. She inhaled sharp and fast. Her eyes watered, and the notes ascended the scale. The men on the hills, the men in the city, herself, none of them had the right to do the things they’d done. It had never happened. It could not have happened. But she knew these notes. They had become a part of her. They told her that everything had happened exactly as she knew it had, and that nothing could be done about it. No grief or rage or noble act could undo it. But it could all have been stopped. It was possible. The men on the hills didn’t have to be murderers. The men in the city didn’t have to lower themselves to fight their attackers. She didn’t have to be filled with hatred. The music demanded that she remember this, that she know to a certainty that the world still held the capacity for goodness. The notes were proof of that.

I would never compare anything I’ve faced in my life with those who endured the siege of Sarajevo. And yet, while reading this book, I couldn’t help but think about how, for at least 8 years, I felt under siege by the Bush administration. I felt the hatred…and the struggle that kind of feeling presents. And I wonder if I shouldn’t have changed my name/identity back then so that when the time came, I could find myself again.

Spoiler Alert: I’m about to give away the ending of the book. So if you’d rather not know, skip this part.

In the end, the army that Arrow is working for has itself become corrupted and they test her loyalty by asking her to kill innocent civilians who have aligned with the enemy. She refuses. The army sees this as traitorous in their us/them thinking. So as they are coming one night to kill her,

She closes her eyes, recalls the notes she heard only yesterday, a melody that is no longer there but feels very close. Her lips move, and a moment before the door splinters off its hinges she says, her voice strong and quiet, “My name is Alisa.”



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  1. to capture just a tiny bit of the power of this little book. I highly recommend it to everyone.  

    • Edger on March 22, 2009 at 22:02

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