The Cellist of Sarajevo

Despite my worst ever bout of Tendinitis (wiki) coming to a head and the relentless cold and snow the visit to Sarajevo in March is one of my most memorable visits to a European capital for sometime.  As I posted here it caught my imagination for its part in European history of the previous century.  As did the story of a place that called itself the Jerusalem of Europe.  It is hard to believe that the city that I visited, and included pictures in the above posts from, is the same as that suffering the widespread and daily destruction in the book.  Yet it is.

As it says in the Afterward to the book, “the Siege of Sarajevo was the longest city siege in the history of modern warfare lasting from 5th April 1992 to 29th February 1996.  The UN estimates that roughly 10,000 people were killed and 56,000 wounded.  An average of 329 shells hit the city each day with a high on 22nd July 1993 when 3,777 hit it.  23% of all buildings were seriously damaged and a further 64% had some damage.”

This is the background to the story which features the lives of three people living amongst the siege.  None of them are the cellist who we learn really existed and did do what the book says he did, and more that it doesn’t say.  It is the powerful story of three people trying to get on with their lives amongst a siege.  The daily trials that make up everyday life; getting water, crossing a junction, and getting bread.

Thanks to the visit this year I was able to picture the places written about and the journeys made by the characters and able to contrast them with walking the same streets and bridges now, seeing the same buildings having been reconstructed that are written about being destroyed.  It is a powerful enough story about the impact upon ordinary, every-day, individual life of trying to live amongst a siege but this additional aspect of knowing personally the difference gave the story an almost film like aspect for me.

In particular, whilst there I frequently looked up to the hills around Sarajevo where the people who wanted to kill the people down below would have been and you could see how, because of the layout of the city in a river valley with steep hills or mountains around it, easy it was to imagine being caught there  and how it was for the people on the hillsides and mountains like the saying goes, shooting fish in a barrel.  And then to wonder about being those fish in that barrel.  This book gives some idea of what that was like.

One question asked in the book is why survive, why fight so hard, why put up with the daily battle to go on?  One answer is not to let them win, the men in the hills who are shelling and shooting you.  Another is to be there when it has finished, to be part of rebuilding your city, the city you could have left but didn’t.  Something else that struck a chord having been back and seen the work to date rebuilding the city.

Unfortunately it will not be possible for me to go everywhere written about in subsequent books I read so I will not be able to test it, but I think it is a testament to the quality of the writing that you would be able to follow what the different characters have to do everyday without having been there.  Read it.

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