In war-ravaged Bosnia in the 1990s, the UN’s largely symbolic interventions failed time and again to bring peace to the region. Partly as a result of the West’s inertia until the late stages of the war, tens of thousands of civilians lost their lives, and even more lost their homes. The siege of Sarajevo was the longest in modern history, lasting nearly four years. During that time, citizens went for long stretches with no water, heat or electricity. They lived under the constant threat of enemy shelling and sniper fire. Food was scarce and prices for household items crippling. The siege claimed over five thousand civilian lives and destroyed over 10,000 homes.
Steven Galloway’s novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo, and Barbara Demick’s non-fiction account of Sarajevan life, Besieged both explore the lived experiences of these citizens throughout the siege. They may differ greatly in tone and style but they both use individual stories to convey the horrors of war.
Demick spent the years between 1993-1997 working as an Eastern Europe correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Camped out in the Holiday Inn, she became closely acquainted with the residents of Logavina Street: a typical Sarajevan street, populated by a diverse mix of Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats who had never experienced any kind of ethnic tension until war drove them apart.
Demick’s prose is straight talking and hard-hitting. She doesn’t shy away from graphic descriptions of the wartime carnage – and why should she, when her subjects dealt with it day in, day out? Her descriptions of severed limbs lying in pools of blood in the street are accompanied by stark photographs of mass funerals, destroyed buildings and skeletal figures in makeshift hospitals.
Alongside grief and death, Demick also conveys the amazing resourcefulness of Sarajevans under siege – whether by making French fries out of just flour, cornmeal, water, yeast and oil or by rerouting wires to steal rationed electricity from the police, the army and government offices. In creating something out of nothing, Sarajevans were able to defy their own mantra: “nema ništa,” or “there’s no nothing.”
The absurdity of pitting Muslims and Christians who had all previously lived harmoniously against each other is abundantly clear to Demick. Many of her subjects come from mixed families, having had diverse upbringings. Muslim Bosniaks wouldn’t dream of missing a midnight mass at Easter, and Orthodox Serbs pay their respects at local mosques. “If you watch a Sarajevo street scene for a few minutes, you will see brunettes, blonds, and redheads, blue eyes and brown eyes, tall and short people. They are diverse in appearance than the residents of many European capitals. You cannot tell a Serb, Croat, or Muslim by appearance,” she notes.
Perhaps for the same reason, religion is conspicuous by its absence in Galloway’s novel: an astute reader might identify the names of the novel’s protagonists as traditionally Serb or Muslim, but there’s no explicit mention of ethnicity. This is in keeping with Demick’s observations that ethnic tensions were artificially imposed in wartime on a city in which three religions had peacefully coexisted for decades – if not centuries – before.
This isn’t a novel about the geopolitics of war, but rather, about its individual victims. Galloway weaves together the stories of three individuals living in Sarajevo under siege: Kenan, who makes the perilous journey across the city every three days to collect water for his family; Dragan, whose wife and children fled the city, leaving him to his job in a local bakery; and Arrow, a former member of her university’s target-shooting team, since enlisted as a counter sniper. At the same time, the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra sits outside the city’s Opera Hall and plays Albinoni’s Adagio every day for 22 days, in memory of the 22 lives lost to shelling in the breadline.
Historical facts play a less important role in Galloway’s work than in Demick’s. In fact, Galloway’s loose interpretation of history has been the cause of considerable controversy. Vedran Smailović – the real cellist who inspired Galloway’s story (but who, it’s worth noting, is not a key character in the novel) has publicly expressed his outrage at being used in the story, although Galloway maintains that the cellist character was purely inspired by, and not based on, Smailović.
The Cellist of Sarajevo is poignant and compelling. Although economical with words, Galloway manages to portray the grim reality that was life in wartime Sarajevo, where a simple commute to work becomes a potentially fatal gamble with snipers and mortar shells.
Both Demick’s and Galloway’s works transport the reader to a world in which normal order no longer exists and survival of the fittest reigns. They remind us of the depths of human cruelty; but they’re also a testimony to human resilience in the face of adversity.
Barbara Demick’s Besieged: Life Under Fire on a Sarajevo Street and Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo are both available from Amazon, priced at £9.99 and £8.99 respectively.