Syrian Violence vs. Our Humanity

Sarajevo, City of Hope

Sometimes it takes a good novel to put me back in touch with my humanity. This past weekend, Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo served to make the ongoing horrors in Syria real to me.

I must admit that I’ve been shutting off my emotions around the Assad regime’s determination to retain power at any price, including having his troops massacre entire civilian populations. The news coming out of the country has been so grim and seems so hopeless that I’ve been trying to ignore it. I pretend that the statistics are just numbers, not actual people.

I still don’t believe we should intervene militarily. Intervention in a situation as complex as this one can lead to yet more suffering and death, as we should have learned (and perhaps did) in Iraq. But one must still open one’s heart to those suffering, even if we can’t step in and directly fix the situation. That’s what The Cellist of Sarajevo reminded me.

The book is set during the three-year siege of Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and is based on actual events. The city is surrounded by Bosnian Serbs who are prepared to level the city from their positions in the surrounding hills. Snipers pick off the Muslims civilians as they venture out to do necessary chores. At one point a bomb directed into an open market kills 22 people.

And that’s where the lead cellist of Sarajevo’s Philharmonic comes in. For 22 consecutive days he ventures out to the spot where the bomb fell and performs, one day for each victim. We see the soul-preserving impact it has on the other citizens, including three who are featured in parallel stories: a man who must venture out once a week to get water for his family, a man who must go to work in a bakery, and a women who is a former member of the national rifle team and is now a crack sniper.

We get to know each of these characters individually. Suddenly, war’s victims have a face. None of them are heroes—indeed, the two men acknowledge not having the courage to fight—and yet each heroically battles to stave off soul-killing numbness. The sniper, who has taken on a new name, fears that she will never reclaim her old one. Her greatest existential crisis occurs when there is a policy shift in the Bosnian army and she is called upon, not only to kill soldiers in the hills, but Bosnian Serb citizens in the city.

The cellist’s music helps her to stay in touch with her moral compass. Her job, at first official and then unofficial, is to protect the cellist from enemy snipers, who want to break the city’s morale and sees him as a threat. In looking out for him, she finds her calling:

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 cpacity for goodness. The notes were proof of that.

Just as the cellist comes to her moral rescue, the Cellist of Sarajevo can come to ours.

A note on the painting: The above painting was commissioned by the Spanish embassy for the reconstructed Sarajevo library, which was deliberately destroyed during the siege. The back story of the painting can be found at

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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