Posted in Books, History, Music

The siege of Sarajevo


Vedran Smailovic playing in the destroyed building of the National Library in Sarajevo, 1992. Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev


Radovan Karadzic was in the news a few months ago, appearing on TV screens as an old and tired man. I would not have paid much attention to him, if I hadn’t  recently read a novel based on the siege of Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Radovan, b.1945, a Bosnian Serb,  was the president of the Republic of Srpska from1992-96 during the Bosnian war. He wanted to unify Srpska with Serbia.Sarajevo was part of the struggle.

Sarajevo, located in a valley through which the Miljacka river flows, has a chequered history. It became a city under the Ottomans in the 15th century, though it has ancient settlements, the neolithic Butmir culture, with flint tools and pottery. This was followed by the Illyrian culture, and later there was Roman occupation. In the Middle Ages it was part of the province of Vrhbosna in the Bosnian kingdom. In 1875 Austria-Hungary took over the region, though technically it remained under the Ottomans. In 1885 it was so advanced, that it had an electric tram network, only the second city in the world to have one, after San Francisco. In 1914 the archduke of Austria was assassinated here, and the First World War started. After this, it became part of Yugoslavia. In World War II it was captured by Germany and formed part of Utashe’s independent state of Croatia. After the war, it was again part of Yugoslavia, as the capital of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia, on 3 March 1992, but the Serbs did not accept this. The  Bosnian Serbs wanted a new state, Republika Sprska, that would include some Bosnian areas. At first the Yugoslav army besieged Sarajevo, and then Sprska forces from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996. A siege force of about 13,000 encircled the city on the hills, and attacked with artillery, tanks and guns. Though there were 70,000 Bosnian troops in the city, they were poorly equipped. Snipers on the hills shot people on the streets.

The siege of Sarajevo was possibly the longest siege of modern times. Sarajevo at that time was a city of about 500,000 people, but several were killed and 70,000 Sarajevan Serbs left and went to Republika Sprska. According to UN estimates, almost 11,541 people were killed, and 56,000 wounded.  Fifteen hundred children were among those dead and 15,000 among the injured. Hundreds of shells hit the city every day and in one case, 22 July 1993, there were 3777. Finding ways to survive, ‘Sarajevo Roses’ was a poetic name given to craters created by shells.Ten thousand apartments were destroyed, and thousands more damaged.

There are more than 20 books, films, plays, and songs on the siege, as well as two video games. How accurate are these?  And is accuracy important in fiction?

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Stephen Galloway dramatizes a real incident that took place. According to the book, on the afternoon of 27 May 1992, mortar shells hit a group of people waiting to buy bread behind the market on Vase Miskina. Twenty-two people were killed and more than 70 injured. To honour the dead, a well-known cellist of the city, came to the exact spot at the same time for 22 days, and played on his cello. Every day he played the same piece, Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor. There were snipers on the hills, and the cellist could have been killed at any time, but he played on. The book is quite gripping, revealing the life of ordinary people living under a terrible siege. Water, power, health care, and life itself were all problematic.

The real cellist, Vedran Smailovic did not appreciate the book. He said he did not play for 22 days, but every day for two years, at different times and in different places. He was not so crazy that he would go to the same place every day. He was also annoyed that the writer never met him or asked him his version of events.

In real life, Smailovic, playing his cello in the midst of ruined buildings, became a symbol for the whole world. Impressed, Joan Baez joined him one day. But the man himself did not want publicity. He left Sarajevo in December 1993 and moved to northern Ireland.  He lives in Warrenpoint in an attic flat overlooking Carlingford Lough, where he composes music and plays chess.

Vedran was the focus of another book too, this time for children. But in this case, the author, Elizabeth Wellburn, actually worked with Vedran, and consulted him, producing a more authentic account, Echoes from the Square. This fictionalized story of Vedran, has an added character of a young boy, and was published in 1998. The boy’s life is almost destroyed by the war, but hearing Vedran playing every day gives him courage. This picture book illustrated by Deryk Houston,  is available as an audio book on youtube.

History records massacres at Sarajevo worse than that described in the book. In the Markale marketplace massacre on 5 February 1994, 68 civilians were killed and 200 wounded; there was a second Markale massacre on 28 August, with 37 killed, 90 wounded. Others provided records of the siege. There was no light, no gas, no water, no schools, phones, transport or industry. ‘We learned to live by candlelight again,’said Resad Tribonj.

A memorial of 521 children killed was erected on 10 May 2009. The case of 500 more children was being investigated.

Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic were charged with war crimes in 1996.

And to get back to the question of whether accuracy is important in historical fiction. Steven Galloway’s account of the cellist was not accurate. Even so, it led me to read more about him, and about that terrible siege, and  about Sarajevo itself. But would a more accurate portrayal have detracted from the book? I don’t think so–in fact it would have improved it. To know what the cellist thought, how he chose the different places in which to play every day–it would actually have taken the book to a higher level.




A writer with ten published books and several articles, book reviews etc. I primarily write on history and religion, but also philosophical fiction.

4 thoughts on “The siege of Sarajevo

  1. What an interesting post! It raises so many questions. I knew I’d read of the cellist of Sarajevo before, and then remembered seeing a review of Echoes from the Square. I don’t think I’d heard of Stephen Galloway’s book. It seems strange to me that anyone would write fiction with a living hero without contacting him.

    Nowadays I believe fiction writers should aim for accuracy regardless of the time/place settings they use. However, I’m also aware that over the years I’ve enjoyed many works of historical fiction that weren’t accurate, but which sent me in search of “the facts”. Even later, of course, I discovered that what is accepted as fact can often be questioned, too!

    And how should we define “historical fiction”? Some years back I wrote a novel set in the early years of the 20th century. I felt irked when my friends referred to it as “historical”. That was partly because, at the time I was writing, the period was still within living memory.

    But my irritation also made me realise that I regarded historical novels as those written to explore an actual person, event, or period through the medium of fiction. Whereas (I told my friends) I was writing a novel about a bunch of people who just happened to be living in an environment that bore more than a passing resemblance to New Zealand circa 1912.

    I’m still wondering about that!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am glad you liked the post–your comment raises even more points. When I read Galloway’s book, I really liked it–but my admiration diminished after I read the views of the real cellist. I too believe that fiction writers should aim for accuracy, though as you say, even inaccurate historical fiction leads to a search for facts, and then to ponder over ‘facts’ themselves. The events in this book belong to the 1990s–yet I would classify it as historical fiction. Is there a cut-off date? Would like to read your novel–what is it called?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, the cut-off date I was applying (unconsciously, until I had to explain myself to my friends) was within living memory. But now I wonder. That was probably a hangover from my childhood, when I wouldn’t have regarded a novel set during my grandparents’ lifetimes as historical.

      My novel is called The Stove Rake. (The publishers wouldn’t let me hyphenate that.) The title was taken from a Hans Christian Andersen story about a snowman who was built around a stove-rake, and so conceived a passion for the stove. It was published in 2002 by HarperCollins NZ, but released only in NZ and Australia. It’s out of print now – I’m thinking of putting it on Kindle, but that’s a way off. It got some very good reviews, and some “what on earth is this?” ones. With the benefit of hindsight, I think it was slightly under-written; I’m a pretty tight writer, and usually need to put more words in, rather than take them out.


  3. Thinking about it–the Sarajevo siege is just twenty years ago–would I call something ten years ago historical? Probably not–but grandparents, the turn of the century, definitely. Your novel sounds interesting–do put it on kindle–it is quite simple.

    Liked by 1 person

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