A Message of Peace In the Language of Music
THE haunting strains of the beautiful Irish melody ``Londonderry Air'' hung in the thin cold of a winter's day in Belfast. A small group of people listened to a cellist playing passionately. This impromptu street concert had a special poignancy, because the cellist played outside a betting shop in a Catholic area of the city where five people had died not long before in a hail of gunfire from so-called Protestant loyalists.
But this was no ordinary cellist: Vedran Smailovic had come from the horrors of Sarajevo to show solidarity with the people of Northern Ireland through the language of music, which crosses all international barriers. His message, in halting English, was simple: ``I lived for 20 months in Sarajevo. During that time, 12,000 people died, including 2,000 children, and nearly 60,000 civilians were injured. I have seen so much suffering and heartbreak. I say to the people of Ireland ... please, no more suffering. I say to those who bomb and shoot innocent people ... please, no more blood.''
The people of Belfast have had many international visitors, but few like Vedran Smailovic.
BORN in Sarajevo, Smailovic is the only son of the Bosnian composer Avdo Smailovic. His four sisters are also full-time musicians. (Moria Smailovic plays the piano, and Vildana, Dika, and Violeta all play the violin.)
Under the direction of his father and together with his sister Vildana's husband, viola player Vlado Repse, the family formed a group called Musica Ad Hominem - music for the people. Instead of waiting for an audience, the group took the music to the people. They made a point of playing in villages and also devised special programs for children.
This philosophy later led Smailovic to pick up his cello and play on the streets of Sarajevo. He has ``performed'' outside the city's National Library, at the site of the ``bread-queue'' massacre, at cemeteries, and at a stadium on the front line. He was frequently fired on by snipers, but this did not deter Smailovic, who claimed his cello was his own special weapon.
When asked his religion, the cellist replies, ``Musician.'' When asked his ethnic origins, he replies ``Musician.'' When asked about the warring factions, he will tell you that there are only two sides, ``the sane and the insane.''
He has seen enough insanity to last a lifetime. With the siege of Sarajevo, he was trapped in the city. With the destruction of the national theater and concert halls, he took to the streets to play with a group he had formed, the Sarajevo Opera String Quartet. Within months, two members of the quartet had been killed by mortar fire or snipers. Thus Smailovic began playing as a soloist, a living memorial to the dead. He risked his life daily as mortar shells and bullets flew around him. His courage soon attracted international attention. Last December, friends brought him out of the country.
Since then, Smailovic has played live before tens of thousands of people, has been seen around the world on television, and has given dozens of interviews. Yet he has no home of his own.
If you ask him his mission, he'll tell you that what is happening in Sarajevo is not about ethnic strife but about exploiting people's fears and differences as a way to gain power and political advantage. He will tell you that the fires engulfing Sarajevo are burning everywhere, and that Sarajevo is our warning to put an end to such madness.
It seemed totally appropriate, on that cold winter morning in Belfast, that such a man was paying homage to such a troubled city and province. The day before, he had travelled to Enniskillen, some 80 miles southwest of Belfast, to play his cello at the War Memorial where 10 people died in 1987 when an IRA bomb went off without warning. He'd also made a point to meet Senator Gordon Wilson, whose daughter Marie died in the blast.
Senator Wilson unwittingly became internationally known when he told a television reporter in the depths of his grief: ``I bear no ill will. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life....''
After Enniskillen, Smailovic travelled to Londonderry, some 70 miles north of Belfast, where there are signs of progress and regeneration after much violence. On the journey back to Belfast, a local musician and conductor, Alan Tongue, taught him the tune of ``Londonderry Air'' (also called ``Danny Boy''), which he played faultlessly the next day at the scene of the betting-shop massacre.
Earlier on that Sunday morning, Smailovic had travelled to Shankill Road in the Protestant heartland of Belfast, where an IRA bomb had killed nine people last October and injured many others. He took off his heavy overcoat and, despite the chilly air, sat down and played Albinoni's Adagio - the piece of music he played in Sarajevo at the site of the ``bread-queue'' massacre. When asked about his selection, he replied ``I don't `choose' the music as such. It just comes to me, and it seemed right that I would play this music at this place.''
AFTER he had finished, a peace worker walked across and presented him with a small plastic cup that contained two tiny snowdrops, a symbol of hope and the promise of new life despite the chilly gloom. Someone else produced a small candle, which Smailovic placed tenderly in the center of the cup. He then lit the candle and gently placed the cup on the pavement, where only a few months earlier there had been pain, terror, and chaos as rescue workers had frantically pulled bodies from the rubble brought down by the IRA bomb.
The cup with its candle and little snowdrops looked so vulnerable, but its symbolism was embedded in the Bible text pinned to its outside, ``And what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?'' It was a message not just for beleaguered Belfast, but for all of Ireland and for all of warring mankind.
On the Protestant Shankill Road, the churches were emptying after morning services, and the worshippers, many of them neatly dressed ladies with feathered hats, looked with surprise and curiosity at this odd figure playing the cello. There was respect and approval, but a little Sunday- morning reserve. Over at the Catholic betting shop, the street children played around Smailovic. He left Belfast with the good wishes of the people ringing in his ears.