The Cellist of Sarajevo


Steven Galloway

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The Cellist of Sarajevo Summary

A cellist in Sarajevo plays a piece called Albinoni’s Adagio to help himself stay hopeful in the midst of the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. As he is playing, a shell hits the bakery outside the cellist’s apartment building, killing 22 people who were in line to buy bread.

Meanwhile, a sniper who calls herself Arrow targets soldiers who are attacking Sarajevo. She never wanted to be a soldier and isn’t comfortable with killing, but her hatred of what the men on the hill have done to Sarajevo fuels her rage. Changing her name to Arrow during the war allows her to distance herself from her old aversion to killing enough to make herself a weapon so she can defend her city. She shoots a soldier, for no reason other than that he is a solider on the other side. On the other side of town, Kenan, a middle-aged Sarajevan father, wakes up and gets ready for the dangerous trip to get his family water at a brewery. He doesn’t want to go out into the streets, but he knows he has to so that his family can survive. Furthermore, he has promised Mrs. Ristovski, his elderly neighbor, that he would help her make it through the war.

Out on the streets of Sarajevo, an older man named Dragan remembers the peace and happiness of the old Sarajevo as he walks to the bakery to get bread. He wishes they could all return to that past, but he suspects that the perfect Sarajevo he remembers never actually existed. His wife, Raza, and teenage son, Davor, escaped to Italy when the war began. Now Dragan lives with his sister and isolates himself from everyone in his old life. Dragan stops at an intersection and hides behind some boxcars as he waits for the right moment to go out into the street where snipers might shoot him.

Kenan tries to pretend that he is going for a normal walk to work in his old life. He greets an old friend Ismet, who has become a solider for the Sarajevo militia. Kenan is ashamed that he has avoided the draft so far, but he truly wants nothing to do with death and killing. Kenan then passes the old Music Academy and the tram station, thinking of all the civilized things that the war has destroyed. He reaches the Miljacka River that runs through Sarajevo and decides to walk down to the Princip Bridge instead of braving the Cumurija Bridge that has been reduced to steel girders after multiple mortars. But the Princip Bridge is currently being targeted by snipers and Kenan has to walk all the way down to the Seher Cehaja Bridge.

Arrow goes to report to her commander, Nermin Filipovic. When Arrow first started as a sniper, Nermin promised that Arrow would be able to pick her own targets. But now Nermin has a special assignment for Arrow: protecting a cellist who has decided to play an Adagio for 22 days to memorialize the victims of a recent shelling attack.

Dragan remains stuck at the intersection, after seeing a couple get shot at as they crossed. He sees an old friend of his wife’s, a woman named Emina. Emina strikes up a conversation though Dragan tries to stay distant. After chatting for a while, they wish together that the world would pay attention to what is happening in Sarajevo and that people could be kind and caring again. Dragan eventually decides to try to cross the street, but gets shot at before he makes it halfway. He runs back to the side where Emina is still waiting.

Back with the cellist, Arrow stakes out the area where the cellist plays in the street. She decides that the enemy sniper will likely hide in a building to the east, so she chooses an abandoned apartment in the southwest where she can counter if the sniper tries to shoot. She sets up a decoy apartment for the sniper to shoot at first, hoping to get the sniper to reveal his position before he targets the cellist. At four in the afternoon, the cellist comes out to play. Arrow thinks she sees the sniper in one of the apartments across the square, but the sniper never shoots.

On his way to the lower bridge, Kenan passes the burned National Library and mourns the loss of culture and civilization in the city. He reaches the bridge and runs across erratically, hoping to confuse any potential sniper. At the other side, Kenan drops Mrs. Ristovski’s bottles, making him think again how much he resents having to help this woman who has always been mean to him and his family.

Dragan and Emina continue to talk, sharing their deep fears of being wounded or killed as they walk through their city. Emina tells Dragan about a cellist who is playing in the streets, doing what he can to keep hope alive in Sarajevo even if he can’t accomplish anything to truly end the war. After watching a dog walk across the street safely, Emina decides to try to cross. As she does, a man with a hat crosses from the other side. A sniper shoots Emina in the arm, and man with the hat does not stop to help Emina. Dragan stays stuck on the side of the road while another young man leaps into the line of fire to carry Emina to safety. Emina and the young man make it back to the boxcar but the man with the hat gets shot in the stomach. The sniper then hits the man with the hat in the head, blowing the man’s hat over to Dragan’s feet.

Arrow goes back to the cellist’s street the next morning. She sees a flowers placed on the street as a memorial to victims of the bakery attack and wonders when she stopped feeling anything for the dead. Arrow glances up at her decoy apartment and her hiding place, then realizes that the sniper is watching her. She hurries away, hoping the sniper hasn’t figured out her plan. By four o’clock, Arrow is again hidden in the apartment waiting for the sniper to shoot at the decoy so she can kill him. The cellist comes out and begins to play again. Unfortunately, the sniper is hiding in the decoy apartment and shoots into Arrow’s hiding spot before she can react. Arrow doges the bullet, then waits for the second shot that will kill the cellist. Yet the sniper still doesn’t shoot the cellist.

Arrow reports to Nermin, who warns her that the Sarajevo militia will soon try to take control of Arrow’s talents and use them for their own purposes. The next day, Arrow goes back to her hiding place and waits for the sniper to show himself again; he shows himself as soon as the cellist comes out to play. Arrow plans to shoot him, but stops when she sees that the sniper is genuinely listening to the cellist’s music. Arrow struggles with the ethical dilemma of shooting this man, then sends a bullet into the sniper’s head just as the cellist finishes. Arrow wishes the cellist would acknowledge what she just did for him, but the cellist goes inside without looking up at Arrow at all.

Kenan makes it to the brewery and waits to fill up his containers. As he gets to the front of the line, the brewery is hit by mortars. Kenan is shocked by the violence and suffering surrounding him, and he cannot move even to help the injured. All he can do is finish filling up his bottles and start the long journey toward home. With the lower bridges under attack from the shelling, Kenan is forced up to the precarious Cumurija Bridge. Finding it too hard to cross while carrying Mrs. Ristovski’s bottles as well as his own, Kenan leaves Mrs. Ristovski’s bottles behind.

At Dragan’s intersection, people help Emina into a car to go to the hospital for her arm. All Dragan can do is hold her blue coat, cursing himself for not helping Emina get to safety and noticing how the color of the coat contrasts with the gray of the city. As the car drives away, Dragan thinks about how he gave up on Sarajevo in the hopelessness of war. Though dreaming of escaping to Italy to be with his family, Dragan decides he will stay in Sarajevo and try to remake the home he once had here.

Arrow has another meeting with Nermin to tell him she killed the sniper even though the sniper never shot. Nermin tells Arrow to disappear so that the Sarajevo militia will not force her to compromise her morals any further. Nermin himself is leaving the army now that the people in power are so focused on winning the war that they are destroying everything that Sarajevo once stood for. As Arrow leaves the office, Nermin’s office building explodes from the inside. In her own apartment that night, three soldiers appear and force Arrow to report to Colonel Karaman. The colonel assigns Arrow to a new mission where she will not be allowed to choose her targets.

Kenan makes it through the city back to the market where he sees Ismet once again. As Ismet goes to barter for food, Kenan sees a well-fed man with a Mercedes accepting a shipment of water to sell on the black market. Kenan is so angry that people like this take advantage of the starving and trapped Sarajevans that he goes to confront this man. Kenan is then distracted by the sound of a cellist playing in the street. The music helps Kenan remember the old Sarajevo. He promises to himself that he won’t let the war make him bitter, so that he can help restore Sarajevo after the war. Kenan decides to go back for Mrs. Ristovski’s water bottles.

Arrow is taken to the bombed out Parliament Building, where a soldier named Hasan becomes her spotter. Hasan orders Arrow to shoot a civilian walking through enemy controlled territory in Sarajevo. Arrow wrestles with her conscience, feeling her rage at the enemy and her pain at all she has lost. But Arrow decides not to shoot the civilian and runs from the Parliament Building, though she knows this makes her a defector. Meanwhile, at his intersection Dragan sees a journalist setting up a camera to record the dead body of the man who tried to cross. Dragan suddenly realizes that he does not want this image of destruction to be what the world sees of Sarajevo. Before the journalist finishes, Dragan risks sniper fire to drag the body out of the street. He gets the body behind the boxcars and returns the man’s hat.

Four days after Kenan got water, it is time for the journey to the brewery again. After hearing the cellist for the last four days, Kenan is far more hopeful. He faces the journey for water with new bravery as a way to keep Sarajevo alive. Dragan also decides to do what he can to restore the spirit of the old Sarajevo. He calmly walks across the street so that he can go hear the cellist play, and commits himself to connecting with the people around him, greeting people on the street instead of hiding. That night, Arrow waits in her apartment for the soldiers to come get her. She has protected the cellist through his 22 day memorial. She now reclaims her old name – Alisa – and accepts death rather than continuing to kill out of hatred.