The Cellist of Sarajevo depicts three weeks during the Siege of Sarajevo, which occurred during the Bosnian War of the 1990s. Rather than primarily portraying soldiers, the novel focuses on civilians. In doing so, Galloway shows that war affects everyone—even those who aren’t directly participating. War upends what people prioritize, how they act and behave, and it alters the most fundamental aspects of how they think.
The most obvious way in which the war changes the lives of the citizens of Sarajevo is by forcing them into a constant struggle for survival, through both the immediate threat of being shot by the army in the surrounding mountains, and through the longer term threat of limited food and water. The novel’s three main characters have different ways of enduring and reacting to these constant threats: Arrow works in the Sarajevo militia as a sniper to try to protect her city, Dragan makes his way through the dangerous streets to get a hot meal, and Kenan travels miles to get clean water for his family and neighbor. Even the most quotidian of these tasks exposes them to mortal danger, as Kenan is nearly hit by an exploding shell when seeking water, and Dragan is standing right near two people who are killed by enemy snipers while crossing a street.
In addition to the physical danger, the novel shows the psychological and emotional damage of the war. Arrow gives up her old identity to become a “weapon” for the Sarajevo militia, going so far as to renounce her old name in order to make a clean break from her previously carefree self. With her father dead, she cares for nothing now but doing as much as she can to hurt the snipers on the hill. Kenan is consumed by worry for his children, and he is terrified that his family will be in danger if they ever leave the house, even though he resents that his children cannot go outside and have normal childhood experiences. Kenan’s instinct is to care for his family at all costs, but the dangers outside nearly cause him to lose his generosity: in his mission to get water, Kenan recognizes how much easier it would be if he only had to carry water for his own family, and not for an elderly neighbor whom he naively promised to take care of when the war started. Dragan, meanwhile, sent his family to Italy so that they would be safe from the war. He has since isolated himself from all his old friends and he tries not to engage with anyone because in his hopelessness he can’t bear to remember what was normal in the streets before the siege began.
Ultimately, the novel portrays the journey of each character to prioritize emotional health over physical safety, since ensuring physical safety is impossible. Instead, the characters choose to reclaim and maintain their humanity despite the terrors of the war. After witnessing an old friend get wounded by a sniper, Dragan begins to reconnect to others. Likewise, instead of giving in to his impulse to close his heart to anyone but blood relations, Kenan forces himself to continue to get water for his neighbor and stay hopeful for his family. Arrow, meanwhile, leaves the Sarajevo militia when she is ordered to kill civilians instead of soldiers, despite knowing that she herself could be killed for desertion. The contrast between Arrow’s moral compass and the utilitarian mindset of the other militia members suggests that the civilians’ battle to maintain their humanity is more important than any aspect of the physical war. The Sarajevo militia, after all, has gotten to the point of engaging in immoral acts because it has lost its humanity. While war is a conflict between opposing sides, Galloway suggests that it is also an attack upon people’s sense of individual and communal humanity. And so, the novel suggests that once the war eventually ends, it is only the civilians with their humanity intact who can have any hope of rebuilding Sarajevo.
War, Civilians, and Humanity ThemeTracker
War, Civilians, and Humanity Quotes in The Cellist of Sarajevo
"You've never lived through a war. You have no idea what it will be like."
"It won't last long," he said. "The rest of Europe will do something to stop it from escalating."
She snorted. "That won't matter for me. I'm too old to do the things one must do in wartime to survive."
Kenan wasn't sure what she meant. He knew that she had been married just before the last war and that her husband was killed during the initial days of the German invasion. "It might not be that bad," he said, regretting it immediately, knowing it wasn't true.
"You have no idea," she repeated.
"Well," he said, "I will help you. Everyone in the building will help each other. You'll see."
Mrs. Ristovski picked up her coffee and took a sip. She didn't look at Kenan, refusing to acknowledge his smile. "We'll see," she said.
He's stopped talking to his friends, visits no one, avoids those who come to visit him. At work he says as little as possible. He can perhaps learn to bear the destruction of buildings, but the destruction of the living is too much for him. If people are going to be taken away from him, either through death or a transformation of their personality that makes them into strangers, then he's better off without them.
Men who are much older, have larger families, and are less suited to combat have enlisted. But Kenan hasn't. He knows the real reason.
He's afraid of dying. He may very well die at any time, whether he's in the army or not, but he feels that as a civilian his chances are lower, and if he's killed it will be unjust, whereas for a soldier death is part of the job.
She hopes that the girls, and the rest of the city hate the men on the hills for the same reason she does. Because they made her hate. They started a war, saying that the people of Sarajevo hated each other, and the people fought back, saying they didn't, that they were a city without hatred. But then the men on the hills started to kill and mutilate and destroy. And little by little they got what they wanted, a victory as clear as it would be if they could drive their tanks through the town. They made her, and people like her, hate them.