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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2496

The Cellist

The musician had been the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra, until the soldiers came and perched themselves on the hills surrounding the city. The resulting siege has been inexorable, and the city is being destroyed. Worst of all, the siege is destroying souls.

One afternoon, the...

(The entire section contains 2496 words.)

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The Cellist

The musician had been the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra, until the soldiers came and perched themselves on the hills surrounding the city. The resulting siege has been inexorable, and the city is being destroyed. Worst of all, the siege is destroying souls.

One afternoon, the cellist is standing by his window, watching his neighbors line up in the street below to buy bread. A mortar explodes among them. Exactly twenty-four hours later, the cellist descends the staircase leading from his apartment, carrying his cello and a stool to the small crater that marks the mortar's point of impact. In utter sadness, he sits and plays Albonini's Adagio, a composition which symbolizes hope rising from the ashes. The cellist resolves to do this each day for twenty-two days, one day for each of the twenty-two human beings killed there at that spot. He is not sure that he will survive, or that he even has twenty-two adagios in him, but he will try.


Arrow is not the real name of the young sniper who works alone, picking off the men on the hills who are destroying her city. It is the name she took when she discovered she hated those men in the hills; the woman she used to be hated nobody. When the war began, Arrow had been a member of the university sharp-shooting team. She had been approached by NerminFilipovic, a professional soldier, and asked to use her skills to shoot the enemy on the hills. At first, Arrow had refused. She did not want to shoot at people, but Nermin had convinced her that she would be saving lives. Arrow had finally relented, but insisted that she would not kill blindly, just because someone said she must.

One day, Nermin takes Arrow to the heart of the city, where a shell had landed a few days before, killing a large number of people. As they wait, a tall man with "the saddest face she has ever seen" emerges from a building, calmly sets down a stool and sits on it, and begins to play an instrument. Arrow listens and is taken back into an absurd blend of memories, past and present. When the musician is finished, Nermin tells Arrow that the cellist has pledged to play for twenty-two days; this is the eighth day, and the opposition is determined to eliminate him because of what he stands for. It is Arrow's assignment to keep the cellist alive.

In the morning, Arrow explores the area surrounding the spot where the cellist will perform later that day. She cannot fathom what he hopes to achieve with his playing, but she senses that somehow it is important. Arrow is very good at what she does and soon has determined the most likely location from which the enemy will choose to fire. She picks her own spot, sets her trap, and waits. When the cellist comes out, Arrow knows that his killer is ready, but nothing happens. The music begins and ends, and the cellist retreats; he is still alive and will return to play again tomorrow.

The next day, acutely aware of the enemy's presence, Arrow again lies in wait. As the cellist begins his piece, she realizes that she is learning to anticipate the notes of the sad dirge and is simultaneously mystified as to why the sniper does not make his move. Suddenly, she inexplicably senses danger and hits the floor as a bullet rips into her own window. Outwitted, she waits for the sound of the second shot that will kill the cellist, but it does not come, and she does not know why.

On Arrow's third day and the cellist's tenth, she watches and waits yet again. This time, she has the enemy sniper in her sights. When she sees that he has a clear shot but does not take it, she is confused, but then she studies his face through her scope and perceives that he is listening to the music. Arrow "does not want to pull her trigger...because she can see that he doesn't want to pull his," but she knows what she must do. As the music ends, she takes her shot, hitting the sniper squarely between the eyes.

Nermin is glad when Arrow reports that she has neutralized the enemy sniper, but he also has other things on his mind. The defenders of the city have broken into factions, and he can no longer protect Arrow from those who are corrupt; it is time for her to disappear. Soon after she leaves Nermin, the building in which he has his headquarters explodes, and he is killed. Arrow considers fleeing the city, but she knows that she will lose something of herself if she does.

Colonel Edin Karaman, the leader of the new controlling faction of the military, summons Arrow and tells her that she is now under his command. As a test of her skills, she is ordered to shoot a civilian, but she refuses. Arrow goes into hiding, but continues to watch over the cellist. His music has become a part of her; it affirms her certainty "that the world still [holds] the capacity for goodness."


Kenan looks to be over fifty, but he is only thirty-nine. He lives with his wife and children in an apartment in Sarajevo. There has been no functioning sewage system in the city since the beginning of the siege, and electricity is available for only a few hours a day. Worst of all, there is no running water, so every four days, Kenan gathers all the plastic bottles he can carry and makes the dangerous trek across the city to the brewery, where water can be gathered from an underground spring. On the way, he stops at the apartment of his neighbor, Mrs. Ristovski, a cantankerous old woman who lives alone. Kenan fetches water for her too, even though she is rude and ungrateful, and will give him only bottles without handles, which are particularly difficult to carry on his arduous journey.

Kenan is terrified of the trip he must make, but somehow he finds the strength, because he must. As he traverses the city, he views the destruction all around. Food is scarce, but still, in the midst of deprivation, there are men who drive around in fancy sports cars. They are clearly the beneficiaries of the black market industry, and Kenan wonders what kind of men they are that they can justify profiting off "trapped and starving people like him."

Kenan manages to make it safely to his destination, but just when he is finished filling his water jugs, shells begin to fall upon the desperate people gathered there at the brewery. In the midst of the carnage, Kenan finds himself paralyzed by fear. He is thankful that he does not run away like some of his fellow citizens, but wishes he had the courage of those who are able to face the danger and tend to the wounded and dying around them. As it is, Kenan does nothing, and when the immediate terror subsides, he begins his homeward journey, fearful and exhausted. Mrs. Ristovski'shandleless bottles slow him down considerably, and he finds himself filled with resentment at the extra burden she has placed on him. When shells fall again, Kenan is brought to the limits of his endurance. He hides the old woman's bottles under a bridge, and goes on, carrying only his own.

As Kenan forges onward, he recalls having heard about a tunnel, which is large enough to get all the children out of Sarajevo. Sadly, it is controlled by racketeers and used to line the pockets of a corrupt few. This evil element intercepts humanitarian aid sent by the outside world and extorts exorbitant prices from desperate citizens for basic needs. As Kenan struggles on, ruminating about the injustices and the soulless men who perpetrate it, he suddenly hears music: a lone cellist is sitting in the middle of a ruined street, playing for no one and everyone. The musician's action at first seems futile to Kenan, but the melody evokes a flood of memories, "familiar and full of pride." As he watches and listens, Kenan finds himself calmed. For just one moment, the world has returned to normalcy, and he is healed.

When the piece ends and the cellist leaves, Kenan looks at the people around him. They too have paused to hear the music, and some have brought flowers, which they place in a pile on the ground. In his mind, Kenan sees the dead among the living, and it occurs to him that "to be a ghost while you're still alive is the worst thing he can imagine."

Kenan will not be a ghost. Buoyed with new resolve, he retraces his steps to retrieve the cumbersome water bottles for his recalcitrant neighbor Mrs. Ristovski.


When the war began, Dragan had been able to get his wife and teenage son out of Sarajevo, but he himself remained behind. He is one of the fortunate few in the city who still has a job; he works at the bakery, and today, he is going there to get something to eat. The walk across the city is fraught with danger, especially at the intersections, where the snipers on the surrounding hills pick off pedestrians at will. Citizens gather in whatever shelter is available near the street corners, trying to gather the courage to sprint across the treacherous terrain. If someone is cut down during the crossing, it is not even a big deal any longer: "now people are used to seeing other people being shot in the street."

At the main intersection between Marshal Tito's Barracks and the Energoinvest Tower, Dragan runs into someone he knows, a woman named Emina, who is a friend of his wife. Although Dragan tries to avoid interaction these days, Emina sees him, and he has no choice but to engage with her in conversation. Huddled behind a parked railcar that provides safety from the men on the hills, the two talk about their families as well as the war neither had thought would drag on for so long. Both cling to the empty hope that other countries will intervene on their behalf, but both know that no help is coming. Emina is on an errand to deliver some old medication she had in her house to someone who needs it. Dragan is impressed with her altruism and struggles to remember what it was like to be civilized.

As the conversation wanes, Dragan decides that it is time for him to make the dangerous crossing. Ducking his head, he begins to run, but when a bullet whizzes past his ear, he panics and races back the way he came. Emina grabs him as he reaches the safety of the railcar, and others there ask if he is all right. Dragan has never actually been shot at before. As he regains his composure, he realizes, for the first time in a while, that he is glad to be alive.

As he waits at the corner and tries to work up the courage to cross again, Dragan learns from Emina that there is a cellist who performs every day near the market where many people recently died as they lined up for bread. Emina wonders why the musician plays. After thinking about it for a short time, Dragan suggests that maybe it is because he wants to stop things from getting worse, and it is the only thing he knows how to do. Emina decides that it is time for her to cross, and she joins the brave people who are stepping out into the street. A shot rings out, and Emina falls. A young man rushes out to help her, while another man with a hat just runs on by. Just before the man with the hat reaches safety, a second shot echoes through the air, and he is cut down.

Emina's injury is fortunately only a flesh wound, and a car which passes for an ambulance comes and takes her away. Dragan knows he should have been the one to rescue her, but he had not stepped forward for the simple reason that he was afraid. He is forced to accept the undeniable truth that he "is not built for war," but that Sarajevo under siege is his inescapable reality. It occurs to Dragan that as much as he wants to get out of the city, it is his home. If he can just somehow retain his sense of self and endure, there is hope that life will be good again.

A man with a camera appears on the corner then, and his presence makes Dragan angry. For some reason, he does not want the body of the man with the hat exploited on film. He remembers the cellist, who is doing what he can, no matter how insignificant it seems, so as not to let things get worse. Almost without thinking, Dragan jumps up and races out to the body, dragging it awkwardly back to the shelter of the railcar as the sniper shoots once and then again. For the moment, he is fearless, and when his humble mission is complete, he looks over to the cameraman with the defiant thought, "I will not live in a city where dead bodies lie abandoned in the streets."

Kenan will complete the task begun by Emina, delivering the medicine to a person in need. He will not run across the street, but will walk with head held high, defying fear, and even death. Emerging from his lethargy, Kenan takes the initiative and greets a surprised fellow citizen on the street. He has rediscovered his strength and will be a leader among those who, under unspeakable conditions, would retain their humanity.


When the cellist is done playing on the twenty-second day, he goes over to the pile of flowers that have been left by those who have come to listen. With tears streaming down his face, he drops his bow among the wilted blooms and returns to the apartment without looking back.

Though there have been no more snipers after the one that she had killed, Arrow has watched over the cellist and has kept him safe through her presence. Later on the day of his last performance, she goes down to the pile of flowers and places her rifle gently beside the musician's bow. That night, she returns to her own apartment for the first time since defying Karaman.

Arrow knows that they will come for her, and she will not fight back. Though she has killed, and even at times succumbed to hate, she has not lost sight of that which makes her human. In the moment before the soldiers break down her door to kill her, she relinquishes her battle name, and declares with quiet triumph, "My name is Alisa."

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