SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Twenty years ago, as mortar shells began raining down on Sarajevo, killing his friends and neighbors, Vedran Smajlovic did what he knew best to help the city: he played his cello at funerals, in bomb shelters and in the streets.
Wearing full evening attire during what became relentless mortar and sniper fire, he was known as the Cellist of Sarajevo, recognized around the world as a symbol of artistic resistance to the madness of war.
On Thursday, Smajlovic returned to Sarajevo from Northern Ireland, where he now lives, to play his cello at one of the ceremonies being held to mark the 20th anniversary of the start of the 44-month Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo, part of the bloody 1991-95 Bosnian war.
At the Hotel Holiday Inn, he played a concert for a reunion of foreign journalists who had covered the war, and he was accompanied by members of the Sarajevo String Quartet who also had played music to shell-shocked citizens in the besieged Bosnian capital.
"They held 250 concerts in bomb shelters, in schools. They were hungry, but still had soul," Smajlovic told the visibly moved audience, then asked for a moment of silence for the war's innocent victims.
"You lost friends, I lost so many friends," he said, before he and the other musicians began playing "Remembrance," a soothing but mournful piece had had written for the event.
During the conflict, residents of Sarajevo never knew ahead of time when or where Smajlovic would be sitting and playing, alone or surrounded by citizens, journalists or rare foreign visitors who managed to enter the war-torn city to express solidarity with its residents. Those visitors included folk singer and peace activist Joan Baez, who once sat next to Smajlovic as he played on the street.
He left Sarajevo near the end of the Bosnian war for Northern Ireland.
Over the years he has returned to visit family and friends, but since the weapons fell silent he had never held a concert in his city, until Thursday.