Sarajevo, August 1993
The day before my 39th birthday, I was reporting on what came to be called the Dobrinja water-queue massacre in the besieged city of Sarajevo – people killed while waiting in line for drinking water from an outdoor tap. I had arrived on the scene just as bodies were being removed, leaving a trail of plastic water containers neatly curved in a row, surrounded by pools of blood that men were hosing away, occasionally scurrying from the sniper fire coming at them.
On my birthday itself I felt like doing something else, in counterpoint to the killings: listening to a performance of Joseph Haydn’s String Trio Op 8 No 6 in the city’s blacked-out National Theatre. This was part of a Summer in the Chamber series of lunchtime concerts – the kind of thing the citizens organised and attended not so as to belittle what was happening but to remind themselves they were still alive. The programme that day had been intended for the Sarajevo String Quartet, but they had been reduced to a trio after the second violinist, Momir Vlačić, was killed by a mortar shell that hit a flight of steps behind the Conservatoire as he arrived for rehearsal.
The two movements in the key of C Minor – which Mozart and Beethoven would later associate with struggle and intensity – were written as a piano trio, transposed this afternoon for violin, viola and cello. Outside the theatre, another brutal day: five civilians, one of them a child, were killed as mortars, one aimed at the main hospital, pounded the city. But here behind the blackened windows, a mesmerised audience gathered around some residual hearth of defiant civilisation.