Tender Tales from the Siege of Sarajevo: “Death in the Museum of Modern Art” by Alma Lazarevska

Last week I discovered Istros Books (@Istros_books) – an independent London-based press championing great literature from the Balkans. It is dedicated to publishing high-quality works that can transcend national interest and speak in the common voice of human experience. If, for you, the words “Southeastern/Eastern Europe” conjure up images of “grey tower blocks” and “pickled cabbage”, this wonderful initiative hopes to change that. “Istros”, the publishers state on their website:

is the old Greek and Thracian name for the lower Danube River, which winds its way down from its source in Germany it flows into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and goes on to cross many of the countries of South-East Europe: Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. Its watershed also extends to other neighbouring countries, with one of the main Danubian tributaries, the Sava, serving Slovenia and Bosnia/Herzegovina, while also feeding the waterways of Macedonia and Montenegro.

Death in the Museum of Modern Art (1996) by Alma Lazarevska translated by Celia Hawkesworth (2014, Istros Books)

I just finished my first Istros book – Death in the Museum of Modern Art (2014) by Bosnian writer Alma Lazarevska (information about her is available only on Bosnian Wikipedia as of now). The book has been translated by Celia Hawkesworth, an award-winning Slavic scholar who was Senior Lecturer at University College London for many years. When it was originally published in 1996, it was named the “Best Book” of the year by the Society of Writers of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Lazarevska, a graduate of the University of Sarajevo, has made Sarajevo the subject of her collection of essays Sarajevo Solitaire as well as her novel The Sign of the Rose. Death in the Museum of Modern Art deals mainly with the Siege of Sarajevo (5 April 1992–29 February 1996). It is through this event, and the Srebrenica Massacre, I believe, that the international community understands the wider context of the Bosnian War (6 April 1992–14 December 1995).

The government building in the centre of Sarajevo burns after being hit by tank fire during the siege in 1992 (Photo by User “Mikhail Evstafiev”, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikipedia)

Lazarevska’s project is similar to the collection The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq (on the Iraq War; just published on it last month) by Finland-based Iraqi writer and filmmaker Hassan Blasim – but her writing is more mellow than macabre. Furthermore, she avoids, as the publishers say, “the easy traps of politics and blame”. There are no discussions on (or even references to) the identities, ideologies and activities of the Serbs, the Croats and the Bosniaks. There are no positions taken or perspectives advocated. (As a foreign reader, I wanted a more detailed back story. I did get frustrated by the lack of social, cultural and historical information. But perhaps that was precisely the intention of the author – to make “fairytales” out of the Siege and avoid a manner of writing that might look like academic or journalistic discourse.)

In Death in the Museum of Modern Art, the narrative – through six dense but delicate stories – focuses on little, normal things – coffee, curtains, candles. Yet, we can feel that everything occurs under the shadow of snipers, and bombs. Now and then we are given hard and cold facts about what existence is really like in the “besieged city”. Towards the end, there is an awareness that the faces of the people caught in this conflict “will be displayed to the gaze of the whole world wide” (their thoughts on “death” are being turned into art in a museum in New York). Food and medical aid flow from all over the globe – but the city and its inhabitants continue to suffer. The nights are long and empty…

Interestingly, a special object appears and remains around as shells fall ceaselessly on houses in the dismal wintry landscape. It is a book, and not any book but the Times Atlas of World History – and it became for me both a symbol of humility and a statement of guarded, genuine hope. This War is seemingly never-ending but time and space are too expansive. The clash of nationalisms and the collision of ethnic groups are petty, pointless occurrences, ultimately. Move over it, grow up, get a life – this is the precious message we receive.


A few lines (and photographs – not necessarily in sync):

It is only when a city becomes a besieged city that you acquire a burning wish to reach its edges. Then you are drawn by a strong desire to step over the ring imposed on you by force. Then you gradually realise that there are always rings around you, albeit invisible and not always imposed malevolently.


Sarajevo siege, winter of 1992-1993. Steel screens shield an intersection from snipers. (Photo by User “Christian Maréchal”, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)


Then red-hot balls will no longer be falling on the besieged city and people in it will not die from tiny pieces of hot iron in their bodies. They will again die of illness and old-age. There will be light bulbs again and no one will be obliged to light cigarettes from candles. That will only happen in films.


Sarajevo, winter of 1992-1993. Dutch journalist Robert Dulmers beside Bosnian deputy prime minister Hakija Turajlić’s grave at the Ali Pasha mosque in the centre of Sarajevo. (Photo by User “Christian Maréchal”, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)


One of the hundred inhabitants of the besieged city who had been asked [the question How would you like to die?] had already died. She had died of a serious illness. In the besieged city serious illnesses develop rapidly. As though our life is a gramophone record turning at the wrong speed; too fast. Like a tape that someone impatient is playing speeded up.


Sarajevo siege life, winter of 1992-1993. With collection and disposal impossible, garbage accumulates in the streets — here in Kralja Tomislava. (Photo by User “Christian Maréchal”, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)


In the besieged city men have duties that keep them out of the houses a lot.


Sarajevo siege life, winter of 1992–1993. Cutting branches from Sarajevo’s trees — often at risk of being sniped — as fuel for stoves to heat water and provide occasional meagre warmth. Winter brought freezing indoor temperatures, often even colder than outside. (Photo by User “Christian Maréchal”, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)


The boy rarely goes out now. A thousand and one dangers lie in wait for children in the besieged city. He stands by the bedroom window, gazing longingly at the hospital garden. The exotic trees still flower and make fruit. If you bit into them, they would take over your blood supply.


Sarajevo siege life, winter of 1992-1993. Woman and boy walking by a window with bullet holes? (Photo by User “Christian Maréchal”, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)


My hair is still a freshly washed mane, even though it is hard to find water in the besieged city.


Sarajevo siege life, winter of 1992-1993. Fetching water meant dangerous expeditions to fill containers and drag the heavy loads home through icy streets under sniper fire. (Photo by User “Christian Maréchal”, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

To learn more about the Bosnian War, check out the following links: www.bosniangenocide.orgwww.iwm.org.uk/history/25-photos-from-the-bosnian-war-of-1992-1995www.srebrenica.org.ukvisit-sarajevo.com/en/bosnia-daily-tours/sarajevo-under-siege-tour


Image Credit:

Featured: Heavily damaged apartment buildings near Vrbanja bridge in the Grbavica district on the left bank of the Miljacka river, Wikipedia [Public Domain]



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