Thousands of Bosnians walked, lingered, held each other, and wept as they processed along half a mile of blood-red chairs stretching through the center of the city of Sarajevo. Many people lay flowers on the empty chairs. Some chairs were occupied by teddy bears or other toys, placed there in memory of children who had been killed. On a stage in front of the chairs a small orchestra and choir performed songs, many composed during the siege.
The 11, 541 chairs symbolized the number of people who were killed during the siege of Sarajevo that began twenty years ago, on April 7, 1991, and lasted three years and eight months, the longest siege in modern history. During that time, Serb gunners barraged the city from the surrounding hills, while the primarily Muslim citizens lived under constant threat. The war killed more than 100,00 people altogether, made two million homeless, and reopened old ethnic and cultural wounds between Muslims, Serbs, and Croats.
There are few ways to find beauty and make beauty under such horrendous circumstances. Acts of compassion and generosity and small natural gifts, such as hearing birds singing resolutely at dawn after a night of bombardment, are among them. A participatory memorial such as that of these red chairs, this music, does not assuage grief—in fact, it may even pierce the heart all over again—but it can transform it. Acknowledging together the grief, the lingering shock and sense of vulnerability unites people. Their common history and the extent of their suffering unfolds before them like a long, long block of empty chairs. Words are unnecessary; presence says all that needs to be said. And music, including music that was written out of the experience of war itself, testifies to the creative spirit that will not be quenched, despite the circumstances.
11,541 people are missing. The empty places marked by 11,541 chairs both honor their lives and attest to the grief of those who loved them.