As a solo violinist, Ruth Waterman often wrote her own programme notes, including extensive booklet notes for her recordings of Bach, which outline her understanding and unique approach to the performance of Bach’s music. She has also written numerous articles for music journals.

During her international tours, she tended to keep a travel diary, simply to order her thoughts at the end of busy and eventful days. In time, some of these ended up providing material for a book, When Swan Lake Comes to Sarajevo, which was selected by The Observer UK as a Book-of-the-Year. It intersperses the story of her experiences in post-war Bosnia as guest conductor of a multi-ethnic orchestra, with first-hand accounts of war and its aftermath as told to her by the many Bosnians she met.

Ruth Waterman also writes poetry and has been published in several poetry magazines, winning a prize in the Troubadour International Poetry Prize competition. A few years ago she was invited to combine her writing with her work in the visual arts, in the form of a photographic essay on Bosnia consisting of poems, prose and photographs. [Link]

She has also combined her writing with music in a short performance commemorating victims of genocide at London’s Young Vic theatre.

She has spoken at many literary festivals and conferences, from Edinburgh to Johannesburg, including the venerable Shakespeare and Co in Paris, and has made numerous radio programmes about music and the art of listening both in the UK and the US. For BBC Radio 4 she wrote and presented the documentary Music and Memory in Mostar, and Deep Listening on the series Something Understood.
During the recent pandemic, Waterman served as editor and co-author for the medical group In My Own Bed Please [Link]. Her interest in theatre, music and the aftermath of war has led her to write a play, The Sound of Peace, which was workshopped at London’s National Theatre Studio and features live classical music.

When Swan Lake Comes To Sarajevo:

A Musician Journeys into the Aftermath of War

Canterbury Press

Selected as a Book-of-the-Year by the Observer

“This book by violinist, conductor and poet Ruth Waterman [is] inspiring … she captures the humanity of the place and its people: the pain, the resilience and, yes, the humour.”

Classic FM Magazine

“Her moving and inspirational account is essential reading”

The Strad

War is always with us, and so is peace. This book is about the peace that comes after a war. It is one woman’s account of her experiences in the new country of Bosnia as guest conductor of a remarkable little orchestra, the Mostar Sinfonietta.

International violinist Ruth Waterman first met the musicians of the multi-ethnic ensemble in 2002, and since then has returned regularly to the region, teaching, conducting and performing, and listening to their stories. Here she describes the nuts and bolts of daily life – in turn frustrating, hilarious and touching: the putting together of concerts despite the odds; the rebuilding of bridges, towns, communities, lives; and how making music can connect us to our essential humanity and to each other.

Ruth Waterman’s writing is humane and down-to-earth, perceptive and inspiring. Interspersed with her diaries and observations are the stories of war and peace by the Bosnians themselves, in their own voices, acts of witness that reveal their courage, despair, resilience and humour.

This intermingling of narrative and first-hand accounts builds a mosaic that provides a visceral introduction to an unfamiliar world where people simply want to ‘live a normal life’.

I had never been to a post-war country before, though I’d often wondered what happens after the guns are silenced and the media moves on. Encountering Bosnia as a musician rather than as a diplomat or social historian or journalist, I didn’t know how to understand the long uncharted path away from the days of violence.

This is an account of my personal journey, of my experiences and thoughts in the order in which they happened, with all their incompleteness and contradictions and misunderstandings. In a chaotic country, one experience after another piles up, feelings sometimes follow facts at a remove, and the sense of it all emerges only gradually, if at all. In choosing to write without the benefit of hindsight, I have attempted to give a flavour of what it was like to walk in the aftermath of war, to breathe the Balkan air.

At first there was a vague thought of making a radio programme (which was in fact broadcast on BBC Radio 4), so I took a tape recorder in case people wanted to tell me their stories. I was startled, and touched, by the number of acquaintances and strangers who, without invitation, started to talk of their experiences both during and after the war. It seemed part of a deep need to speak, to have someone hear them, especially an ‘international’ as I was called. What they said was so extraordinary that I continued to record them during my subsequent visits. So this book honours the victims and survivors of the Bosnian War by having them speak in their own words, opening an invaluable window onto how a people survive catastrophe, and by inference, how we all survive and live our lives.

Ermin

And then they destroyed apartment more than before. Yes we were here, all the shells come, in this room three shells coming. And it was funny things, in this period of course I was member of the army. And I’m coming home to sleep. And I slept overnight, we put this big cabinet in the window to protect us here in this corner. In the morning my wife told me ‘why you didn’t take all the bullets from your pockets?’

I said ‘what you talking about?’

She said ‘look, all these bullets are all around the room.’

But that’s coming from window, and we’re sleeping! From the Gymnasium, machine gun bullets. We sleeping all night and we didn’t know! My wife she thought I have in my pocket bullets from gun. And she start to collect these bullets from room and I say these are not my bullets and we find out there’s hole in our cabinet. Put on the window to protect us. All night it’s very loud, grenades and everything, so, so. But this is the kind of protection of body you going to sleep, you don’t like the situation and you going to sleep and forget about everything.

********************************************

Dress rehearsal. The bassoonist, who could not come to any of the other rehearsals, is nowhere to be seen. I start without him, and we have just finished rehearsing the Adagio when he walks in, an hour late, and seats himself in the empty chair.

At the break, he comes up to me and apologises for his late arrival. He is tall and dignified.

‘My wife was driving,’ he explains.

I’m speechless.

‘She drives slowly,’ he adds, as if this clarification makes his case indisputable.

Many replies jostle in my brain, but as I look up into his lined face, I just nod. Or maybe I shake my head. Or maybe I smile. I’ve no idea anymore. As far as excuses go, this is one of the best.

*******************************************

This first visit to Bosnia left me with many strong memories. The location itself, with its bullet-riddled walls and collapsed buildings, was a new experience for me. As was making music in such surroundings. Music goes anywhere, but here it was in its element, touching raw emotion, going straight to the heart. I have played the same Mozart Adagio in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, a splendid palace with room after room of magnificent works of art. These two places stand at opposite poles of human activity, and the music filled the space in different ways. But I felt the same connectedness to the Russian people, setting aside their daily lives for the moment to come together in Mozart, as I did in Bosnia, we who were playing, and those who were listening, brought together into a temporary community, the sounds vibrating through us all simultaneously.

Poems

Plague
(Prize-winning poem of the Troubadour International Poetry Prize 2016)
I am Portia, daughter of the silversmith.
Here’s a stool – take it; we live in hard times.
What news on Cheapside? I hear a coffee-house
is coming, a new gathering place.
We shall talk.

The sea is creeping in, do you notice? The sea is bringing …
we shall not talk of that.

Yesterday I rounded a corner and came upon
a large plot of weeds and rubble; a starving cat
threaded through mounds of shapeless stones –
there will be a crumb of comfort for it somewhere.
A square of cotton sheeting hung on a dirty clothesline.

For months I’ve walked like driftwood through these streets.
You don’t know when …

One day I found a bridge I’d not observed before
and slowly climbed up to its mid-point,
to the top of its arch; I turned and waited.
The canal slept as tiny ripples fluttered.
The sun left the water first; then it left the rooftops.

Ruth Waterman 2016

In Camera: Bosnia

Photographs and text by Ruth Waterman

***

Stay crouched on the earth,
come closer to our disintegrating bones.
You are so far away.

***

“I feel that everything I touch turns to sand.”

“I’m very tired. I’m impatient with everyone, just want to be alone, go to the village and sleep and work in a garden and not be with anybody, not even my husband. I’m tired of stress, tired of everything.”

“I feel worthless – sometimes I don’t want to live anymore.”

“I think there will be another war.”

 

Many Bosnians are despondent and suffering from the late emergence of symptoms of trauma.

**

“I am so angry. About the war. Yes, it’s finished almost twenty years, but my brother escape and now he lives in Australia, so how can I see him? I visited him last year, and it was wonderful to be with him and his family, but when it’s time for leaving, it was very hard. I cried, you know. And I still crying. Families are scattered in the world. All because of the war. I am so angry.“

During the Bosnian War of 1992 – 95, over 100,000 people were killed, and two million were displaced.

**

“My marriage is broken. My trust is gone, and I feel so differently. I have a good job, but there’s bad atmosphere at work and our salaries go down each year.”

Divorces have soared and unemployment has been over 40% for many years.**

“There’s one war criminal, convicted nearly twenty years ago, and he’s served many many years in prison. And now he being released, and those stupid people, they welcoming him! Like he’s a hero! Those people are very stupid, they don’t understand anything.”

War crimes are being tried not only in The Hague, but also in national and local courts. Many people complain about the lengthy delays of the trials and the low numbers of war criminals apprehended.

**

“It was Europe’s fault. The war. I mean, Europe let it happen, and then waited over three years before it bombing and ending it. Three years!”

The Bosnian War ended after NATO bombed the Serbian positions besieging Sarajevo. Many Bosnians felt abandoned by the outside world and still feel resentment.

***

Bosnia is unhappy. I’ve not been there for five years and now that I’ve returned, I am rocked by its onslaught of despair, fatigue and pessimism. For Bosnians, the future seems to offer a fearsome spectre of poverty, unemployment, injustice, corruption, division and, for some, even a renewal of war. But mainly an intolerable continuation of the present, hopeless status quo.

This is bleeding into the personal lives of my friends, in the form of divorce, depression, suicidal impulses, and suspicious death. But fortunately the nightmare seems to spare some of the younger generation, who are marrying, starting families, and beginning to make their way as anything from teachers to tourist guides.
There has been much rebuilding, not all of it tasteful, and some of it rather puzzling – for instance, a huge modern shopping centre in Sarajevo containing luxury goods that hardly anyone can afford; and a rash of mosques although people say that existing mosques are not at all over-subscribed. But there are fewer abandoned ruins, and tourists now crowd the narrow streets, so the towns feel more normal, if one can ignore the common spattering of bullet holes in the walls.

For me the saving grace of this visit is the unfailing warmth of its people. My friends and acquaintances and former students welcome me with open arms and an immediate offer of deliciously strong Bosnian coffee. As we settle down to our conversations, they take me into their confidence and lay out for me the details of their lives and fears and dilemmas with touching bravery and honesty. And it does take courage to endure all this, on top of the ghastly memories of the war itself which, of course, still hang in the air. It’s been twenty years now, but it will take many more years before its effects start to fade.

I have my own personal disappointments. I was looking forward to hearing the wonderfully romantic folk-music of the region, called sevdah, but no-one can tell me of any bars or clubs where it is played anymore. And the famous bridge in Mostar is no longer white and pristine as it was when it was first rebuilt and unveiled in 2004. It has lost its sheen, and somehow this embodies my sense of Bosnia itself.

Despite all this, I have to admit that I’m very glad to be back. Yes, it’s incredibly stressful to see how my friends suffer, and to listen carefully to their distressing tales for hours on end. But the young people are grasping at enjoyment where they find it, and there is an intensity and rawness to life here that I know I will miss when I return to London next week. I’m lucky to be able to come and go, and I bless my lucky stars every day that I’m here.

***

Graves on the hillside.

Speed is all, you said.
Sunlight hurts my eyes. I’m speeding now –
along its tracks the train is carrying me to.

We’ll go together, you said.
You said, it’s not so far, see,
just across the street,
two big breaths will do it. Ready?
Onetwothree, you said.
We ran.

Often. Every week.
Sniper Alley.
Onetwothree, you said.
We ran.
But you.

Grass and weeds grow over.
Sunlight hurts my eyes.
Speed is all, you said.

During the war, snipers positioned themselves in tall buildings and fired on civilians – men, women and children – as they ran to pick up water and food. The main street in Sarajevo became so dangerous that it was renamed ‘Sniper Alley’.

The new Stari Most. “It’s not at all the same - it’s our bridge, but it’s not our bridge.”

The hill catapults fire
throughout the night. A choir
of missiles calls us from our beds,
from dreams of ordinary times
before they conjured crimes,
split our town, crazed our heads.

We run to broken windows.
Does the Bridge stand? Shadows
of stone flicker into the river.
Emptiness is hard
to see. The air is jarred
to flow so free. Oaks shiver.

Mostar’s iconic bridge, built by the Ottomans in 1566, was destroyed by days of shelling in November 1993. Its reconstruction was meticulously carried out by an international consortium, to the exact specifications of the original. When the new Stari Most was unveiled in 2004, its stone was a brilliant white, and it seemed to float and shimmer high above the green river. But now it has lost its sheen, its surface is already graying and stained, and it no longer seems capable of reflecting the light of the sun.
A small alleyway in Mostar.

Playing music – not an option, while
outside my window, ‘that’ is going on.

My violin stays unbidden, mute, packed
inside its case, no glorious melting sounds

to soothe and make a pillow for my shattered
trust. What music keeps us true to our

burning, coruscating anguish? holds us
inconsolable? Music, choking,

falters into silence, while they fall,
dying, on the lane outside my window.

A young music teacher told me that she could not even look at her violin during the siege of Sarajevo “while ‘that’ was going on outside my window”.

Mostar. The most destroyed city in Bosnia, Mostar lies in a beautiful valley, its pretty houses rebuilt with its original light-coloured stone.

Darkness oozes from my pores,
blackens my thoughts,
fills my days with night.

Fault-lines in my skin slowly
widen, tear, split;
debris from those three mad years,
now fermented, ripe,
push towards the light.

I can no longer hold myself together.
Cover the sun, and I will sleep,
before my heart scatters like shrapnel in the field.

Old and New.

After that, I didn’t go out.
Stayed inside my two dark rooms.
They brought me food, my friends.
I wasn’t going out. Ever. Never –
my body smothered in terror –
until this is over.

It won’t be over.
Every day a month.
Every minute a year.
I read my books, slowly.
Centuries pass.

And then, one morning,
I opened my door,
walked down the concrete stairs and out
into the autumn air.
They can’t make my home a prison. And
they can’t make me run. I’m not
going to run. Ever. Never.

So I walked, a crazy young woman, head held high.
I walked in my town and smiled at the sky. And
wherever I went, they held their fire.
They saw me coming, normal and easy, and
all of them held their fire.

To Be To Be. Shakespeare’s existential conundrum is altered to become a double affirmative. In Sarajevo, there is no question.

Maybe they are right.
Their thoughts, unspoken,
stare out of their eyes:

‘She has no right
to be sad’
because
there was
no bullet
no sniper
no grenade
no mortar
no explosion
no fire
no dying from starvation

only a car, an everyday car,
an everyday
car accident.

It shouldn’t be allowed in the middle of war –
accidents –
pitifully low in the hierarchy of deaths.

So I have to slaughter my grief
smother it
strangle it
starve it
push it deep where its pulse can’t be felt.
Mourning is postponed until further notice.

Today, and today, and today, I estrange myself from myself.
I make myself unnatural, a living ghost.
Until tomorrow.

Elaborate doorway. Sarajevo still bears signs of its cosmopolitan culture.

Sevdah! Sevdah! How I long for you!
A bride in white waits for her faithless groom,
and many a girl sighs as fruit is picked.

Sevdah! Sevdah! Where are your sweet tones?
Magicked on the bare karst mountain slopes,
flavoured with green valleys, stone-clad towns,
where are your plaintive harmonies? your swaying
rhythms? sad, accepting melodies?

Sevdah of my soul, of all our souls,
keep us in your embrace, together, whole,
sevdah, my love, we are too much divided.

The folk music of the region is called ‘sevdah’, which loosely means a longing of the soul, melancholic love. The lyrics were mainly romantic outpourings used in courtship. The performance of sevdah is becoming less frequent as popular music takes over.

Two doors in Sarajevo.

Sometimes you have to forget.
Because forgiving is impossible.
And even if forgiving were possible,
You’d have to forget.

If you succeed in forgetting,
You won’t know what you should be forgiving.

 

***

 

First published in Critical Muslim Quarterly 2014