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Revelations : I thought, My God, is helping this easy?

The time: Christmas 1993 The place: London The man: Brian Eno, musician
"I've had about 45 years of being very disparaging about artists getting involved in anything political, I'd even written a very snotty article in The Guardian, in which I made a very unkind allusion to that `Free Nelson Mandela' song, saying that it isn't the job of artists to do things like that. The usual stuff people say when they don't know what they're thinking and feel a little bit guilty for not doing anything. I was pretty sceptical about Live Aid as well - I'd been reading a lot about the negative impacts of aid on situations like that. The Sahel, for example, where the problem is desertification. The aid agencies fed people with rice; to cook rice you need wood, so they cut down all the trees, contributing to ... desertification.

I had seen a graph, about four years ago, showing that since the Second World War more and more of what people do with their money is fund pressure groups, either single-issue or quasi-political action committees. Whoever pushes hard enough for their issue or makes the most noise is probably going to make a difference. It's nothing to do with the justice of the issues, the rightness or wrongness. I was thinking along these lines more and more as the Bosnian thing started up.

Anthea, my wife, came home one day having been to Bop for Bosnia, a group of celebrities getting together to raise some money, and she was impressed by Bill Leeson and David Wilson, the two people running this charity WarChild, and subsequently I was too. Because they were people who were drawn into this because nobody else was going to do it. They'd been in Yugoslavia making a film, and people would say, `Oh can you post these letters?' or `Can you bring me some spectacles when you come back?' And they found themselves wearing fatter and fatter overcoats to carry more stuff back and forth. Eventually they decided that the film had become an alibi for giving them transit in and out of the country.

And I thought, why not? I grew up with this notion that one must serve art beyond anything else, and I thought, why not do it the other way around, why not take advantage of your position as an artist and make that serve something else?

The very first thing we did for WarChild was just before Christmas 1993. Anthea and I collected instruments and CDs for people under siege in East Mostar, because Bill and David said they had nothing to play and no electricity. I had a couple of battery-operated keyboards, boxes of percussion stuff for kids, things to rattle and bang, and other people gave guitar strings, really insignificant things. And a lot of CDs, about 250, for the radio station. It took no effort on our part really, and the response we got back was so amazing, we'd really made a big difference to people's lives. I thought, my God, is it this easy? That was what hooked me, I suppose. And that's when we started doing things that were really difficult ...

At that time I still swallowed the line, oh Bosnia's so complicated, it's been going on for 1,200 years. At the same time I thought, here we are, the international community with weapons that could flatten the earth 70 times over and there's a couple of fascist Yugoslavs sticking two fingers up at the world and laughing. The other thing I felt was disgust at the response to refugees - in the first two years of war Germany had taken something like 200,000; we'd taken 49.

Worst of all was when it became clear the Western powers knew about the concentration camps in Yugoslavia, just as they did about the ones in Germany. I think it was then I lost any final hope that you could expect from politicians any visionary approach to dealing with the future. The complete turnaround was starting to think, if the people whose job is to change the world, politicians, are clearly so incapable of doing it, then probably it does revolve around ordinary people, or perhaps not quite so ordinary people, deciding to do something.

We hatched this plan for Little Pieces from Big Stars, where we generated our first principle: everything you did had to be great on its own, regardless of the fact it was for charity. I wrote to a lot of musicians, and we started off saying, why don't you throw this letter away right now ... so that people didn't work from obligation. We asked them to make a piece of work, two inches square, to be sold at auction, benefits to WarChild. Most broke the rule, some sent huge things, but it gave people the feeling, hey, I can do this. We raised pounds 70,000 and - Anthea's long-term plan - it cemented the music business to WarChild and made it quite a hip charity.

We went to Mostar in May 1995 to look at the site for what will be the Pavarotti Music Centre [which Independent readers raised money for in our 1995 Christmas Appeal] and to make a presentation to the local council. This Canadian from Unicef stood up after our presentation and said, `I think it's totally patronising that these people from England should come here ...' It was awful, he went on for about five minutes painting us as do-gooding interferers. And the mayor, who'd been in a Serb concentration camp, stood up and said, `You've been here for three years and you've done absolutely nothing. If you want to criticise these people, just do one thing for us, one thing.' He demolished this guy.

I was amazed by the destruction in Mostar but the spirit of the place was incredible. I met this girl who was a young-looking early thirties, she was so grown-up and completely in control of things, very clever, very articulate, spoke perfect English, turned out she was 16. One thing you have to say about war is it really accelerates learning. You either don't survive it or you come out of it very developed.

The music centre is in this Austro-Hungarian stiff-looking building with nothing. But they've got builders on the site and it's due to open in September or October 1997. We don't really know what it's going to do. It's there to do something those people want. It might turn out that what this place really needs is a club more than a recording studio. Musical Milestones, which will also raise money for the centre, is asking musicians to make tributes or homages to people who have influenced them a lot - mine is a tribute to the Velvet Underground, a cover version of `White Light White Heat'.

They showed a replay of Live Aid last year, and I had been so critical of that, but seeing it on television again I suddenly thought, Jesus, that was really something to have put that together, just the ambition of it, the sheer, ridiculous optimism that Geldof showed. It was really touching.

My wife spends a lot more time doing WarChild than me, but it gets a fair amount of my thought. For me its value is not only that it does something out there, but it makes me do things I probably wouldn't do otherwise, and finish them. It engages me in some aspect of the real world, and I like to be reminded how intractable real problems are. The only thing I've ever been interested in is seeing how the world works and trying to change it, and this is a way of doing both. Sounds ambitious, but why not?n

The works put in as `Musical Milestones' will be auctioned on 4 February in aid of WarChild.

Interview by Emma Daly