Requiem for Sarajevo: The pianist Marc Ponthus is haunted by the experience of giving a recital amid the slaughter of a city

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I AM ABOUT to begin a performance in a little theatre in the middle of Sarajevo under siege. It is -2C outside (28F), inside possibly one or two degrees warmer. There is no heat, nor are there any windows left. The loose plastic sheets give hardly any protection. It is Monday afternoon. There is no electricity and we need the daylight. We can hear snipers shooting outside. I will play on a little upright piano which has so far escaped the devastation of the war.

There is a nice group of people in the theatre, but not too many. Announcing the concert was almost impossible, for fear that the theatre would become a shelling target. I feel embarrassed at the welcoming applause. Awkwardly, I applaud back, because they are here, because they are alive.

Yes, I was there. Mostly, I did not directly see the depth of the horror. But I could feel it very near, I could hear it through the constant shooting, I could smell it also, and the smell was sticking to my clothes and to my hair.

The war correspondents were saying that it is worse than Vietnam because there is no place to rest, no place to hide - you are a constant target for the shells and the snipers, even at night when you lie in a bed in what used to be a luxury hotel. At times, you try to think of the shooting as a background noise, like cars passing through Broadway, so you can sleep a little. Then you wake up with a start, and you know that somebody nearby is probably dying at this very moment. Some people take to the hills around the city after their working week, to make extra money. They are the weekend snipers. Shooting at people is a sport.

Some of the journalists there, this strange breed that thrives on danger, break down after a while because of the relentlessness of the shooting. They can get out when they choose. And when they get wounded or killed, they become heroes. For the Bosnian people there is no glory, no thrill, only constant fear and suffering and mourning the dead. Those hills surrounding the city seem to tighten all the time. They are like jaws spitting death continuously, jaws of Hell. It is hard to imagine being there for two years with no way out. Even the few dogs in the streets are shell-shocked. It will be another Dien Bien Phu, a hundred times over.

I met some of those people. They would have been perfectly at ease in Paris or London or New York. Some of them have been to these places. Zlatko, who dreams of life on an American campus, Olja, with her boyish face, Drago, arrogant and narcissistic, Aldania, who loves Ravel's music, Miro, working tirelessly, Sijaric, who wants a copy of Le Marteau sans Matre (by Boulez), Samira, trading her beauty, the piano tuner (I wondered whether he has tuned a piano before), Jasmina, who wants to know what is new in the theatre in New York, the journalist from Oslobodjenje, who wears a little too much make-up.

All those faces dance in my mind. And their eyes, all those eyes, laughing, sad, empty, reproachful, hesitant, despairing. I am haunted by them. I wonder who will still be alive in a few months, and whether I will ever know, and of those still alive, which parts of their bodies will be gone, how much of their minds will be left, how much of their desires will subside, how much of their souls will remain.

I have known them. I am alone in front of them. I can do nothing. I can only bleed inside and abandon them and pretend to myself I am still with them.

All this is with me now. I saw it on the news before. Now I have been there. I have seen this destroyed city. The reality of it has hit me with utter violence. On this sunny Sunday afternoon, this little child on a bicycle, maybe seven or eight years old, someone to be nurtured and protected by us, shot by a sniper.

Mr Clinton, Mr Mitterrand, Mr Major, you have the blood of this child on your hands. You are not on his side, you are on the side of the murderer, and so am I. We are sitting next to this sniper, and by doing nothing, or not enough, or the wrong thing, we are telling him it is all right for him to kill this child. You and I will have to answer for it. The blood of this child covers the world.

We all like to think of ourselves as on the side of the victim. But through our inaction, through our misplaced actions, our shortcomings, our impotence, our acceptance, our frustration, we are all accomplices, we are there pulling the trigger. And we try to ease our consciences, we claim our hearts are bleeding, we even admit how our consciences are troubled, hoping for some small redemption.

I remember Amra telling me and a group of her friends about a fairly well-known writer from a former Communist country visiting the Serb lines around Sarajevo and being shown a machine-gun. He seats himself, aims into the visor, and seeing something moving in the city, he pulls the trigger. What shock and disgust I felt at such an abject act, and from a so-called intellectual] He should be found and pursued as a war criminal.

Yet I wonder how different we are from him. We are committing the crime of inaction.

Remember Baudelaire, 'Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere'. There is no way out. If it was not about such horror, it would be a joke.

When I decided to go to Sarajevo one of my lame motives was to alleviate my culpability. But it did not turn out that way. It made me even more responsible. And if I go back, my responsibility will become still greater.

Oh yes] The arrogance of those lines] The despicable self- justification of it] And when I was there - this fear, this cowardice in the guise of selflessness, the miserable happiness at knowing that I am not one of them, that I can leave] And a few days later, in Paris, leaving Sarajevo behind, there is the thrill of having been where few people have been, and this happiness to be in Paris, and thinking of Apollinaire: 'Soirs de Paris, ivres du gin, flambant de l'electricite . . . vers toi, toi']

Judge me] Judge me harshly] My hope is that I will be the more exacting judge. And know that you will have to answer at least to yourself for this judgement, and for its motivations, even those yet hidden in the recesses of your minds. When we are so completely frustrated in doing anything significant that we point at each other, we tear into each other?

In our wildest imaginations it is hard to conceive of an entire nation transformed into victims and murderers, and the rest of us either voyeurs in the face of this cataclysm, or blind and deaf and mute and paralysed, and by our own choice, and through our continuing will, not knowing, not wanting to know.

Where are the Victor Hugos? Where are the Sartres? Are they all mute too? Where are the voices of our collective conscience? Oh, I forgot] Today, they are no longer called poets or artists, they are called television anchors. And where the poets failed yesterday, the journalists fail even more magnificently today. Do they even try?

We will all answer for Sarajevo, especially you and me. There is no longer any escape. We are not free. We can no longer aspire to freedom. We are incarcerated within ourselves. We will serve a life sentence.

Perhaps another time I will speak of what I cannot say today. For now, farewell my friends, I do not wish you peace of mind.

The author gave a recital of music by J S Bach, Boulez, Stockhausen and Debussy in Sarajevo last month. In 1991 he gave the first performance of the complete solo piano works of Pierre Boulez in New York. His CD, on the Lorelt label, will be released next year.

(Photographs omitted)