Elizabeth Mehren

And the Quartet Played On

From making music as shells explode in wartime Sarajevo to performing and teaching in Oregon, violist Dijana Ihas forges a new life

EDITOR’S NOTE: And the Quartet Played On, Elizabeth Mehren’s story about the remarkable life and journey of violist Dijana Ihas from the wartime rubble of Sarajevo to European tours with the Sarajevo String Quartet to a performing and teaching career in Oregon, was published originally on Nov. 6, 2020 by The Immigrant Story, the Portland-based organization that, as its title suggests, tells the stories of people who come to the United States from around the world to make new lives. ArtsWatch is republishing it with permission.


“Outside the monster raged with flaming nostrils. But inside there was tranquility. The melancholy notes of Albinoni’s adagio drifted into every corner of the room, and out through the windows where they were consumed by the thunder of the explosions echoing through the city. The concert was beautiful. The musicians might have been playing in New York, Paris or Rome. Serb shells were ripping apart their city and their lives, but their souls were their own. Dijana’s face was serene, her hands sure and strong on the gleaming body of the viola.”

–From “Sarajevo Roses: War Memoir of a Peacekeeper,” by Anné Mariè du Preez Bezdrob


Throughout Sarajevo, once the siege began in early April 1992, residents of what was for centuries a proud and splendid city had no heat, no electricity and no running water. Food was scarce. When the bombs went off, sometimes for 22 hours a day, occupants of entire apartment buildings rushed to their basements. Above ground, in their own dwellings, they had no windows, only plastic where once there was glass.

By some estimates, 27 fatal shells fell to each square acre during the three and a half years of persistent attack, the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, three times longer than the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II.

But even for the bomb blasts, even for the bloodshed, still they had music.

Again and again they played — 206 concerts in the years their city was effectively imprisoned: two violinists, a viola player and a cellist who made up the venerable Sarajevo String Quartet. They performed on the front lines, in bombed-out schools and hospitals, in civic buildings, theaters, concert halls and the ruins  of houses of worship. Several times each week, they walked for miles to rehearse by candlelight.

“Everywhere people needed a sense that they were still human beings, we played,” said viola player Dijana Ihas, the group’s youngest member and its only female musician. “We never said no.”

Buildings could be destroyed, they realized, but spirits could not be broken.

In simple terms, said Ihas, “it became a mission.”

Dijana Ihas. Photo: Sankar Raman / The Immigrant Story