Dijana Ihas knows adversity better than most. As a member of the Sarajevo String Quartet, she endured the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, playing her viola in public through the four-year period in the early 1990s when the city was under attack by Bosnian Serbs.
Today she is an associate professor of music education at Pacific University, teaching music students in a quiet academic outpost in the northwestern United States. Her talent and energy as an instructor and conductor of the Pacific Philharmonic Orchestra has drawn applause from many quarters, evidenced most recently by her selection in early 2021 as Oregon Music Educator of the Year. The Oregon Music Education Association described her as “a world-class violist, an outstanding conductor, and a devoted music educator.”
In Sarajevo, Ihas played in the city’s leading ensembles. But it was the Sarajevo String Quartet, which played for audiences amid the rubble of war, that helped bring international attention to the plight of the city.
It was a harsh and disorienting time, as residents of the sophisticated city of red roofs and classical architecture struggled to survive through shortages of food, water and electricity. They raced through checkpoints to avoid being exposed to enemy fire. Many died during the siege, and funerals punctuated daily life in the city, which had hosted the Winter Olympics less than 10 years earlier.
The members of the Sarajevo String Quartet knew it would be too difficult to assemble as many as 60 musicians to play together, because it would require so many people to cross dangerous intersections, where snipers could strike them down.
“But with four of us, maybe we can find a way,” Ihas explained, “and we can at least practice.”
They did, playing to empty rooms for their own pleasure. After a couple of months, the members of the quartet decided to hold a public concert. They scheduled it for an afternoon in early June. When they arrived, the audience consisted of about five people, all family members. Bombs could be heard in the distance.