Comics of the Decade: Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde

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This is part of a Metabunker series celebrating a great decade in comics with Rackham by reprinting select reviews of the decades’ best comics from the Rackham archive, along with a number of new pieces.

Between April and May 1993 the UN Security Council decided to establish a number of so-called “Safe Areas” in war-torn Bosnia. These were placed around the Bosnian enclaves of Bihać, Tuzla, Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Žepa, and Goražde. In return for disarmament, they were put under the protection of the UN. Threatened by reprisal by the UN, the Bosnian Serbs halted their bombardment of Sarajevo in February of 1994 and turned their attention instead to the East Bosnian enclave of Goražde. Apart from a few airborne missions in April, the UN did not intervene against this Serbian aggression, which only gained in force as time passed. It soon became obvious to everyone that a humanitarian crisis was imminent, if not already occurring.

At the end of April, the Bosnian president Alija Itzbegović wrote a letter to the Secretary General of the UN, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, in which he criticised sharply the international community for failure to act and explained that this so-called “safe area” was now amongst the unsafest on Earth. The UN renewed its threats against the Serbs and forced them to back away from the area. At the end of July 1995, the safe areas of Zepa and Srebrenica, however, witnessed the worst mass-killings perpetrated in Europe since the Second World War, ethnically cleansed at the hands of the Serbs. The UN’s humanitarian intervention in former Yugoslavia had failed utterly.

Among the East Bosnian enclaves, only Goražde remained; its inhabitants were convinced that they were next. Helplessly, they witnessed the British contingent stationed there pull out. The following day, 30 August, the UN bombed the Serb positions, forcing the Serbs to retreat. On 12 October a general armistice was put into effect, which led to the Dayton peace accord at the beginning of November. Out of this came the current division of Bosnia. But in between the armistice and the negotiations at Dayton, the people of Goražde found themselves in a harrowing state of uncertainty about whether the peace would hold and whether they might be traded against Serbian-controlled areas around Sarajevo.

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THE JOURNALIST
It was during this time that the journalist Joe Sacco visited Goražde for the first time. During the course of four visits there, he gathered material for his latest piece of comics documentarism, Safe Area Goražde. Amongst other places, Sacco has previously visited Gaza and the West Bank in Palestine, about which he created his last major work, the impressive Palestine (1993-95). Since then he has created a handful of shorter comics from other places in Bosnia. The first, “Christmas with Karadžić” (1997), describes how one early Christmas morning in the town of Pale, he and a couple of colleagues came to meet shortly with the leader of the Bosnian Serbs Radovan Karadžić, currently wanted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague for prosecution as a war criminal. Šoba (1998) relates Sacco’s experiences during a stay in Sarajevo in the company of the eponymous and colourful artist/musician/minesweeper/hedonist. This is all fine work, but the more than 200+ page book on Goražde is his greatest achievement to date.

As a journalist, Sacco is very thorough, clearly more interested in background knowledge than conveying news information; he chooses a subject and investigates it in detail. He does not aspire to cover his story “from both sides”—the book under review is clearly presented from the point of view of the Bosnian Muslims—but he always retains a certain aspiration toward journalistic objectivity. His opinions are reflected more in the selection of the material than in its presentation. He is first and foremost a humanist, speaking clearly through his work.

Safe Area Goražde alternates between sections devoted to Sacco’s own experiences in Goražde, including short stories of its inhabitants, and ones concentrating either on background information or the representation of firsthand testimonials from the war. The panels in these sections are presented on white and black backgrounds, respectively.

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THE PEOPLE
It is in the former sections that we find the emotional core of the book: the friends Sacco makes in Goražde. These people anchor the story; despite—or perhaps due to—their testimonials generally being less harrowing than those given by others, they enable our identification. There are three slightly dippy young girls—Nudjejma, Kimeta, and Sabina—who talk about their love lives and try to persuade our correspondent to bring them Levi’s Originals from Sarajevo, to where he holds a UN pass.

sag_riki2.jpgThere is the empassioned Riki who on his returns from the front invariably intones in song—his favourite is “Hotel California.” He used to study at university in Sarajevo and now tries to keep up by learning “American English” as well as possible. He constantly practices new, peculiar words and phrases by inserting them incongruously into mundane sentences. Among his favourites are “Nothing to write home about” and “You’re full of shit!” He administers the latter to Sacco when the journalist suggests that he might travel to the US as he wishes, once the war is over.

Last, but not least there is Edin, Sacco’s host in Goražde. Since the war started, Edin has been the 15 minutes of his final oral exam away from completing his studies as a civil engineer at the University of Sarajevo. During lulls in the war, he has been busy teaching maths to kids in, and in the general maintenance of, a school in Goražde. His knowledge of English has also meant work for the local UN military detachment. He is the kind of guy who knows everybody and he put our correspondent in touch with most of the people he interviewed.

Edin himself also contributes a substantial part of the wartime testimonials narrated in the book. He relates his experiences during the two major Serbian offensives against the city in 1992 and 1994, respectively; he describes the lack of basic amenities and the hunger suffered during the war and about a journey into the mountains through enemy territory that he, his brother, and his father had to undertake several times, at night and in the dead of winter, to the Bosnian encampment at Grebak, in order collect supplies for his family. And so on. More than any other single person, Edin provides the story with an individual, human imprint.

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THE BRIDGE
The opposite is provided in spades on the black pages. In addition to Goražde’s doctor Alija Begović, a number of eyewitnesses describe events from such places as Višegrad, close to Goražde, and Srebrenica. As one would expect, these testimonials are horrifying; although Sacco spares us the worst, this is hair-raising reading. One story comes from an older man called Rasim who describes his experiences during an attack by the Chetniks (a Serbian nationalist militia) in the spring of 1992, the object of which was to ethnically cleanse the town. “I was an eyewitness when Serbs brought Muslims to the bridge on the Drina and pushed them into the river and shot them.” From his window he saw how they cut the throats of their victims, how children we killed in front of their parents. Asked whether they killed women and children, he answers “Yes. Of course.” He answers straightforwardly and with an empty stare such questions as “Were they tied?” “Were people resisting?” “Were they screaming?”

Then he goes on to relate how the Serbs break into his flat and beat him up, after which they throw him on the back of a lorry. It turns out that one of the Chetniks is a former neighbour of his. He pleads with him for help and saves himself by assisting the Chetniks load the truck. They leave him battered in the street, driving away with a group of other Muslims: “I didn’t see them again. I suppose they were killed.” At night, after the Chetniks have completed their work at the bridge, he decides to cross it in order to seek help at the Red Cross camp on the other side. Halfway across, he wades through a thick pool of blood in which he sees three pairs of shoes. Suddenly the lorry from earlier comes driving toward him across the bridge, and he briefly glimpses the Chetniks who beat him up in his flat. Nothing happens to him, however—they drive off and he continues. After much effort, he finally makes it on to a Red Cross convoy out of the area.

This sequence is one of the most horrifying this reader has seen in comics. Typically for Sacco, everything is fairly understated, although he uses the stark black and white contrasts of the night-time setting to great effect, and the violence implied by a pair of children’s shoes in the foreground of a panel, or the short flash of a murderous face in another, contribute significantly to a scene of almost existential terror.

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THE FORM
Sacco is very skilled at visualising the situations narrated to him. Edin’s detailing of his movements during the attack on Goražde in 1994 is violently and vividly brought to life. One gets the sense of total confusion, following this man rushing around between the blown-apart buildings of his city, Kalashnikov in hand. Sacco’s rendering style has its roots in the American underground and is—somewhat paradoxically, considering his characteristic understatement—very expressive. He sometimes composes from sharply framed or tilted viewpoints, creating a palpable rhythm between matter-of-factly recording of events and more subjective experience. He is a fairly decent, but by no means great caricaturist—something that becomes apparent in his depictions of various representatives of the Western countries and the UN. Most of the time his critique of these people is implicit, though he occasionally broaches the satirical in his portrayal, to limited effect.

sag_edin2.jpgAs for his choice of medium—comics—it seems ideally suited to his style of reportage. Since he concentrates on in-depth investigation, the slowness of production is not an obstacle, but more importantly, he is able as a cartoonist to reconstruct events in a manner very different from the photographic image. His personal style leaves a palpable, individual imprint on his visualizations, reminding one of his subjectivity. He can choose to simplify his rendering of something or somebody to communicate more clearly—his memorable portrayal of Riki is a good example: the open, pale, moonlike face with the big, singing mouth stays with the reader more easily than a strictly naturalistic rendering might. More generally, the book’s clarity of presentation and narrative serves well to describe a complex situation in ways this reader did not grasp as readily from reading about the war in Bosnia in the daily newspapers or following the news as they happened on television.

As for shortcomings, one might point to the absence of a couple of things Sacco otherwise does well: inserting himself into the narrative and occasionally portraying his subjects in less than flattering light. The former is a major part of Palestine, in which his feelings of guilt over working as a journalist is described with both humour insight. The latter he achieves eloquently in his description of Šoba, who in many ways is an unsavoury person. It is however understandable that Sacco tones down these elements in the present work, considering the starkness of the material. And they are, in any case, not totally absent: one scene in a bar in particular, where an angry man berates “Mr. Americaman” about his presumptions on being in his country, is a sobering self-corrective.

As a comics journalist Sacco is without peer—he may be the only cartoonist fully to pick up where the pioneer of the genre, Art Spiegelman, left off. And this is by far the most insightful and moving comic about the war in Yugoslavia: Bilal’s Le Sommeil du monstre (1998) was a deeply felt, but ultimately a suffocatingly bathetic work; Joe Kubert’s dramatic Fax from Sarajevo (1996) was hampered especially by the artist’s action comic book approach to cartooning; and despite its atmospheric rendering, Hermann’s Sarajevo Tango (1995) was a rather unfortunate mix of didactic satire and pandering suspense.

Safe Area Goražde manages to expose the horrors of war like few other comics, if any. It powerfully evokes the absurdity in former neighbours turning on each other to kill, rape, and torture. Again and again, the eyewitnesses mention how they recognised a neighbour among either the dead or the killers. In some cases, like the testimonial from Visegrad outlined above, small incidents of compassion mitigate the feeling of hopelessness, but at the end of the day one is left with the image of two brothers beating each other to death while inexorably sinking into quicksand.

Written in 2000 and originally published on the Rackham website in 2002. Other installments in this series: David B.’s L’Ascension du haut mal (Epileptic), Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Sammy Harkham et. al. Kramers Ergot 4, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Daniel Clowes’ Ice Haven and The Death Ray, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan — The Smartest Kid on Earth, Dominique Goblet’s Faire semblant c’est mentir, Chester Brown’s Louis Riel, Gary Panter’s Jimbo in Purgatory.

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