Joe Sacco: Safe Area Gorazde: The War In Eastern Bosnia

Joe Sacco: Safe Area Gorazde: The War In Eastern Bosnia

During the Bosnian conflict, as regions left unconquered by Serb nationalists became fewer and farther between, the U.N., with little regard for the ironies of history, declared a select few enclaves still occupied by Bosnian Muslims "safe areas." Gorazde, a city east of Sarajevo and not far from the Serbian border, was one of them. Eventually becoming the site of some of the war's most heated urban conflicts, Gorazde prompted Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic to write to U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali that "the so-called safe area has become the most unsafe place in the world." As the war wound down, Joe Sacco, the writer and artist who pioneered the self-described field of "cartoon journalism" with Palestine, traveled to Gorazde, an area usually mentioned only in passing in other accounts of the war. Spending time with its citizens, Sacco gathered accounts of life before and during wartime, as well as their thoughts on the future. What he found, in addition to the widely reported war atrocities, was a city turned topsy-turvy practically overnight. In a 1991 comic about the Gulf War, a fiercer, cruder Sacco wrote, "Sometimes you can smell the shit long before it comes out history's asshole." Now more refined as a writer and artist, Sacco has also clearly learned that sometimes you can't smell anything at all. Despite tensions spanning centuries, Bosnians and Serbs had spent decades living peacefully together in Gorazde before nationalist influences stirred up old enmity. As virtually all of the city's Serb minority evacuated to align with the Serbian nationalists, Gorazde's remaining residents frequently found themselves defending their homes against old neighbors. More than any sort of anger or hatred, that shock dominates the anecdotes that drive Safe Area Gorazde. Watching Bosnian-taped battle footage one moment, Sacco is surprised to see it blur into a taped-over Serbian wedding attended by the Bosnians now under attack. Though it works well as an account of the war as a whole—neatly laying out the causes and course of the conflict—it's Sacco's ability to capture such moments that makes it both a remarkable act of storytelling and an invaluable piece of journalism. With evocative, carefully rendered drawings and spare narration, Sacco lets the residents of Gorazde speak for themselves. Their accounts of boredom, frustration, miles-long marches for basic supplies, understaffed and undersupplied hospitals overrun with the wounded and dying, dead relatives, bodies clogging the Drina river, the systematic slaughter of Bosnian Muslims, and the hope for a peace that's in no hurry to arrive span the entire experience of the war. Part of the brilliance of Sacco's unassuming, fundamentally journalistic approach is its ability to make haunting, graphic accounts of atrocities and the utter joylessness of Gorazde's reopened disco part of the same world. It's a sad, absurd place, but one in which hope—for peace or a pair of genuine Levi's 501 jeans—continues to linger. By the end of Sacco's account, that world has become thoroughly realized, developed from a near-footnote into a place of concrete, blood, and lost harmony.

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