Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95

by Joe Sacco

Published by Fantagraphics

229 pages, 2000












The Not-So-Comic Question of Ethnic Nationalism

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière


I wish all supporters of ethnic nationalism would read Joe Sacco's unflinching work of comics journalism, Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95. I wish they'd take the time to sit down quietly and reflect on its harrowing testimonials. Perhaps they'd realize that their attitudes are the same excuses used time and again by perpetrators of ethnic cleansings and other atrocities. Perhaps they'd question the origins of their intolerance and consider its implications. Perhaps they'd think about what exactly they're trying to accomplish and also what they are risking, what they might lose if they let their own country fall into the embrace of hatred. They might recognize the bigoted hate-mongering that drives Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic in the machinations of politicians who campaign for ethnic nationalism.

"I didn't make any difference between Serb, Croat, and Muslim children. We were always together... fishing, in forests, on the playground, the stadium..."

Sacco's book is filled with testimonials of Bosnian Muslims who remember years of peaceful multiethnic cohabitation in Gorazde and elsewhere. They loved their Serb friends and neighbors and knew that they were loved in return.

"Before the war, Everyone had everything, cars, food, jobs. They had a good life... and then they started shooting. Never in my life will I understand why. They destroyed our lives, the Serbs, but also they destroyed their own lives."

What happened? Sacco's book forces readers to ask this and other questions. Why did the Serbs, who for years had shared celebrations and gatherings with their Muslim friends and neighbors, suddenly start shooting at them, torturing them, executing them? Why did they burn their friends' houses? Why did they rape women who once trusted them? Why did they destroy their own pleasant, peaceful, well-fed lives? Why did they choose violence and hardship over peace and happy lives? Sacco shows how this wave of hatred and violence was instigated by one faction, the fascist Chetniks -- but he also notes that not all Serbs are Chetniks. Why did the rest follow? Again and again, the besieged, betrayed and devastated Bosnians interviewed by Sacco for this book ask themselves these painful questions. Sacco provides some historical details and describes how, during World War II, atrocities were perpetrated by Chetniks, Croatians and Muslims on each other in the name of fascism and ethnic purity.

"My grandfather and grandmother sometimes tried to explain to me what had happened during World War II, but I did not listen, or listened with one ear."

To many born and raised in Tito's united, peaceful and tolerant Yugoslavia, such atrocities were unthinkable and unbelievable. And yet, once Yugoslavia collapsed, ethnic antagonisms long believed dead resurfaced as if the decades of peaceful cohabitation had been nothing but a sham. Yet, as noted by political columnist Christopher Hitchens (The Nation) in his introduction: "Bosnian victims referred to Serbo-fascists as 'Chetniks' and thus honorably agreed to loathe them under a political and historical and not an ethnic rubric." Sacco's book refreshingly demonstrates that not everyone caught in a cycle of hate lower themselves to accepting its rhetoric.

"I was an eyewitness when the Chetniks brought two families -- both families had three kids -- and killed them behind the bridge.

"They cut their throats and pushed them in the river... The Guso and Sabanovic families. First they killed the children...

"And I was an eyewitness when a Chetnik cut off the breast of one of the mothers, who was trying to protect her kids."

Atrocities abound in this chronicle. Reading it, I often found myself so sick to my stomach I could not continue. I could not turn the page and face the next example of Chetnik brutality or Western indifference (to describe the behavior of high-echelon UN peacekeepers as criminal negligence would be euphemistic). Sacco does not sensationalize these incidents. His depictions are restrained and matter-of-fact. Both his words and his drawings are kept simple and straightforward. Sacco respects the power of the material itself. He knows it needs no embellishment. Sacco does not shy away from the harshness of his material but also does not limit himself to cataloguing war crimes and cruelties.

Sacco visited Gorazde in late 1995 and in early 1996, after the worst was over. He met and befriended a number of Gorazde survivors. He relates their words, their tales, their struggles, their dreams and, ultimately, their fragile triumph of having survived what anyone can only hope is the worst they will ever have to suffer.

This comics reportage of the Bosnian experience delivers to readers a perspective and texture no other journalistic form could have captured. The illusion of time and movement created by the sequential panels of comics gives the material an earthy immediacy that prose could never achieve as well. Comics is a low-definition cool medium inviting audience participation (Marshall McLuhan himself said so in 1964's Understanding Media) while photography is a high-definition hot medium (again, McLuhan) that tends to relegate the audience to a passive state. Sure, photographs of war atrocities shock viewers, but comics portraying that same reality actively involve viewers in that experience. Their imaginations fill in the blanks left by the low-definition iconic medium. Thus, their emotions are creatively engaged. Even the all-powerful moving picture fails to deliver the sensual experience of touching and leafing through pages. The moving picture offers a hot (low-participation) sequence of images, while comics allow for the cool (high-participation) experience of browsing. By choosing comics to tell this story, Sacco has allowed readers to experience Gorazde with a visceral reality no other medium can match.

Gorazde was one of a few UN-declared "safe areas" during the war in Eastern Bosnia. Before the war, about 9,600 Muslims and 5,600 Serbs lived in Gorazde. And then... most of the Gorazde Serbs obeyed a Chetnik order to abandon their homes to facilitate the wholesale slaughter of the Muslims who remained. The besieged city was eventually placed under tenuous UN protection. Sacco shows readers, through the poignant recollections of his interviewees, that for nearly four years the Gorazde Muslims lived under the twin shadows of hope and despair, never knowing if the next day would bring relief or extermination.

We meet people who saw their families and neighbors -- unarmed civilians -- killed by Serb soldiers. Medical workers recount in painful detail the difficulties of tending to the wounded in wartime. Many of the war victims requiring surgery and amputations -- with no anesthetic available -- were civilians, including children and the elderly. Young men and women who managed to survive share not only their deep sense of betrayal but also their dreams of what they will do once they can resume something -- anything -- resembling a normal life. We encounter a wide spectrum of Gorazde Muslims: from the despairing to the eccentric, from the resigned to the angry. We also meet Serbs who refused to join the Chetniks and who were nonetheless victims of the hatred of Muslim refugees who had suffered painful losses at Chetnik hands.

Aptly, Sacco neither ignores nor emphasizes his presence. He reminds readers that what he is relating is his experience. He never pretends to objectivity or omniscience. A large part of Safe Area Gorazde concerns his friendship with Edin, a Gorazde Muslim who has taken Sacco into his home and confidence. Much as Sacco is the readers' guide to the Bosnian war, Edin is Sacco's. Edin introduces Sacco to other survivors, vouching for him and facilitating his work. Their friendship provides a tender and immediate anchor for the book's vast canvas of personal and political tragedy.

Every morning, before tending to the animals, Edin's mom would tiptoe into the room where I slept to get the wood fire going in the stove. Water was boiled and dinner heated on the stove. Clothes were dried above it. The stove provided the house's only heat. I loved that stove.

Safe Area Gorazde is not a linear narrative, but rather a mosaic of interlocking experiences and testimonies. Sacco lets the inhabitants of Gorazde share their pain, good humor, their warm camaraderie and their selfish weaknesses. Gorazde welcomed Sacco because he opened himself to them. He ate, drank and partied with them. In turn, Sacco asks us to open up to these people, to hear what they have to say, to learn what they have to bear and to discover what can bring them joy.

"I got some magazines from the British peacekeepers when they were here. I read about a film called 'Pulp Fiction.' I really want to see that movie. We want to talk about something other than the war... New fashion... ANYTHING new."

Safe Area Gorazde is not a pleasant book. It shows and describes things most of us will never experience, things so brutal and cruel most of us cannot conceive of how they can happen. Only a few years ago, the Muslim citizens of Gorazde didn't believe such things could happen, either. But they do happen. Over and over again. Groups of humans define themselves through a national, ethnic identity, demonize anyone who doesn't conform and then feel justified in denying these "others" their most basic rights, denying them compassion, denying them life.

Sacco's powerful book is a moving plea for us all to stop behaving like psychopathic idiots. Let's all learn. I don't want to have to read about executions and torture and rapes and ethnic cleansings again. But if this stuff keeps happening, I want Joe Sacco and others like him to rub our faces in it, to remind us that we let it happen... that when we let hate-mongers tell us that it's okay to limit people's rights because of their ethnic identity, we let it happen.

I live in Montreal, a peaceful multicultural metropolis. My immediate neighborhood is made up mostly, but far from exclusively, of three groups: Francophone families long established in Montreal; youngish, artsy, intellectual Anglophones from all over Canada and beyond; and Portuguese immigrants. I buy my favorite bread at the Portuguese bakery down the street. My companion, with whom I share house and life, is Jewish, from New Jersey (although now a Canadian citizen). Our immediate -- and friendly -- neighbors are Francophone Québécois. I love living here. I love the rich cultural diversity.

I am a Canadian. I am a Québécois. For many, these are contradictory statements. I am what is called a "pure laine" Québécois, i.e., my family is 100 per cent Francophone, both branches having been in Québec for generations. A faction of such "pure laine" Québécois, invoking a long-dead past of oppression, dream of an ethnically "pure" Québec -- a Québec rid of Anglophones, Native Americans and non-White, non-Francophone immigrants. They claim -- in this society where Francophone culture is now funded and nurtured by the "oppressive" Canadian government, where French schooling at every level is provided, where local government operates in French -- that they are fighting for their rights and their cultural survival. And if someone tries to remind them that they are the ones preaching oppression and hatred, that, if any ethnic group is truly oppressed in Québec, it is the Native Americans, they sneer and say, "You don't understand."

I wish my fellow "pure laine" Québécois would read Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95. Perhaps they'd recognize their brand of hatred and blind self-justification in the behavior of the Chetniks. Perhaps they'd realize that they're only feeding a cycle of hatred, that they're the ones who don't want to understand.

Canada isn't a violent country. Montreal isn't a violent city. Then again, neither was Yugoslavia. Neither was Gorazde. | September 2000


Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.