Fantagraphics, 2000, 227 pages, C$29.95 tpb, ISBN 1-56097-470-2
For all of our outrage at the Holocaust, at autocratic regimes, at genocides and massacres and civil wars and bloody uprisings, we’re not very good at actually caring about the ones that are currently going on. SCHINDLER’S LIST came out in 1992 and everyone vowed “never again” even as Rwanda and Yugoslavia went up in machetes and machines guns. We vowed “never again” anew as details of those conflicts made it in the mass media, and yet Darfur, Iraq, Palestine continue to make the evening news even as I type this. It’s enough to make anyone despair about whatever passes for humanity.
And if you think that this is depressive thinking, well, you haven’t just finished reading Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde. An illustrated non-fiction account of the last days of the the Bosnian War, Sacco’s book defies convention and is different enough to still shock the reader. His unique brand of “comics journalism” appears harmless at first, but give it an inch and it will slip under your skin and remain there for a while.
As the book open in fall 1995, Sacco is abroad the contingent of western journalists making their way to the “safe area” of Gorazde, a mostly-Muslim enclave deep inside Serbian Bosnia. Gorazde is unique in that it has held against Serb ethnic cleansing. In other words, not everyone has been killed. As the UN tries to impose a cease-fire and maintain the supply lines as they make their way through Serbian territory, Sacco interviews the people left in the bombed-out city. As the book advances, they open up and gradually tell the story of three years of war. Three years in which neighbours turned against each other, in which the city was destroyed by its former inhabitants, three years during which the West gesticulated uselessly as more and more people got killed.
The Gorazde in this book is hollowed-out in many ways. It’s filled with craters, bullet holes, destroyed houses and burned-out cars. The bridge has a second ramshackle bridge underneath to protect pedestrians against snipers. And the people are in no better shape: having endured unimaginable horror, they are afraid of even believing that it’s over. Having seen their neighbours rise up against them once, they have no trouble imagining that it could happen again.
The stories that Sacco tell in each chapter can range from history to absurdity to full horror. He explains the roots of the Bosnian war, but he also giggles with the “Stupid Girls” as they wish for American jeans and has problems of his own trying to make his way back outside the Serb perimeter. Gradually, the inhabitants of Gorazde tell him their own stories of survival and grief. The stories get much, much worse as the book advances. Two chapters in particular, “The First Attack” and “Total War”, are as gory as anything I’ve seen outside of Geoff Darrow: Don’t be surprised if your first impulse after reading them is to leave the book aside and go do something else for a while.
That’s the genius of Sacco’s book; a single man at a drawing table making us see the terrible cost of a civil war in a way that is far more affecting than just a series of prose pages. Sacco doesn’t give himself a heroic role in the narrative. Indeed, he portrays himself as a short, round-faced man with prominent lips and eyes perpetually obscured by blank round glasses. Indeed, there are few pretty people in this book. But they are ordinary people, and when things go back to a new normal by the end of the book, we’re glad for them. Their friends and family may not have made it out alive, but they themselves get to sing, study and go back to a normal life. But as one of them says, “I don’t want any nice things. I don’t want a nice place or nice furniture. In the end, probably it will all be destroyed.” The Gorazde diaspora has learned the hard way and they will never forget; never forget that it has happened, and never forget that it can happen again.
Safe Area Gorazde is not an easy book to read: not just because of the violence, but also because of the proximity of the events. This has happened less than fifteen years ago, less than a thousand kilometres away from Rome. And still we read the book and watch the movies and vow “never forget”… but we will.