What I’m Reading: Safe Area Gorazde

Gorazde is a town in Bosnia. During the Bosnian war from 1992-95, it was one of four safe areas for Bosnian Muslims that the UN negotiated with the Serb militia. Of the four, it was the smallest and most remote, so it rarely made it onto the news like Sarajevo or Srebrenica. Its remoteness also made it difficult for the UN to supply, so it experienced some of the worst privation of the war, if not the worst fighting. Comics journalist Joe Sacco visited there four times in 1994 and 1995, interviewing mostly Muslim inhabitants and refugees. His regular visits gave him a depth of knowledge and local contacts that most journalists did not have. He published Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95 in 2001.

Despite my love for comics, I was a little skeptical at the idea of comics journalism for something like this before reading the book, but I was completely off-base. The use of comic art gives his journalism the immediacy of photography–indeed, I assume from the level of detail that many of the pictures are photo-referenced–yet the advance of panels provides narrative cohesion that a simple progression of photos could not. Nor do the comics skimp on factual material, with plenty of maps, dates, and names giving the necessary backdrop. But most importantly, Sacco’s art gives us real insight into the day-to-day life of Gorazde’s citizens, many of whom we come to know well and care for during the course of the book.

Sacco also maintains a journalist’s neutrality, although an objective recounting of the matter necessarily implicates Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and Serbian General Ratko Mladic as villains, willing to start a war and slaughter civilians in pursuit of an ethnically-pure Greater Serbia. Sacco’s story shows how regular Serbians who had lived in Gorazde since birth were willing to turn against their neighbors and join the Serbian militia. Some of them were forced into it–we see on occasion a Serbian willing to help a Muslim friend, so long as no one sees them so they won’t suffer the inevitable reprisals, which was often execution. But other Serbs must have gone along willingly, fighting against Muslims, looting and burning their houses, maybe because they believed in Serb extreme nationalist ideology or perhaps even as a lark.

I’m not sure I can recommend this book widely, because although it is a beautifully done graphic novel on an important event in recent history, the subject matter is so harrowing I think a lot of people simply won’t be able to bear it. I found especially awful scenes at the Gorazde hospital, where doctors performed surgery on the critically wounded in primitive conditions, with only the only anesthetic available being brandy. Still, for a teen or adult willing to stomach realistic scenes of a town on the frontline during wartime, this book is an invaluable primary source on the Bosnian conflict.

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