Nov 5, 2010

Safe Area Goražde by Joe Sacco

Safe Area Goražde

Our only hope was the support of the world. We’d expected that for months and years. We thought they would stop it. But they didn't do anything.

(From a testimony by a man from Goražde)

Safe Area Goražde is a non-fiction comic about the war in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995. As the title indicates, Sacco specifically focuses on the experiences of the people of Goražde, a supposedly UN-protected town where the Muslim population of Bosnia could take refuge to avoid the ethnic cleansing being undertaken by the Bosnian Serbian army. However, the designation “safe area” was often not much more than theoretical, and Goražde often came close to being the site of a similar tragedy to the one that took place in Srebrenica (another designated “safe area” where over 8000 people lost their lives).

Joe Sacco spent four months in Goražde in 1994 and 1995, and in Safe Area Goražde he not only retells his own experiences, but also includes detailed testimonies by the people he met there. I’m not going to talk about the social and political context of the war in Bosnia in much detail here, because after only one book I don’t feel like I know nearly enough to sum it up without oversimplying it. Suffice to say that Joe Sacco does contextualise what’s happening, and I don’t think that even the most uninformed of readers (among which I sadly count myself) will ever lost or fail to relate to the very human drama of the people of Goražde.

Safe Area Goražde by Joe Sacco

Safe Area Goražde reminded me of Half of a Yellow Sun, of Deogratias, of the many WW2 books I’ve read over the years. In all of them, the process is the same: someone decides that a group of fellow human beings is not, in fact, properly human, and that the world would be a much better place if they were to be slaughtered. And so the cycle begins – a cycle of indescribable violence, terror, and of inevitable mutual distrust. A cycle where hate breeds hate, and where the peace and harmony of the past seem gone never to return.

In the case of Goražde, what was particularly difficult for many of the Muslin people Sacco interviews was the fact that the members of the Serbian army who turned against them had in many cases been their neighbours, their lifetime friends, their almost-brothers. All it took was a moment to severe the ties formed over a lifetime. In some of the stories, you can tell that Muslins and Serbs alike are moved by little more than fear, but whatever motivated those who took arms against their former friends, the damage was done.

It saddened me to read, again and again, testimonies of people who said they didn’t think Muslins and Serbs could live side by side in peace ever again. I can very well imagine sharing their fear and anger if I were in their shoes, but at the same time, this is exactly how the cycle of dehumanisation and mistrust begins again.

Safe Area Goražde by Joe Sacco

I should tell you that Safe Area Goražde is at times an incredibly violent book, but this is the kind of violence that has a clear purpose – it’s not meant to shock, but to shake the reader out of the kind of sense of distance and complacency we tend to slip into far too easily. I find the comics medium particularly effective when it comes to this, as it can make people see the horrors that took place during a war without the immediate shock value of, say, a photograph or a film. Sometimes graphic violence can cause people to refuse to engage with a story out of pure self-preservation (and I wouldn’t ever blame anyone for doing this). But I find that comics, particularly black and white ones, are less prone to causing that kind of gut-reaction, but at the same time still maintain much of the sheer power of an image.

Joe Sacco is very critical of the role the UN and the international community in general played – or failed to play – in the war, as well as of the concept of a “safe area” and of how absolutely bogus it was. And given the circumstances, I cannot blame him at all. As I said before, I don’t feel I know enough to discuss the politics of the war in any amount of detail, but the fact remains that massacre after massacre took place in Europe in the 1990’s, while the world stood by and watched. And of how many places could we say the same since then?

All of this is very recent history – I clearly remember hearing all about Bosnia in the news in the early 90’s (though mostly about Sarajevo), but I was too young at the time to be properly aware of what was going on. The impression I have, however, is that even people much older than myself were only dimly aware of what was happening, and that even today there’s a large amount of ignorance or embarrassed silence surrounding the whole subject. Which is why books like this matter so much – they make history impossible to ignore. If you have a moment to spare, I urge to read this post about Srebrenica by a fellow book blogger, as it’s sure to make this particular chapter of history feel much less remote. And then find yourself a copy of Safe Area Goražde. It’s quite a wake up call, and it’s an amazing and unforgettable read.

Safe Area Goražde by Joe Sacco

They read it too:
Regular Rumination
Valentina’s Room
Boston Bibliophile

(Have I missed yours?)


  1. Wonderful review, Ana! It was really a tragedy in the 1990s, when the people of Bosnia suffered and the world sat and watched, while organizations like the UN didn't do much to stop the tragedy. From your review, Joe Sacco's book seems to have captured that graphically. I will add this book to my wishlist and will search for it. After reading your book, I remembered a book on a similar topic that I read sometime back - it was called 'Fax from Sarajevo' by Joe Kubert. It was also a graphic novel on the Bosnian tragedy set in the 1990s. I would recommend that too. If you are interested, you can find my review of it here -

    By an interesting coincidence, I got a Joe Sacco book recently :) It is called 'Footnotes in Gaza'.

  2. "...while the world stood by and watched. And of how many places could we say the same since then?" If the answer to that were "one" it would, of course, be too high a number. And unfortunately, the number is much higher than one.

    I hate admitting that I know far too little about the war as well. And much of what I do know, I learned from reading Fax From Sarajevo. I think you'd enjoy it as well, and it definitely does not sound like the two books are so similar as to be redundant.

    Thanks for adding to my wish list, Ana. *said honestly, without a hint of sarcasm*

  3. I really enjoyed PALESTINE by Sacco and I've been meaning to read this. I don't handle violence well but as you say, the issues are so pertinent.

    I started reading the summary you had of the issue and I immediately thought of HALF OF A YELLOW SUN, which I just read. And then you mentioned it! Obviously one of those times when it's hard to imagine it wasn't stopped.

  4. Vishy and Debi, thank you both for the recommendation! I'll pick up Fax From Sarajevo for sure. And I have no doubt you'll both appreciate this one.

    Rebecca: I need to read Palestine myself! It does seem incredible that it wasn't stopped, but then again, there's also Rwanda, Darfur, and the list goes on :\

  5. I read this comic and honestly, I was one of those people who knew absolutely nothing. Thank god for books like this. The panel that struck me the most was when Sacco was sitting in a living room talking to some girls. They asked him if people in the US knew about what was going on. Of course most people probably didn't (and don't).

  6. Great review. I'll have to look this one up. I've read a number of books on the recent war in the Balkans and they are all so horrifying. The world definitely failed, big time. Creating safe zones and not keeping them safe was essentially just rounding people up for slaughter in some cases. It's so incredibly sad and yet we still haven't learned our lesson. If it happened again, I can't even be sure we would react any better. How sad is that?!!?

  7. Why oh why does the world keep repeating this same mistake over and over again? We're supposed to learn from our mistakes, but it sure doesn't seem like we do. This sounds like such a powerful book.

  8. Reading books like this is at once fascinating, horrifying, and important. Thanks for the suggestion.

  9. I find the comics medium particularly effective when it comes to this, as it can make people see the horrors that took place during a war without the immediate shock value of, say, a photograph or a film. Sometimes graphic violence can cause people to refuse to engage with a story out of pure self-preservation (and I wouldn’t ever blame anyone for doing this). But I find that comics, particularly black and white ones, are less prone to causing that kind of gut-reaction, but at the same time still maintain much of the sheer power of an image.

    This is so true, Ana–by being a drawing, it removes that visceral element so it can engage the reader on almost a purely intellectual level, which is, perhaps, why nonfiction often works so well in comic format.

  10. I know very little of the happenings in Bosnia, other than the fact that it was a war zone. It sounds like this book is a powerful way to inform myself and to be able to get an idea of that scope of what went on there. I like that you mention the fact that graphic novels such as this one seem to sanitize the violence and portray it in a way that is not stomach-turning, but still effective.

  11. What I remember about this from the news in the 90s (when I was pre-teen/teen and sadly worrying over other less important things) is how much we talked about how we'd let it happen again.
    And we do, again and again.

    Thanks for this recommendation, it sounds like a great book. And thanks for the link to that blog post, it made me cry.

  12. I've seen other reviews of this comic, and it looks amazing. Thanks for the reminder to pick it up. I have similar memories to you - I think I'm slightly older, but I was still very vague about world events when all this was going on.

    Your points about the comic format maintaining the power of the image while providing that slight amount of distance, is such a good one.

  13. I really loved this book. Your review was great - I especially liked the point you made about black & white comics being a good medium to draw people into the story without being overwhelming - I hadn't though of that, but it's definitely true.

  14. I'm a big fan of Joe Sacco's work.

    I bought War's End (another non-fiction graphic novel about Sacco's experiences in Bosnia) on a whim and within a week had bought Palestine as well. Sacco knows how to tell a good (true) story. And the art work puts you in the place of the books in a way that words alone can't really accomplish in the same way.

    It's been a few years since I read any Sacco. I might have to head back to the bookstore to add to my collection!

  15. I've wanted to read this one for a long time but sadly it's not available in my area in any way. :(

  16. I've picked up Sacco's books a time or two, when I've been looking through the comics/graphic novel shelves at my local store. Didn't know much about him though.

    But, wow, this review makes me want to read him though!

  17. yeah..I'll definitely have to read this one...sadly, I know very little about this too :( I remember hearing about it every now and then on the news, but no one ever REALLY knew about what was going on...which is sad. Even more sad is that things like this happen at all. Like you said...that one side decides that someone isn't human just because they are well, them. A cycle that just seems to never end :(

  18. I'm very interested in novels about the Balkans, but somehow this comic had slipped my radar until now. I already reserved it from the library and noticed that Sacco has written also other comics about the Balkan wars.
    My absotulely favorite novel about the war in Bosnia is The Cellist of Sarajevo. If you are interested, here's a link to a post I wrote last year Towards the end of the post I talk about The Cellist & mention some other novels about the Balkan region.


  19. Wonderful review of a very tough subject, one people should know more about, but don't. Thank you for this recommendation.

  20. Lu: I remember that one very clearly. It made me so sad :\ And where it says US it could easily say "the rest of Europe".

    Amy: Yes, exactly! Sacco often sounds very angry about that, and with good reason.

    Kathy: The saddest thing of all is that I don't think we're done Not Learning :\

    Trisha, it really is. You're most welcome!

    Clare: Yes, absolutely. A lot of my favourite comics are nonfiction, and I'm sure this has something to do with it.

    Zibilee: That thought hadn't occurred to me until I read this, but I really think it's a big part of why the book worked so well!

    Amy: It made me cry too. Lena is such a wonderful writer.

    Emily: You're welcome! I think you're find it every bit as rewarding a read as I did.

    Carina: It took me many books of this kind for this to dawn on me, but it does seem to be true, doesn't it? I don't think I could have handled a documentary about these events, for example. But the comic, while upsetting and moving, was not overwhelming.

    Jen: I can't wait to get my hands on his other books. Luckily my library carries almost all of them!

    Amanda: That is such a pity :(

    Darren: Do read him! He's amazingly talented.

    Chris: I hate the whole concept of "us" vs "them" SO much. And yet it seems to be everywhere :(

    Tiina: Thank you so much for the suggestions! After this, I'm definitely interested in reading more about the war, so your list will come in handy for sure.

    Jenny Girl: You're welcome! I do wish the world at large (myself included of course) knew more about this.

  21. Wow - I think I'll have to pick this up sometime™!

    I feel completely uninformed about a lot of things. Some of our students really love non-fiction graphic novels, and I keep meaning to try a few out and maybe add to my future collection. Thank you for the review!

  22. Wow! I had no idea this book existed. I'm going to see if I can get a copy. Excellent review, Nymeth.

  23. I have another of Sacco's graphic novels to read (Palestine). I hadn't heard about this one, but will have to look for it. I have a friend who lives in Croatia, and while she was not directly involved in what happened in Bosnia, it was too close for comfort. I will definitely have to look for this one.

  24. I had the same sense of the media coverage in the nineties. "This is so awful and strange if it's real, I don't understand, nobody's really interested, it's just an occasional artistically grim picture of a dead body in the newspaper." It does feel like a historical black-out in the national (I can't speak for international) consciousness. All the weirder because it is so recent. Thank you for the wonderful review, I plan to read this book!

  25. TopherGL: They are a great way of being introduced to these corner of histories so many of us seem to have missed!

    Vasilly: It'll be a great choice for next year's challenge!

    Wendy: Palestine also sounds so good! And I can imagine how much more horrifying the 90's must have been to your friend :\ Sometimes we need to have these things happen near us to really perceive them as real. One reason why I love books like this is exactly because they help bridge that gap.

    Trapunto: It was pretty much the same in Western Europe. I was talking to my parents on Skype a few days after I finished the book, and just out of curiosity I asked them what they remembered of the war. They knew it had been bad, but only in a vague, distanced sort of way. I don't blame them, because that was all the information they had access to - and there was no widespread Internet use to help bypass the traditional media's deficiencies. Sadly, I'm not sure how much better it would be now that the world is supposedly all connected. On the one hand, there's Iran, but on the other hand there's Darfur...


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.