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.
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.
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.
They read it too:
(Have I missed yours?)