Journalist Joe Sacco wrote two graphic novels about his experiences in Bosnia, which, in a comprehensive and engaging manner, bring to light the complexities and horrors of the Bosnian War (1992-1995). As graphic novels, they give us not only words to follow, but also images – often finally detailed and showing us portraits of the people Sacco has met. Meanwhile, their visualisations of massacres and (graphic) violence linger in the memory longer, perhaps, than unaccompanied words. While it may seem strange that Sacco has essentially created war comics – of recent events – it actually turns out to be the perfect format for the stories he’s telling.
Safe Area Goražde (2000) recounts Sacco’s experiences in the enclave town of Goražde in Eastern Bosnia. Declared a ‘safe zone’ by the UN, Goražde was cut off from the rest of the country, and surrounded by Serb military forces: none of the inhabitants, unless gravely injured, could get out, while only UN forces and journalists were allowed in on a special route, known as ‘the Blue Road.’
Sacco makes friends with a number of locals, most importantly Edin, an engineering student who works as a teacher after leaving the front. Edin introduces Sacco to his family and friends – like Ricky, who knows all sorts of songs by the Eagles, Beatles and Rolling Stones. Bit by bit, they tell the journalist their torrid tales of massacres, partisan groups, snipers and personal – sometimes overwhelming – loss. Sacco doesn’t only give the witnesses their own voice, but draws their experiences too in harrowingly honest fashion. Impossible though it seems that a graphic novel with such simple drawings and language could ever attain the status of serious war literature, Safe Area Goražde deftly manages it. Though the slang argot takes some getting used to – as much in Sacco’s own narrations as those of the people he interacts with – this by the end is exactly what makes the book so grittily authentic and sincere.
Because Safe Area Goražde is about a relatively marginal town, we gain insight into the war mostly from the sidelines, but from people who have seen and experienced everything. A moving moment comes with a comment from Edin’s mother on her Serb neighbours – once, she says, they were the best of friends, but after all that’s happened, there’s no going back. The deep distrust and pain between ethnic groups once happily coexistent is palpable, and unlike the war, it has no obvious end: a haunting legacy of the conflict, which cannot be simply thought away.
People’s personal accounts from Goražde bring this home better than anything else. Another legacy of the war was people’s drive afterwards to ‘get away’ and start a new life. Given the current refugee crisis, the story thus makes a hard-hitting point for the now: through Ema and Lejla’s stories – ambitious young women bored to numbness after three years (literally) trapped in Goražde – we realise it’s only to natural that, even in the conflict’s late stages, they’d want to pick up somewhere new. War, it’s brought home, doesn’t just vanish when peace is declared. It has a very long afterlife, in Bosnia as anywhere else.
Sacco’s second Bosnia novel The Fixer (2003) picks up in the place where so many of his friends in Gorazde later move to: Bosnian capital Sarajevo. But The Fixer is less about the city than one of its most intriguing and suspicious residents: Fixer Neven. Neven’s job is to connect foreign journalists, showing them round, taking them to battlefields and bending their ears with the tallest of stories. As recounted, he started out as a criminal before throwing in his lot as a soldier on the Bosnian side of the war – a no-brainer for Neven despite his half Serb, half Bosnian heritage. His war stories are those of a fanatical braggart and show-off, particularly his recollections of the city’s most fearsome
paramilitary groups, their pop-star leaders and their greed and violence – making them prime targets for a Bosnian government who employed them in the first place. We learn too about Neven’s own fights as part of a wild elite troop who defeated four Serbian tanks with just a few men. Other soldiers brand him a liar, an accusation all too believable for readers: for Neven’s accounts are like Hollywood action movies, too bombastic to be fact – and, indeed, a perfect means of extorting money from Sacco. But instead of painting him as a wild criminal, Sacco shows the Fixer as rough only on the outside. When, finally, another soldier confirms that Neven’s stories were ‘probably true,’ it seems almost irrelevant. This much is clear: the war has left its lasting scar on the Fixer as on others. Like the people from Goražde he wants a better life – yet his experience of conflict cannot simply be left behind.
Somehow, Sacco’s stories make you wonder how much influence he’s had on them. Does he show us just what he was told? Did he alter anything to fit the narrative? Despite these fleeting doubts, Safe Area Goražde and The Fixer are both engaging accounts of the Bosnian war and its aftermath – with personal experiences transferable to the legacies of any war. Particularly cynical towards the Western media’s hunt to find a ‘good story’ – in times when there are far more serious issues at hand – the books are equally unforgiving of NATO’s and the UN’s woefully inadequate response. Yet they don’t make great claims about truthfulness, which is exactly their charm: as grassroots stories the novels leave us guessing and wondering, making sure that the war and the people suffering from it won’t be quickly forgotten.
Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde and The Fixer are both available from Amazon.co.uk, priced at £14.99.