Ethnic Cleansing: The Comic Strip

The siege of a city from Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde

THE BOSNIAN SOLDIER looks grim at first, his face a screen that somehow projects what he has just seen in the battle zone. Suddenly in the next panel his countenance lights up and he belts out a crazed version of "Hotel California," not missing the irony of the line "You can never leave."

Cartoonist Joe Sacco sketched these stark black-and-white images from experiences collected during four months spent in the war zone. As a self-declared "war junkie," Sacco set out in 1995 for the Bosnian town of Gorazde, a provincial town 20 miles east of Sarajevo. Although deep into Serb-held territory, the area was dubbed a "safe area" by the United Nations peacekeepers: Then-U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali more realistically called it "the most unsafe place in the world." President Clinton, while still dodging Western involvement, labeled it a "shooting gallery" owing to the Serbs who controlled the hills above the town and took pot shots at pedestrians.

Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde (Fantagraphics Books) details the personal stories of the Bosnian victims and the fighters alike. "It's not your typical comic fare," Sacco says from his New York apartment, "but it's intrigued people that otherwise wouldn't have seen anything about Bosnia."

This latest comic comes on the heels of Sacco's two-volume graphic novel Palestine, which won the American Book Award for its firsthand accounts of troubles in the Holy Land. While other journalists stopped by for the day in Gorazde, got the interview, filed the story and went back to their hotels, Sacco lived with people in the town to acquire a more immediate understanding of the war. Rather than a body count, Sacco got subjective.

Bosnians are drawn by Sacco in a realistic light against a backdrop of bombed-out buildings. One thinks here of Art Spiegelman's quote that "in a world where Photoshop has outed the photographer to be a liar, one can now allow artists to return to their original functions--as reporters." Yet unlike Spiegelman's Maus, Sacco doesn't depict his Serbs metaphorically as monstrous cats, nor his Bosnians as helpless mice. Instead, Sacco is often quite literal-minded, his pen acting as his camera to create snapshot drawings of the people he meets.

At other times Sacco allows his narrative sympathies to play out more explicitly through his cartooning technique: As survivors recount their horrors, Sacco sometimes adds dark rings shadowing the eyes. Meanwhile, he draws himself in the lines of someone plucked from an R. Crumb comic. "I draw myself very cartoony," he admits of his unflattering self-portraits.

The fact that Sacco appears in his own story emphasizes his particular experience in the city, and his relationship to its doomed occupants. Safe Area Gorazde largely involves a man named Edin, a Bosnian schoolteacher who took in the American cartoonist and introduced him to the victims of this conflict. Edin's woes, and those of his neighbors, are manifold: Food is scarce, cigarettes are essential to survive the siege of boredom, and blue jeans are gold (only authentic American-made Levis will win smiles from Gorazde's beleaguered young women). Such petty amusements and survival techniques stand in sharp contrast to the uncontrollable nature of the ethnic conflict itself, which has seen even Edin's friendly Serbian neighbors become the enemy.

Sacco's own relationship to his subjects, though considerably warmer, is itself complex. Nearly five years after returning from the surrounded city, Sacco now finds himself sending copies of his comic to friends left behind. "I just hope they don't nitpick about the details," he says. "I don't know exactly what they were wearing when it took place, for example. Whether it was tennis shoes or boots. I'm just guessing at a certain point."

Sacco hopes to return to Bosnia someday, but many of his characters will probably be gone. "I recently saw photos of Gorazde and a lot has been rebuilt on the outside," he says. "But Edin has no job and everyone is trying to leave. There's always the realization that the war could start again at any time." The fact that Sacco doesn't expect another round of conflict doesn't exactly mean he's optimistic about a rapprochement between the factions: "I think that both sides are just spent and can't fight anymore."

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