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Some Reflections on bosnia, sarajevo, and goraŽde by Joe Sacco

My impetus to go to Bosnia was anger over a war that seemed more about slaughter than about combat between armies…

turbing but, somehow, also absurd, and for me it came out of the blue. A short time later Croatia, too, broke its bond with Yugoslavia, and fighting and ethnic cleansing on a large scale began in earnest. In an effort to get some inkling of what was going on, I read experts and heard pundits who blathered about “ancient hatreds,” which are always code words for “you wouldn’t understand anyway” and “it’s no business of ours.” Admittedly, it was easy to read an article or two and look at a disturbing photograph, and then put the troubling thing out of mind with a turn of a newspaper page. In any case, I was focused on another conflict, the one between Israelis and Palestinians, and I was busy with a series of comics about the trip I had taken to the Occupied Territories. In April 1992, it was Bosnia’s turn to break from Yugoslavia and face the consequences. At first, the outbreak of hostilities there compounded my confusion, adding more actors and claims to the events in the Balkans. But Bosnia had something special that soon anchored my mind and helped me focus. Bosnia had Sarajevo. Sarajevo had been host city of the 1984 winter Olympics as well as the spot where the First World War was ignited, so its name was already familiar to me. But more than that, Sarajevo, which was under siege and suffering from fierce bombardment and sniper fire, almost immediately began to stand for the human desire to live together rather than fracture along ready-made fault lines. Serbs, Croats, and Muslims there

…If that assessment of the events in the early 1990s in the newly independent Balkan state lacked nuance — and perhaps it did — I still think it was correct: Bosnian civilians were being murdered and expelled by nationalist Bosnian Serbs, who were aided by arms, soldiers, and militias from what was left of Yugoslavia. In conflicts subsequent to the First World War, civilians have been the overwhelming victims, and in this regard what happened in Bosnia was much like any number of conflicts waged in recent memory. What made the Bosnian war unusual and even shocking for a Westerner was that it pitted European against European, and such a thing hardly seemed conceivable to those of us lulled by the long “forever peace” that began in 1945. (This view admits to a certain Eurocentricity, and later some of my colleagues and I wondered why we weren’t in Rwanda, which was suffering an enormous cataclysm at the same time, instead. I leave it to the pedants to sort out how we should have answered the question.) I must acknowledge my own difficulty grappling with the ugly novelty of the Balkan situation when it spiraled out of control in 1991. I was living in Berlin when Slovenia began what was to be a string of secessions from Yugoslavia. On a drive to Munich to see a rock show, I half-jokingly suggested to my friend Christof Ellinghaus that we continue southward for a few more hours to witness the spectacle of Yugoslav jets strafing Slovenian roadways. The short but sharp violence — so nearby — as Slovenia asserted its independence was disvii


followed NATO airstrikes on the Serbs mandated U.N. access to the enclave. I was initially reluctant to visit Goražde because it seemed like the story du jour, but eventually curiosity as well as a feeling of stasis with my work in Sarajevo got the better of me, and I joined a U.N. convoy on its way to deliver food and parcels there. I fell in love with Goražde on that first trip. The people were warm and inviting and lacked the initial aloofness of Sarajevans, who had seen more international journalists than they could stomach and had become wary of the benefits of “coverage”. In Goražde, people had had little opportunity to tell their stories. Their situation was still precarious, and they wanted an ear. Before my first drunken night was over, I had decided that Goražde would be the primary subject of my work in Bosnia. Here was a town that had, if anything, been tested more sorely than Sarajevo, that had almost been conquered twice, that had been even more overwhelmed by refugees, and that had escaped the fate of Srebrenica, another so-called “Safe Area,” by a whisker. In Goražde I found people caught between the dreaded possibility of the war erupting around them again and a growing hope that maybe, just maybe, the guns would stay silent and life could move forward again, step by precious step. For my own purposes, I couldn’t have arrived at a more revealing time. Other journalists told me that after a few hours Goražde had bored them. Some Sarajevans couldn’t understand my interest in a provincial backwater and were too caught up in their own mythos to worry about its fate. But I longed to get back to Goražde when I wasn’t there; I longed to see my friends and find out how they were adjusting to the new, slowly improving realities. And once peace was an established fact, those individuals moved on with varying degrees of success. Some of them left Goražde. Some of them stayed because Goražde had always been their home. Others, who had arrived as refugees during the war, stayed because they had nowhere else to go; their former villages and towns were left in Serb-controlled territory by the peace accords. In any case, individual stories could now begin as the collective story, of all those individuals trapped in a place together, ended. Goražde as a place had survived, linked by a corridor to Sarajevo. Goražde as a people in a moment between death and deliverance was gone forever, and it was that moment I tried to preserve in this book. ◆

purposefully affirmed and proved that they could live and work together despite the ethnic-based killing going on around them. It is difficult to overestimate the sort of intellectual courage it took for these individuals not to give in to paranoia or retreat into their groups under such circumstances. Many Western journalists were impressed, and their admiration shone through in their articles and reports, which helped seduce me, too. Of course, this beautiful Sarajevo was only a piece of the story. The other reality was the Sarajevo in which mostly Muslim, quasi-criminal militias defending the city murdered scores of Serbs or evicted them from their homes (which I would detail in a later book called The Fixer). These groups were eventually crushed by the Bosnian government as it slowly got to its feet, but the ruptures they caused served as a disturbing counterpoint to the ideas of a much-touted but small group of Sarajevan cosmopolitans. In any case, because of Sarajevo I began to pay close attention to the wider war. I read everything I could about the politics of the former Yugoslavia and the history of the region, and I began to untangle the mess the media had dropped into my lap. I soon became angry at the international community’s insistence on treating Bosnia as a humanitarian case, as if feeding and clothing the victims of war was the issue and not the war itself. The Serb nationalists were behaving monstrously, and I thought a genuine effort — including using force, if necessary — should be made to stop them. Eventually, the need to take some sort of personal action, to impose myself constructively, became my own imperative, and I decided to go to Sarajevo to report on what was going on myself. I arrived there in September 1995 after a long journey, which I outline, perhaps for your amusement, in the pages of this book. In Sarajevo, I did indeed find that kernel of humanity I had been promised. It resided in, among other places, bars like Club Obala and in the studios of Radio Zid. For the young people who embodied the Sarajevan ideal, diversity per se was not the issue and ethnicity was less a matter to celebrate than ignore. But there was something that troubled me about this educated, attractive, and culture-hungry group. Many of those who could get past ethnic differences seemed to stumble on the country-city divide. Some of them shared the rest of Sarajevo’s antipathy for the refugees that had streamed into the city from the war-ravaged countryside. The refugees, who had sometimes arrived with little more than the clothes on their back, were not a welcome sight. They were uncouth; they were bumpkins; some of them had brought their farm animals with them. The refugees were called hooves, and Sarajevans feared less that the hooves would not assimilate to city ways than that they would turn their beloved city into a smelly country village. About six weeks after arriving in Sarajevo, I had the opportunity to go to Goražde, the last remaining town in eastern Bosnia not under Serb control. Until that point, Goražde had been under its own murderous siege and it was still cut off from the rest of Bosnia, but the provisions of a cease-fire that

­— Joe Sacco October 2010

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Safe Area Gorazde  

Safe Area Gorazde

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