Friday, 8 May 2009

Safe Area Goražde - Joe Sacco

Before reading this I had a very vague idea of what happened in the early 90's in Bosnia. I couldn't have picked a better book to introduce me to this topic.
This graphic novel is a brilliant reportage written by Joe Sacco, who decided that in order to tell the world about the Bosnian war, he couldn't just be a normal daytime journalist, there in the morning, gone by the evening. He had to live with the locals, talk to them, eat with them, even become friends with them. Between late 1995 and early 1996 he has travelled to Goražde four times, staying at Edin's (his translator and closest friend there) most of the time.
Why Goražde? Because they were still there. Of the eastern UN designated Safe Areas, only Goražde had survived the ethnic cleansing. But also because...who has ever heard of Goražde? The press concentrated on Sarajevo, making the capital look like a privileged area to those left on the eastern Bosnian areas. The media forgot all about those small towns left to fight for their lives with barely any weapon to defend them.
Now here these people are given a chance to tell their stories. The main voice is Edin's. We get to know him closely, meet this parents, his friends, even his dog. It's him who starts telling how they lived before the war, how different ethnicities coexisted peacefully:

"I didn't make any distinction between Serb, Croat, and Muslim children. We were always, in forests, on the playground, the stadium..."

He goes on to give a brief historic background of the area, which I particularly appreciated, because when we covered that in school I must have been sleeping.

Through Edin's voice, and through all the other witnesses that are interviewed, the war is being given faces and names. Real people! Gradually I came to care for them and to worry for their safety, even though I knew that those who were telling the story survived. But at what price.
I learned how they were forced to live in fear for years. How their houses were burned, with all their memories and belongings. How they risked their lives to get food that would last for one or two weeks. There are stories of incredible cruelties, unconceivable violence, of rapes and humiliation. Of mass murders and mass graves.
It's not an easy read, you can imagine that. It takes time to digest everything, even to turn the page, sometimes. I still haven't come to terms with all that unjustified violence. It's there, clear as day, drawn vividly in front of you. Sometimes it was more horrifying than a horror movie. Because it really happened, and barely anything has been done to stop it.
If it sounds a heavy read, I won't deny it. But Sacco has managed to include some humour in it, too. Some light and funny moments, sharing his chats with the locals, making fun of himself, of the journalists, of his friends. Riki, for example, with his unbeatable optimism and his love for American songs, is one I will not forget easily.

I loved Sacco's irony and amused observations.
But what I loved most was the obvious passion he puts in his work. It's intimate, detailed, shocking and highly informative. It should be required reading in high schools.

I wish I didn't have to return it to the library, because one read is not enough to grasp everything. So many stories, so many nightmares, and so little international help.
I was appalled at the lack of support that the Bosnian Muslims had, from the UN (so called) peacekeepers. The little faith I had in this organization has crumbled like a shelled house.
At some point, towards the end, Edin is shown defending his town with few others, hiding in an abandoned house and watching the tanks advancing helplessly.
"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"

Luckily they survived. But the consequences were enormous.
This is definitely not a comprehensive view on the Bosnian war, but it could be a great introduction.
I don't think this book is widely read as it should be. I'm going to make sure at least my best friends get a copy!

Another review:
The boston bibliophile


Amanda said...

Wow, this sounds fantastic! I'm adding it to my TBR list right away, thanks. :)

celine said...

Such a brilliant book. When you think of the amount of time that goes into a graphic novel and the risk that an author/artist takes putting all that work into something which is potentially unmarketable you appreciate Sacco's work even more. Great review!

Ana S. said...

wow, I HAVE to read this. I'm ashamed to say that I know nearly nothing about what went on in Bosnia, but it's the truth. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention.

lauren said...

This looks excellent. Thanks for the review! I lived and worked in Croatia and Bosnia for a while just after the war, and it's great to see the vibrant artistic community of that area coming back to life, stronger than ever.

Debi said...

Oh Valentina, what a wonderful review! I want this book so badly. Just a month or so ago I read Fax from Sarajevo, also a graphic novel about the genocide in Bosnia. That line you quoted, "I didn't make any distinction between Serb, Croat, and Muslim children. We were always, in forests, on the playground, the stadium..." really struck me...I swear there was a line almost identical to that in Fax. It was such a powerful statement, you know.

valentina said...

Amanda, that's great! I really hope more people will read it.

Celine, that's true, I wouldn't think this was a bestseller,but it got huge recognition from the media.
You are also working on a graphic novel, aren't you?

Nymeth, you're welcome:) This book made me want to read a lot more about Bosnia. I've already one little book ready, which should be lighter, but good too. I can't wait!

Lauren, how wonderful! I'd love to go there now and see how things are going. Good to know that their artistic spirit hasn't been crushed

Debi, I've put Fax on my wishlist immediately after I read your review because I had just finished reading this! I've recently mooched another book by Joe Kubert, "Yossel", have you heard about it? It looks good but really gloomy, I'll think I'll give it sometimes before reading it:P

Laura said...

Hi! You say you must have been sleeping when they explained this at school, but I don't think they ever talked about the conflict in the Balkans. As you said, even the media didn't cover the whole of such a complex reality. I find the topic fascinating, I'd love to read this novel sooner or later. A stunning good reading about the Balkans is Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West (1941) which is considered one of the best 100 non fiction books of the XX century.

celine said...

Laura: Will have to give Black Lamb grey Falcon a read! Sounds v interesting.

Valentina: Did your workmates give you my thanks for keeping Dust100Dogs for me? I'm so sorry I missed you but Wednesday was filled with bookaward shmoose and I wasn't able to get in til the Thursday.

Yes. I am working on a GN - I think I'll still be working on it when I'm an ancient crone. Writing books is so much easier LOL!