bosnia report
New Series No: 19/20 October - December 2000
 
The Draftsman's Contract
by Christopher Hitchens

The Draftsman's Contract

Christopher Hitchens

Review of Safe Area Gorazde : the war in Eastern Bosnia 1992-5, by Joe Sacco, Fantagraphics, 240 pp., $28.95

 

 

In Sarajevo in the summer of 1992, when the journalistic community (which had already annexed the old British phrase ‘the hacks’ as its collective noun) met in the bar of the disfigured Holiday Inn -and that phrase itself suggests the surreal nature of things, with a Holiday Inn being disfigured rather than disfiguring -there were all sorts ofcompetitive anecdotes about near misses, random encounters and different styles of flak jacket. Every now and then, I noticed, the journalistsalso spoke of a place that might be even more frightening than Sarajevo itself. There was apparently this town, once not far off but now, with the blockade, as unimaginably difficult of access as Dubrovnik on the coast or distant Zagreb. (Thus was the Balkanization of the mind slowlyaccomplished by common speech about ‘areas,’ ‘districts’ and the still more alien ‘zones.’) It took me a while to connect the name of this place to the spelling on my map, because when they discussed it--in frequent faint radio transmissions; rumors of mayhem and rape, of famine and even of cannibalism--foreign hacks distributed the emphasis differently eachtime. Gore-aj-day, Gorr-as-dee. Anyway, the somewhat homely title denoted a location more comprehensively f---ed up and f---ed over than Sarajevo,and thus to be looked up to, or looked down upon, according to choice or mood.

Having persisted so long as an affront to civilization and having ended so abruptly with the most compromising compromise that Holbrookian statecraft could confect, the siege of Sarajevo (and the obliteration of the civilian ‘safe havens’ at Srebrenica and Zepa) have passed into an area of the semi-conscious. In a dim fashion, people apprehend that the mass graves of the latter were the price-and the pressure-for a Bosnian signature at Dayton. Yet did this not after all constitute peace? Even a peace ‘process’? How excellent it is, then, that just as we are all forgiving ourselves, Joe Sacco steps forward to clear his throat and our vision. How excellent it is, too, that he should have hit upon unfashionable, inaccessible old Gorazde and not one of the war's more chic or celebrated spots.

The first thing that one must praise is the combination of eye and ear. I personally always fail at physical depiction on the page, though I can sometimes catch the nuance of a voice. And I'm referring only to verbal capacity. Sacco's combined word-illustration makes me remember that distinctive Bosnian domestic architecture--the gable endsand windows--with a few deft strokes. You know where you are, in other words, and it's not in some generic hot spot. Then the additional details, such as the unforgettable ‘bear's paw’ scar that a mortar shell makes on a pavement. And--more easily replicated but still impressive--the forlorn look of a wood-built house that's been reduced by fire to a silhouette and a brick chimney stack. These, in Bosnia, became as suggestive as church steeples or minarets (more distinctive than the latter, actually, since most mosques were deliberately dynamited by Serbian chauvinists during periods of ‘cease-fire’).

As to the ear, I haven't seen it more candidly admitted that the Bosnian war was in so many ways a carnival of embarrassment. On one side was a host of international volunteers, aid workers, charity-artists and of course hacks, who all desperately wanted to avoid the charge of being voyeuristic or starry-eyed. This sometimes led to a sort of protective cynicism; sometimes to an idealism that did not quite dare to speak its name. Then there were the actual inhabitants, heirs to a long tradition of hospitality and gusto, who knew that foreign sympathy was their main hope but didn't want to become absolute whores for it. Languagewas a sort of barrier, but it often seemed put there only as a test of the local plum brandy. This could lead to unintentional awkwardness and forced bonhomie (‘You are American?’ ‘No.’ ‘Ah--you are German--we like deutschemarks very much ha ha ha.’ ‘No.’ ‘Where are you from?’ ‘England.’ ‘English people very good.’)

Joe Sacco, inspired by Goya in the style of Spiegelman, was evidently no blissed-out internationalist, still less a furry member of any moujahedeen, but nor--though he draws himself into his frames as if he wanted us to forgive him a little--was he some affectless, disengaged Zelig. Bosnians are made of human materials and thus make bad subjects for romanticization, yet he found out by dint of punctilious observation, and succeeds in making plain, that they had no aggressive intentions toward their neighbors. Toward their ‘neighbors,’ that is to say, whether as contiguous former Yugoslav republics or as people living next door. Bosnia threatened nobody: Bosnians were defined by their long and easygoing habit of coexistence. Those who butchered and dispersed them had to lie and shriek, as a thug or rapist will psych himself up to do something foul. If this is not the entire story, it is still the indispensable element without which no truthful story can be told. Sacco tells it through the microcosm of Gorazde, and we're in his debt.

* * *

A microcosm needs its context, and again I found myself impressed by his encapsulations. The historical and geographic inserts are objective and do not omit the moments when Bosnians, and Bosnian Islam, were historically compromised (most notably in World War II). The Bosnians we meet in these pages are not heroic - though some of them are exemplary - and their greeds and needs are recognizable to any American or European: recognizable to the point of banality. Well then, Sacco seems to be saying, will you turn away from the extermination and dispossession of those who are so much like your own unlovely self? He at any rate could not do so: good for him.

When there is bile in these pages - and I could quite frankly have done with several more pints and quarts of it - it is not directed at ‘the Serbs’. Even in their extremity, Bosnian victims referred to Serbo-fascists as ‘Chetniks’ and thus honorably agreed to loathe them under a political and historical and not an ethnic rubric. No, the contempt is reserved for the temporizing, buck-passing, butt-covering ‘peacekeepers’ who strove to find that swamp of low moral and ‘middle’ ground into which the innocent end up being shoveled by the aggressive. Why was that road from Sarajevo to Gorazde so impassable? It had been wide open through several decades of inefficient state socialism, after all. Why did NATO armies, readied through the same decades to launch a thermonuclear war on a moment's notice, find it inconvenient to face down a flimsy roadblock manned by a rabble of drunken racists? Nobody whoever saw this miserable enactment will ever forget it: no one who ever witnessed it will ever wonder why some of the worst episodes in human history appeared to happen in plain sight and without shame. It became essential for the post-Cold War gatekeepers to define Chetniks and Bosnian civilians as equivalent - echoing the propaganda of Miloševic, their ‘partner in peace’ until 1999 - because otherwise the shame might have become insupportable.

I now, having unburdened myself, feel rather shy about saying that Sacco is also funny, and ironic, and self-mocking. We have been told that ‘it takes a village’ and - never mind the implication for now - it probably does. A village or small town like Gorazde can mature for years in history's cask, ripening away for all its provincialism. The large majority of its citizens may be content or at any rate reconciled. But the awful and frightening fact about fascism is that it ‘takes’ only a few gestures (a pig's head in a mosque; a rumor of the kidnap of a child; an armed provocation at a wedding) to unsettle or even undo the communal and humane work of generations. Normally the fascists don't have the guts to try it, they need the reassurance of support from superiors or aid from an outside power and they need to know that ‘law,’ defined nationally or internationally, will be a joke at the expense of their victims. In Bosnia they were granted all three indulgences. But even at the edge of those medieval paintings of breakdown and panic and mania, when people still thought the heavens might aid them, there was often the oblique figure at the edge of the scene, who might hope to record and outlive the carnage and perhaps help rebuild the community. Call him the moral draftsman, at least for now, and be grateful for small mercies.

This essay, which appears as the introduction to Safe Area Gorazde, was published in the Los Angeles Times,

11 June 2000

*****

The Bosnian Institute, with Fantagraphics Books and the Sarajevo Center for Contemporary Arts (SCCA), sponsored the Bosnian launch of Safe Area Gorazde, on 23 November 2000 at Buybook, Radiceva 4, Sarajevo. Sacco spent 4 months in Bosnia in 1995-6 researching stories that are rarely found in conventional news coverage. His stay in the country led to a highly-acclaimed series of work, including Christmas with Karadzic, Soba, and his latest, Safe Area Gorazde. In 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning artist Art Spiegelman commissioned Sacco to record sessions of the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague for Details magazine; his piece was hailed as one of the best pieces of journalism in the magazine's history.

‘His drawings capture Bosnia more convincingly than photographs or Christiane Amanpour’: Joel Stein, Time magazine.

 

*****

Five years after the slaughter in Srebrenica, which the Serbs thought could be concealed from the Western media, Bosnia's blood-soaked soil continues to yield up dark secrets. While grainy video footage and other camcorder films and grisly evidence has been unearthed by war crimes investigators who have brought Srebrenica's agony to wider attention, an American artist has done the same for the town of Gorazde through the medium of a strip cartoon. Safe Area Gorazde by Joe Sacco is an ironic comment on the town's former status as a United Nations ‘safe haven’. But it is not the work of a distant sympathiser with the town in eastern Bosnia.

The Maltese-born Mr Sacco spent months under Bosnian Serb shell fire in Gorazde during the war in the region between 1992 and 1995. Few journalists ventured beyond the streets of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, leaving much of Gorazde's suffering undocumented. The UN bestowed the useless ‘safe haven’ status on Gorazde in 1993, with its northern neighbour, Srebrenica. But while Srebrenica's bloody collapse in July 1995 to General Ratko Mladic's army guaranteed its place in history as the site of the worst massacre since the Second World War, the magnitude of those crimes has obscured some of the other atrocities. Gorazde was forgotten.

The Bosnian Serbs almost overran the town of 15,000 but failed. Unlike Srebrenica, its entire male Muslim population was not taken away in buses in front of UN peace-keepers and executed, their bodies thrown into ravines and pits, some never to be exhumed. Rather, for three years Gorazde's people clung on to life by the slenderest of threads. Gorazde was connected to Sarajevo only by the mountain trails that straggled over passes, which were covered in deep snow throughout the winter months. The people of the town struggled to find food, to stay warm and to survive the almost constant Serb shelling. The fact that they were out of the media limelight allowed the UN to treat them with supreme contempt. When the Serbs heavily bombed and almost overran the town in 1994, the British UN commander in Bosnia, Sir Michael Rose, accused the beleaguered people of Gorazde of ‘exaggerating’ their plight.

Joe Sacco records a community abandoned by the world and entrusted to the worse than indifferent care of so-called ‘peace-keepers’. The story begins in 1992 with the sudden implosion of a once harmonious mixed community living against the political backdrop of Slobodan Miloševic's nationalist rhetoric and ends with the 1995 Dayton peace treaty on Bosnia, which finally brought an end to the town's purgatory. Sacco's book was a labour of love. Each of the 230 pages took an average of three days to draw, but the artist does not begrudge the four years he spent producing it. Comic strips, he says, can convey the reality of a place such as Gorazde much better than any other medium. ‘I want readers to feel empathy, to appreciate the human stories behind the staggering headlines’, he said. ‘I want readers to understand how history can run over people and destroy lives. I want readers to appreciate how lucky they are to live in a place that's known peace for a long long time.’

Marcus Tanner,

The Independent (London),

21 October 2000

 

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