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 of competitive anecdotes about near-misses, random encounters and different styles of flak jacket. Every now and then, I noticed, the journalists also 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 slowly accomplished 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--infrequent faint radio transmissions; rumors of mayhem and rape, of famine and even of cannibalism--foreign hacks distributed the emphasis differently each time. 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 ends and 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. Language was 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 who ever 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 Milosevic, 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.
Christopher Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair, Is the author of numerous books, including the just-published paperback "No One Left to Lie To: the Politics of America's Worst Family" (Verso). His essay will appear as the introduction to "Safe Area Gorazde."
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