Another one of Time's top 25.
Most of my experience of Bosnia was far to the west and north of the town of Goražde, for three years a Muslim-held pocket surrounded by Serb forces. Before reading Sacco's graphic novel, I knew precisely two anecdotes about it. One is from accounts of the peace negotiations at Dayton ten years ago this month, which provide a backdrop to Joe Sacco's framing narrative: through use of satellite imaging, a mountain path linking Goražde to the rest of Muslim-held territory was found and actually written into the peace treaty; the exhilaration of the international negotiators at finding this solution forming a shocking contrast with the lack of enthusiasm of their local counterparts, who expected the war to resume in a year or so.
Sacco has a superb portrait here of a community under siege, not actually sure if there is a future, yet alone what it might hold (there were persistent rumours that Goražde might be traded to the Serbs in return for concessions elsewhere). He shows himself as an outsider, both slightly sinister (with his eyes never visible behind his glasses) and slightly absurd (with his lips grotesquely enlarged, giving him literally a big mouth). The inhabitants of Goražde, and their assailants, are shown as normal human beings, caught up in scenes of horror and destruction.
As well as providing a narrative of the people of Goražde, Sacco uses the book to make a couple of factual assertions that I have not seen anywhere else in writing about the war. One is that chemical weapons were used by the Serbs against refugees fleeing Srebrenica. He is completely convinced of this, although he concedes that Human Rights Watch, who also looked into the question, were not. I can add a little more supporting, though circumstantial, evidence from our report on Yugoslav arms sales to Iraq published in late 2002: it is a matter of record that the old Yugoslav army had a chemical weapons stockpile in the Sarajevo suburb of Hadžići, and that nobody (at least three years ago) seemed to know precisely what had happened to the stockpile after the army withdrew from Sarajevo in 1992. Quite likely most of it did reach military depots in Serbia, but it is far from impossible that some was diverted into Bosnian Serb hands en route, or subsequently.
Sacco's second factual point is linked to the second of the two anecdotes I mentioned above - the notorious assertion by General Sir Michael Rose, at the time in charge of British peace-keepers, that a tank attack on the town could have been stopped by "one bloke with a crowbar" and that the defenders of Goražde were asking UN peacekeepers to do their fighting for them. Sacco's depiction of the tank attack on a terrified and poorly armed civilian population is a far more eloquent refutation of Rose's statement than could possibly have been achieved by the written word alone.
Perhaps few people these days will be very interested in the politics and history of Goražde. It is after all ten years since the Dayton negotiations which ended the Bosnian war. The debate about the rights and wrongs of international intervention is now, alas, completely different from the period when President Clinton and the rest of the international community displayed utter spinelessness in the face of warlordism and genocide in Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia, before finally doing the right thing in Kosovo.
But the book remains very much worth reading as a human story of how people do survive in extreme circumstances, and ought to be celebrated as a classic of its genre.