Safe Area Goražde and The Fixer and Other Stories are graphic journalistic works by Joe Sacco detailing his time spent covering the Bosnian War from approximately 1992 to 1995. Sacco won an Eisner award in 2001 for the former. His 2009 work Footnotes in Gaza won an Eisner in 2010. All three are non-fiction, which is a bit outside our normal fare, but they’re all excellent reads which make unexpected and excellent use of the graphic novel format.
But they’re also a little difficult for this particular site in that though they definitely occur in the real world, they do so in a time and place that makes legal analysis pretty difficult. Much of the country existed in an almost pure state of lawlessness during the war. Beginning in March 1992 and continuing through the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in December 1992, the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina exerted no effective control over almost any of its territory. Even large chunks of the capital city, Sarajevo, were effectively under the control of local warlords. These strongmen officially answered to government superiors, but in practice, they did almost anything they wanted, carving out fiefdoms for themselves and their supporters. The government had little ability to enforce its decisions there, and the stories suggest that there might not even have been much interest in doing so, given that without the strongmen, the official military would have been unable to maintain the war.
So the stories are really a case study of what happens where normal state legal systems cease to operate. It’s a bloody mess, both literally and figuratively. National governments have proved almost entirely incapable of dealing with the actions of participants during the war. Indeed, there exists a special tribunal of the United Nations, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the ICTY, which is specifically tasked with adjudicating complaints of war crimes arising out of conduct during the war. Just last year, Ratko Mladić, commander of the Army of the Republika Srpska, the main Serbian political entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was extradited to the Hague to be tried for war crimes, where his trial is pending.
So both books are highly recommended, for two reasons. First, they provide a truly unique and engaging window into one of the least understood conflicts of the late twentieth century. The late Christopher Hitchens penned the introduction for Safe Area Goražde, and he does a better job of explaining the works’ merits than we ever could:
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 civilian “safe havens” at Srebrenica and Zepa have passed into an area of the semi-conscious. In a dim fashion, people apprehended that the mass graves of the latter were the price — and the pressure — for 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 Goražde and not one of the war’s more chic or celebrated spots. . . .
But second, the books should serve as a kind of reminder to other comics writers: You can’t just ignore the rule of law. It really does matter. When the legal system fails to operate, things do not continue on as they always have minus a few lawyers and pesky forms to fill out. When Bane seals off Gotham City, things should have gotten really messy, really fast, even in the absence of a besieging army, and even more than they did in the movie. Not only does failing to take these things into account make for a less believable story, but it also passes up some truly amazing potential for drama. The Fixer doesn’t really have a “plot” in any traditional kind of sense, but its main character—not really a protagonist, but certainly the focus of the narrative—is an amazingly interesting and colorful character. Sometimes the most fascinating stories aren’t world-shaking epics, where superhuman beings save the day altruistically, but the accounts of people in small, absurd, and absurdly dangerous circumstances making choices with incomplete information and impure motives.