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Life During Wartime
War's End: Profiles from Bosnia 1995-96
Drawn and Quarterly, 2005
July 10, 2005
Kevin Forest Moreau
Journalist/cartoonist Joe Sacco has built a compelling body of work out of
placing himself in the middle of conflict-torn regions, first with the acclaimed
Palestine, a two-volume journalistic account of his experiences in the
titular territory, and then with the non-fiction graphic novels Safe Area
Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95 and The Fixer, about his
experiences during the Bosnian war. As with those latter works, the events in
War's End: Profiles from Bosnia 1995-96 take place in the former Yugoslavia,
but it's comprised of a pair of short stories previously published in different
publications during the late 1990s.
As such, War's End isn't a cohesive story like its predecessors. But it's
no less forceful for that fact. Its first half, at least, is vividly gripping:
Soba is the absorbing profile of a likeable 27-year-old Sarajevan who
splits his time between the city's energetic nightlife scene, his burgeoning art
career, his rock 'n' roll band and the front lines of the conflict, where he
might end up crawling on his belly scouting out land mines.
Sacco's not the first journalist to have profiled the media-friendly Soba, but
he paints a poignant portrait nonetheless. When he's not exuberantly partying
with his friends at a Sarajevo nightclub, Soba alternates between a weary
fatalism ("My life is ruined. I've lost the best years of my life. I have ten
years getting over this.") and surrendering himself to the simple pleasures of
music and the mating dance.
When, after a U.N.-brokered peace is announced, Soba questions whether anyone
will continue to be interested in his paintings ("Who will want to buy it? It's
about horrible things."), he briefly contemplates becoming a mercenary. It's a
heartbreakingly candid acknowledgment of the vastly different worlds, the
reduced opportunities, war often offers its survivors.
The collection's other story, "Christmas with Karadzic," treads entirely
different terrain, offering a brief glimpse into the conflicted mind of the
cartoonist/journalist himself. It details the attempt of Sacco and two
radio-journalist friends to land an interview with the Bosnian Serb leader
Radovan Karadzic, during Orthodox Christmas, January 1996. When the trio finally
catches up with the war criminal outside an Orthodox church before Christmas
services, Sacco is struck by the lack of emotion he feels: "I feel nothing
intimidating about his presence," he writes, "nothing extraordinary about this
man indicted by the International War Crimes Tribunal for crimes against
humanity, a man I have despised with all my heart for years …"
"Christmas" doesn't hit the reader with the same impact as "Soba," in part due
to its narrator's benumbed ambiguity. But if it's not as gripping or captivating
as "Soba," it nonetheless offers a rewarding glimpse into a world that, for most
of its readers, might as well be Mars. In these and his other works, Sacco
depicts himself in a slightly cartoony way, his nebbishy facelessness
emphasizing the role of journalist as blank slate for others to scrawl their
stories upon. In "Christmas," his self-caricature becomes slightly more
humanized, but not so much as to deflect the reader's attention onto himself
rather than the war-torn surroundings or the hardened citizens.
Such meticulous attention to detail, whether it's the lines in the faces of
Sarajevo youth banging their heads in the face of an uncertain future or a
behind-the-scenes look at the life of a foreign media correspondent in a strange
land, makes War's End a worthy addition to Sacco's growing canon of
reportorial graphic novels. It also contributes to the slim collection's
timeless relevance: The events it depicts are now a decade removed, but reading
"Soba," in particular, the reader can't help but wonder how young Americans
would do if they found themselves under siege.
The current war in Iraq and the fact that -- as of this writing -- Karadzic
remains a fugitive from justice only heighten the book's topicality. One wishes
Sacco -- or someone like him -- were in Baghdad right now, working to tell
untold stories about the conflicted Americans and Iraqis struggling to carve
order out of the chaos of war.
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