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Safe Area Gorazde

Page history last edited by Allene Nichols 12 years ago

Safe Area Gorazde

Creator: Joe Sacco

Original Date of Publication: 2000

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books

Safe Area Gorazde is a significant work of comic journalism. At the same time, it is in the tradition of comic books about war.


Plot Summary

In the 1990s, in the face of a horrific war which set Serb neighbor against Muslin neighbor in Bosnia and led to the “ethnic cleansing” of the Muslim population, the United Nations declared a number of cities as “safe areas” for Muslim survivors and refugees. Unfortunately, international political considerations and the difficulty of defending these areas often left the citizens, already surrounded by hostile troops, feeling isolated and abandoned by those who had sworn to defend them.


Joe Sacco relates a series of vignettes that start with his own visits to the war-torn and cut-off town of Gorazde in Bosnia and then relate the stories told by the survivors, the historical and political circumstances of the war, and finally, the impact of the experience on the lives of those he came to know during his time in Bosnia and the impact on his own life.


Significant Features

Joe Sacco is considered to be “…a master of the unique role of comic journalism” and Safe Area Gorazde is his masterpiece (Graphic Novel Reporter). The book is distinguished by the quality and depth of the reportage as well as its unflinching gaze at a bitter war and genocide. The comic is drawn in black and white but the story is presented in shades of gray. Although most of the interviews and most of Sacco’s interaction are with Muslims, who were the victims of ethnic cleansing, Sacco pulls back to show the historical and political context of the conflict, demonstrating that individuals on both sides of the conflict were capable of bravery and cowardice, and that wider political currents often forced people to participate in ways they found profoundly uncomfortable. This tendency to let the read see characters as human rather than symbolic representations of a political system creates a powerful response to the documentary. If the people who caused the Bosnian devastation were once neighbors and friends, we are led to ask whether it could happen here. As Claude Lalumiére states in relating the events in Gorazde to attitudes in his native Canada, “Canada isn’t a violent country. Montreal isn’t a violent city. Then again, neither was Yugoslavia. Neither was Gorazde.”


Sacco relates the story in second person, occasionally drawing the reader in with direct reference to the reader. By drawing scenes from his experiences in Gorazde, Sacco becomes a stand-in for the reader. Techniques he uses to convey the story in a journalistic fashion include interviews with people who experienced the war and overviews of the history of the conflict.


Sacco uses humor effectively to illustrate the personal conundrums that occurred within the dehumanizing drama of the war. For instance, at one point the distribution of bon-bons becomes a major issue for reporters. Since tossing out bon-bons to photograph children scrambling for them is manipulative, under what conditions should bon-bons be given to the children? Or should they be given to the parents to distribute to the children? In talking to another reporter, Sacco states “We discussed the subject for a good five minutes (that’s a long time to be talking about dispensing bon-bons” (132).


Another technique Sacco uses to underscore the hardship suffered by those left in Gorazde is understatement. For instance, discussing “The Blue Road,” the only way into or out of Gorazde, which was heavily guarded by Serbian troops who only let a few U.N. sanctioned vehicles through, he states that “It was not the happiest of trails” (58). He also uses word play, such as when he uses the word “Drina” to move back and forth between the cigarettes called Drinas, which provided people in Gorazde with a way to deal with their daily anxiety and boredom, and the river Drina, down which bodies of massacred Muslims floated after the “cleansing” of other villages.


One of the ideas Sacco tackles is that of “The Real Truth.” In the prologue, he introduced a man who claims to know “The Real Truth” about Gorazde. Sacco says that he refused to follow up with the man and avoided him after that initial encounter. Truth is subjective, and this opening allows Sacco to acknowledge this.


Publication History / Historical Context

The Bosnian War took place from 1992 to 1995, and Joe Sacco did his research toward the end of the conflict. Safe Area Gorazde was published five years later.


Impact / Influence

Being a highly regarded example of comic journalism, Safe Area Gorazde has had considerable influence on the field of comic journalism. The book also “…helped establish the importance of the genre…” (Stafford).


Critical Reception

Safe Area Gorazde was well received critically. It was a New York Times Notable Book for 2001, a Time magazine “Best Comic of 2000,” and a 2001 Harvey Award nominee. In 2001, It won an Eisner Award for best original graphic novel (Wikipedia).



  1. Lalumiére, Charles. “The Not-So-Comic Question of Ethnic Nationalism.” January Magazine. Sept. 2000.
  2. Stafford, Richard Todd. “Towards an Epistemological Theory of Comics Journalism: Case Studies in Joe Sacco’s War Reportage.” Public Knowledge Journal. 2012.
  3. Wikipedia. “Safe Area Gorazde.”
  4. Wolk, Douglas. “Drawing Fire: Contemporary comics take a hard look at the conflict in Iraq, and metaphors abound.” F&W Publications, Inc.

Further Reading

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