Cartoon retells forgotten plight of Gorazde

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Five years after the slaughter in Srebrenica, which the Serbs thought could be concealed from the Western media, Bosnia's blood-soaked soil continues to yield up dark secrets.

Five years after the slaughter in Srebrenica, which the Serbs thought could be concealed from the Western media, Bosnia's blood-soaked soil continues to yield up dark secrets.

While grainy video footage and other camcorder films and grisly evidence has been unearthed by war crimes investigators who have brought Srebrenica's agony to wider attention, an American artist has done the same for the town of Gorazde through the medium of a strip cartoon.

Safe Area Gorazde by Joe Sacco is an ironic comment on the town's former status as a United Nations "safe haven". But it is not the work of a distant sympathiser with the town in eastern Bosnia.

The Maltese-born Mr Sacco spent months under Bosnian Serb shell fire in Gorazde during the war in the region between 1992 and 1995. Few journalists ventured beyond the streets of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, leaving much of Gorazde's suffering undocumented.

The UN bestowed the useless "safe haven" status on Gorazde in 1993, with its northern neighbour, Srebrenica. But while Srebrenica's bloody collapse in July 1995 to General Ratko Mladic's army guaranteed its place in history as the site of the worst massacre since the Second World War, the magnitude of those crimes has obscured some of the other atrocities.

Gorazde was forgotten. The Bosnian Serbs almost overran the town of 15,000 but failed. Unlike Srebrenica, its entire male Muslim population was not taken away in buses in front of UN peace-keepers and executed, their bodies thrown into ravines and pits, some never to be exhumed. Rather, for three years Gorazde's people clung on to life by the slenderest of threads.

Gorazde was connected to Sarajevo only by the mountain trails that straggled over passes, which were covered in deep snow throughout the winter months. The people of the town struggled to find food, to stay warm and to survive the almost constant Serb shelling.

The fact that they were out of the media limelight allowed the UN to treat them with supreme contempt. When the Serbs heavily bombed and almost overran the town in 1994, the British UN commander in Bosnia, Sir Michael Rose, accused the beleaguered people of Gorazde of "exaggerating" their plight.

Joe Sacco records a community abandoned by the world and entrusted to the worse than indifferent care of so-called "peace-keepers".

The story begins in 1992 with the sudden implosion of a once harmonious mixed community living against the political backdrop of Slobodan Milosevic's nationalist rhetoric and ends with the 1995 Dayton peace treaty on Bosnia, which finally brought an end to the town's purgatory.

As the British journalist Christopher Hitchens writes in the introduction to the book, Sacco's bile is not directed so much at the Serbs. It is aimed far more at "buck-passing, butt-covering peace-keepers who strove to find that swamp oflow moral and 'middle' ground into which the innocent endup being shovelled by theaggressive".

Sacco's book was a labour of love. Each of the 230 pages took an average of three days to draw, but the artist does not begrudge the four years he spent producing it.

Comic strips, he says, can convey the reality of a place such as Gorazde much better than any other medium.

"I want readers to feel empathy, to appreciate the human stories behind the staggering headlines," he said. "I want readers to understand how history can run over people and destroy lives. I want readers to appreciate how lucky they are to live in a place that's known peace for a long long time."

Marcus Tanner was The Independent's Balkans correspondent between 1987 and 1994.