It’s hard not to root for Joe Sacco when he’s just learning to smoke for the first time in the pages of Safe Area Gorazde. Really hard, even as a non-smoker. In the short, 5-page chapter “Drina”, readers find themselves awash in a cultural milieu around the cigarette brand that’s named for a local river, and that becomes a pop-cultural flashpoint for the entire war.
Disarmingly simple, driven by the cartooned environment, Sacco makes a profound statement about the cigarette, the territory and the war itself. The Drina is originally a river separating the Bosnian and Serbian territories. With the outbreak of war, bodies were floated downstream towards Gorazde from the other Bosnian towns Visegrad and Foca. The river itself soon became a cesspool of blood and corpses as Visegrad and Foca were ethnically cleansed.
The cigarette brand named for the river, too became emotionally-charged during wartime. Bosnian soldiers and teachers were paid in Drinas, as were nurses. The head surgical nurse in Gorazde, the only medically trained person seeing to thousands of Muslims, tells her own bitter tale. By the end of it her throwaway comment, ‘Thank God for these cigarettes’, begins to take on the form of a sutra.
The core of Sacco’s story however, lies in his juxtaposition of two radically different images. It is this juxtaposition that simultaneously depicts the disturbing complexity of, and the impossibility of depicting the war. With nurses drawing smoke from Drinas and corpses lazily floating on the Drina in sight of passersby, Sacco evolves a hidden cultural complexity. The river that carries the dead is a signature for the defeat of the pop-cultural act of smoking. Here is a war, arising from deep schisms within a single culture, the roots of which we cannot understand. No matter how universal the act of smoking might be.