Since Israel’s war on Gaza began, more than 8,500 Palestinians have been killed. Hospitals, churches and refugee camps have been bombed, and there have been reports of entire Palestinian families — sometimes three generations or more — being wiped out forever.
Arnesa Buljušmić-Kustura knows the makings of a genocide when she sees it. Not only is she a genocide researcher and educator, but she also herself lived through the siege on Sarajevo during the Bosnian War in the early 1990s. Tens of thousands of Bosnian civilians were killed, tens of thousands more women were raped, and millions of Bosnian Muslims were uprooted in an ethnic cleansing campaign. Another 8,000 Bosniak Muslim boys and men were slaughtered in Srebrenica during Europe’s only recognized genocide since World War II.
The parallels between the siege on Gaza and the systematic violence that stole her grandmother, grandfather and uncle in Sarajevo, Visegrad and Srebrenica haunt her.
“Everything to me reeks of genocide,” she says. “It’s the genocidal rhetoric. It’s the objectification. It’s the dehumanization. It’s the occupation.”
Buljušmić-Kustura, 36, has dedicated her life to ensuring that another generation is never forced to face the same horrors she did. But as the death toll from Israel’s endless indiscriminate bombings on Gazan civilians pushes higher and higher, she feels history repeating itself.
“They are showing us the bombings, they are showing us the destruction, the dead, the children and women being pulled out of rubble … of the bombardment, of what it means to live without electricity, food, water and aid,” she says.
As Israel enacts communication blackouts that obscure the extent of the continued massacre, Buljušmić-Kustura has a stark warning: “We cannot stay silent. Otherwise, we’re going to wake up one day to see an entire ethnic group completely annihilated, and we will all be responsible for it.”
Buljušmić-Kustura spoke to Analyst News about pervasive misunderstandings regarding what genocide looks like, the role of intent and dehumanization in executing genocide, and more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
As someone who not only studies but actually lived through a genocide, what have you been thinking about since Oct. 7? Are there parallels you see between what’s happening in Gaza and what you went through?
My initial reaction to seeing the destruction of Gaza — the videos of children being pulled out of rubble, the bodies of the dead — was that it reminded me so much of my own experience.
It was hard for me these past two weeks to go to sleep and sleep through the night. I would dream of Gaza. I would dream of Sarajevo, I would dream of Visegrad, I would dream of Srebrenica. I was seeing it all play out and it was terrifying. So my initial reaction was: Dear God, this is going to be a genocide.
We saw what happened on Oct. 7. The immediate reaction of Israeli politicians, government leaders and defense forces was to publicly and openly call for the destruction of Gaza. “We’re going to destroy them all.” “These are human animals.” “We’re cutting off food, electricity, water, aid.” That was the first red flag to me, when they said “we’re cutting everything off.” It instantly put me back to living in Sarajevo during the siege, when we were completely cut off from the world.
We had no way in or out. We were being bombarded every single day. There was not a day that they did not shell us, attack us with snipers, throwing grenades, bombs, whatever they could. There was not a single day where we were able to breathe. Knowing that the Palestinians in Gaza are going through this as well right now, it was difficult for me not to see those similarities instantly. What do you say when [Israel] cuts off their access to water, to electricity, to food, to aid, and then they bomb them? How do you not describe that as genocide?
The Palestinians are being targeted because of their identity. These actions in Gaza right now — we have seen them before. We have seen them in Bosnia, we have seen them in Rwanda. We have seen them even in the Holocaust.
Under the Genocide Convention, genocide is defined as the deliberate intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a group of people based on their ethnicity, nationality, religion or their identity.
The Palestinians are being targeted directly because of their identity. These actions in Gaza right now — we have seen them before. We have seen them in Bosnia, we have seen them in Rwanda. We have seen them even in the Holocaust.
What’s been surprising is how many people don’t understand the situation of the Palestinians in Gaza. They don’t understand that these people have been living in an open air concentration camp for years. Everything is controlled by Israel — they cannot get in or out. There is no way for them to go anywhere. They have no way to escape.
Israel told them that they were going to be bombing the north, so they should all move south within 24 hours. How do millions of people move south within a 24-hour period? That is ethnic cleansing to the T. That is forcible displacement to the T. And then they bomb the only way out.
More than 800 scholars of genocide studies, international law and conflict studies recently warned that Israel may be committing a genocide. But many people, including high-profile media figures, dismiss the notion that this could even be comparable to one. What are people misunderstanding about genocide?
Genocide is a process. Genocide neither starts nor ends overnight. It is a long process that requires detailed planning, propaganda, objectification and dehumanization.
When you have an occupying force that has committed countless human rights violations and war crimes against an oppressed group of people who do not even remotely have the same rights, it is naturally going to eventually lead to genocide.
Israel has been committing crimes against humanity, against the Palestinian people, for decades. This is the natural end result of decades of occupation, colonization, apartheid, various human rights violations, various war crimes. It has been a long time coming. Israel is simply using the Oct. 7 attacks to further a mission that they have had for a very long time.
The world uses the pain and the trauma of survivors of genocide survivors, whether Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan, the Holocaust — they bring us out on stages, they give us platforms, they invite us to speak so that we can pour our trauma out to them and tell them our stories so that they can feel better. And then they do nothing.
When people think of genocide, they think of the millions that were killed in the Holocaust. They think of Auschwitz. But that’s a misunderstanding of the Holocaust. Yes, there were thousands of people gassed in concentration camps, but there were also thousands killed through illnesses due to the conditions that were imposed on them.
People don’t understand that whether 500, 500,000 or 5 million people are killed, that has nothing to do with [whether it constitutes] genocide. Genocide is all about the actual plan and the intent to exterminate the population, whether in whole and or in part.
“In part” matters, because it does not mean that the entirety of the population has to be exterminated. There simply means that there are actions specifically being done with the intent to exterminate that population. That can be done through massacres and killing, but it can also be done through the imposing of circumstances that lead to an unsustainable life — cutting off water, electricity, food, access to aid.
Raz Segal, the Israeli scholar of Holocaust and genocide studies, writes that’s what’s happening in Gaza is “a textbook case of genocide.” He particularly points out that Israeli authorities have made their intentions clear. Do you agree that the intent is there?
The intent to destroy them is there. There have been various Israeli politicians, government leaders and regular people themselves who have specifically said: “We want to destroy them all.” “We want destruction.” “We want the destruction of Gaza.” “We want a second Nakba.”
A member of Parliament from Netanyahu’s Likud party wrote on Twitter: “Right now, one goal: Nakba! A Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of 48. Nakba in Gaza and Nakba to anyone who dares to join!” Then another Parliament member from the Likud party said that the government should consider using nuclear weapons called Jericho missiles in Gaza, saying: “Only an explosion that shakes the Middle East will restore this country’s dignity, strength, and security. It’s time for a doomsday weapon shooting powerful missiles without limit. Not flattening a neighborhood, crushing and flattening Gaza.”
That rhetoric, it’s right there. It is open. And it is not new. We have quotes [dating back years]. The former Israeli deputy minister Eli Yishai urged the army [in 2012] to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages. Netanyahu has said, “Beat them up, not once but repeatedly, beat them up so it hurts so badly, until it’s unbearable.”
When people think of genocide, they think of the millions that were killed in the Holocaust. They think of Auschwitz. But that’s a misunderstanding of the Holocaust.
They’re making it known. Israeli politicians have gone on international television and said these things. People can pretend that they’re just talking about Hamas, but it’s clear that they’re not just talking about Hamas. They are talking about all the Palestinians. There is no Hamas in the West Bank, and Palestinians there have been continuously attacked by settlers.
People are making excuses for what Israeli politicians and leaders are saying when the Israeli politicians and leaders themselves are being openly genocidal, calling for a complete annihilation of Gaza. This is not done just in anger, it is done purposefully, and it matches with their actions. So we have intent to exterminate, in whole or in part, a population based on their identity. And we have the actual action as they are bombing and killing thousands of innocent civilians.
We’ve also seen a tidal wave of dehumanizing rhetoric against Palestinians. Why is the process of dehumanizing a population so crucial to carrying out a genocide?
It’s been horrific to see the levels of dehumanization. That they’re considered terrorists, that they’re all extremists, that they got what they deserve. That sort of rhetoric is so similar to the Serbian propaganda prior to the genocide.
We were classified as terrorists. The Serb civilians were told, “If you don’t kill them, they’re going to kill you. They’re going to attack you.” Meanwhile, we had no plans of attacking. We wanted to live in peace with our neighbors, as we always had. We just wanted freedom, just like any other person wants. There wasn’t a systematic plan in place of the Bosniak Muslim population to ever attack any of its neighbors. But there was a systematic plan in place from Serb leadership to attack and exterminate the Bosniak Muslim population.
In order for any government to to commit a genocide, it needs the enablement of the population. We’ve seen in the Holocaust that people stood by and stayed silent while Jews were taken off to concentration camps, while their properties were looted, while they were forcibly displaced and put in ghettos all over Europe.
So, for any government to commit genocide, they have to push severe propaganda. It’s disinformation with the goal of making that population of people so fully dehumanized that when we start to bomb and kill and massacre them, the world just simply stands by, because to them these are not valuable lives. These are not human lives. They are animals to be exterminated, and if we don’t exterminate them, they’re going to attack all of us. They’re going to attack the sanctity of our life, of the way that we live our lives.
By painting all Palestinians as Hamas sympathizers or Hamas voters, we can wave them off as terrorists. We don’t have to consider them as human lives.
When people paint all Palestinians as Hamas, when they say, “Well, the Palestinians elected Hamas, and they’re all just terrorists, and they must all agree with Hamas” — when in reality there haven’t been elections in Gaza for 16 years, and half of the people in Gaza are children under 18 — it’s done in a purposeful way. By painting all Palestinians as Hamas sympathizers or Hamas voters, we can wave them off as terrorists. We don’t have to consider them as human lives.
In the past two weeks Israel has spent millions and millions of dollars on propaganda, on reaching out to influencers to say “stand with Israel and talk badly about the Palestinians.” That’s done to dehumanize the value of a Palestinian life.
It’s done so that we don’t think of them as mothers, as sisters, as children, as people with hopes and dreams and jobs and careers. The people who are in that open air concentration camp who are being killed right now, these are people who have hopes. They have dreams, they have lives, they want a better world for themselves. They’re just like me. They’re just like you.
Dehumanization is one of the 10 stages of genocide. But it starts with classification, making them the other. It starts with symbolization, knowing that they are the other. So by putting them in specific places like the West Bank and Gaza, putting the Palestinians away and classifying them as the other, Israel has set the stage to dehumanize them further. The government of Israel has been doing this for decades. It’s been dehumanizing the Palestinian people, and we’ve seen the danger of that rhetoric when a 6-year-old in Chicago is killed because he’s Palestinian and Muslim.
U.S. President Joe Biden recently discredited the death toll coming out of Gaza because it’s published by Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry, even though experts say the numbers are reliable. What role does it play in the execution of genocide when the world’s most powerful country is discrediting that death toll?
As somebody again who experienced war and genocide, I know very intimately what means when they question the number of your dead. The fact that the Palestinian health ministry had to release thousands and thousands of names and list them all out so that people would believe them was a tragedy of its own. It’s like they want us to count every single bone.
The Bosnian genocide is one of the most forensically well-documented cases of genocide. We had hundreds, almost thousands, of mass graves throughout Bosnia where people’s remains were buried. We not only had primary mass graves, we had secondary and tertiary mass graves to conceal their crimes; they would bury them in mass graves, and then if somebody found out, they would spread those bones to different mass graves to hide them. To this day I have members of my family whose remains have not been located. When they found the remains of my grandfather, they didn’t find his head. They found just pieces of him. That’s all we had. All we had was just pieces of him to bury.
The minimization of the number of dead serves almost as permission to commit further crimes; what they’re really saying is there’s not enough dead Palestinians. President Biden has blood on his own hands.
Every year during commemorations in Bosnia, basically, we bury [newly found remains] and often they’re just pieces of bones. We’ve had to go through and list each name of every single person that was killed. Still to this day there are people who deny the amount who were murdered.
It is a form of genocide denialism. It is a form of concealing the truth. So when President Biden goes on international media and says, actually, I don’t believe those numbers, he knows precisely what he is doing. He is minimizing the crime of genocide. And he is concealing that crime. It is a way for Biden to show that I’m helping my ally, Israel, conceal and continue to commit further crimes. The minimization of the number of dead serves almost as permission to commit further crimes; what they’re really saying is there’s not enough dead Palestinians. President Biden has, in my opinion, blood on his own hands.
You’ve always been incredibly outspoken publicly about your activism. You were recently being considered for a position you called your dream job, and then after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack you found out that you were removed from contention because of your outspokenness. What does this backlash against people showing support for Palestinian rights or calling for a ceasefire tell you?
When you are a genocide survivor, and you choose the path that I have — which is to to be outspoken about genocide, to advocate for a better world, to advocate for justice — you understand that it comes with risks. I have always understood that my public persona and my activism work can pose risks. There hasn’t been a company or organization that I’ve worked with that has not known about my activism. So I was shocked by the news that I was passed over. This organization had reached out to recruit me for the role. So it was really the fact that I was pro-Palestinian that ultimately led to me being passed over for the role.
And I accepted that. I would rather keep my conscience clear. I would rather know in 50 years, when my grandchildren ask me, “What did you do?” that I can say I stood on the right side of history. It is, however, deeply concerning that we are living in an era of severe censorship. When I posted [about this experience on X, the site formerly known as Twitter], I had so many people reach out to me and tell me that they’ve made new private anonymous accounts because they’re afraid that they’re going to get fired. They’re going to lose out on tenure, be suspended, be criticized or attacked.
We are seeing levels of censorship not seen since the times of McCarthyism. Teachers suspended, students suspended, college professors losing out on tenure because of their work, people losing out on job opportunities.
I’ve dealt with targeted harassment my entire life because I’ve spoken about the Bosnian genocide. I’ve always been harassed by Serbian ethno-nationalists, so it’s nothing new to me. But this is an extreme level. Some of the hate mail that I’ve gotten in the past two weeks has been particularly vile: People wishing for me to to go through another genocide, that I should have been killed, that I shouldn’t have survived. Rape threats, death threats and everything in between.
I read a comment online from another Bosnian survivor who said she always thought that no one was helping them because people just didn’t know, but now we are literally seeing what’s happening to Palestinians on our phones, and yet people are justifying it. What does that tell you about the nature of this process and the groundwork that’s laid?
I’ve always wondered what would have happened to Bosnia had we had social media. I think in my very soul I hoped, well, maybe if we had social media and maybe if more people had known about what was happening to us, maybe they would have been more willing to protest, to pressure their governments, to boycott, to help us in some way.
What I’m seeing, unfortunately, is proof that you can have the live videos and photographs and all the evidence laid out in front of you, right on your phone. It’s there. You can see it. And there will still be so many who will choose to turn a blind eye to it and stay silent and not do anything.
As a genocide survivor who spent so much of my life talking about genocide and screaming “never again,” I had really hoped that I was having an impact. That if another genocide should happen, maybe they’ll remember my words and the experience of my people, and maybe they’ll finally take action so that never again actually means never again.
I’ve been utterly disappointed by the fact that that’s not necessarily true. The world uses the pain and the trauma of survivors of genocide survivors, whether Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan, the Holocaust — they bring us out on stages, they give us platforms, they invite us to speak so that we can pour our trauma out to them and tell them our stories so that they can feel better. And then they do nothing.
I think this is a really strong condemnation of humanity and where we’re at, and I think anybody who stays silent right now should be ashamed of themselves.