From Bosnia to Gaza, a survivor's reflection on genocide

From Bosnia to Gaza, a survivor's reflection on genocide
9 min read

Arnesa Buljusmic-Kustura

25 January, 2024
Arnesa Buljusmic-Kustura reflects on Israel's war on Gaza, the ICJ case, and this historic moment: have we learned from the past or are we doomed to repeat it?
For Arnesa, a survivor of the Bosnian genocide, witnessing the tragedy unfolding in Gaza has resurfaces traumatic childhood memories. [TNA]

At the tender age of five, I became an unwilling participant in the tragic theatre of war and genocide. Sniper bullets, relentless shelling, and the pervasive spectre of death formed the harsh backdrop of my childhood.

Born and raised in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, I bore witness to the profound consequences of ethnonationalism, anti-Muslim rhetoric, and hatred.

The Bosnian War and Genocide, spanning from 1992 to 1996, etched a dark chapter in history with horrific brutality. The death toll, surpassing 100,000 people killed, serves as a stark testament to the scale of this tragedy, leaving countless others to endure displacement, torture, and sexual violence.

These numbers cease to be mere statistics; they embody the unfathomable extent of human suffering. Massacres, concentration camps, rape camps, and torture cumulated in the horrifying genocide in Srebrenica, where over 8,732 Bosnian-Muslims were systematically executed in July 1995.

Living in Sarajevo during those tumultuous years meant enduring the deprivation of basic necessities - water, electricity, food, and aid. It meant being severed from the world, spending my formative years huddled in dark basements, hoping to survive the daily shelling orchestrated by the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) and Yugoslav National Army (YNA) forces.

Each knock on the door carried the terror of Serb forces either taking us away or delivering the devastating news of a loved one's demise.

Tragedy struck my family early in the Bosnian Genocide when my father was imprisoned in a concentration camp. Although he, thankfully, escaped and reunited with us, the genocidal massacres in Visegrad claimed the lives of my grandfather, uncles, and numerous other family members.

Meanwhile, in the brutal siege of Sarajevo, my grandmother met her tragic end, targeted by Serb forces while preparing breakfast for her family.

In the shadowy corridors of history, the term “genocide” rings with a chilling, bone-deep resonance, etching indelible scars on those who survive its malevolence.

As a survivor of the Bosnian Genocide, I am acutely attuned to the haunting echoes of that dark chapter in human history, a chapter that refuses to be closed. Today, as I witness the unfolding tragedy in Gaza, the spectre of genocide resurfaces with a poignant familiarity.

More than 100,000 people were killed in the Bosnian war and genocide. Today, survivors see the parallels with Gaza. [Getty]

The Palestinian landscape, scarred by 75 years of Israeli military occupation, mirrors the hardships faced during the Bosnian War and Genocide - displacement, economic hardship, and restricted access to basic resources.

The ongoing bombing campaign in Gaza exacerbates an already dire humanitarian situation. This is more than a geopolitical conflict; this is a contemporary genocide.

In 111 days, more than 25,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed by Israel, including at least 10,000 children. More than 8,000 are missing, trapped under the rubble, and presumed dead. Another 63,000 are injured, and more than 90% of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents have been displaced.

Videos of Israeli leaders calling for the destruction of Gaza and the forcible displacement of Palestinians echo the sentiments expressed by those responsible for the Bosnian Genocide.

In the case of the Bosnian Genocide, while both the Bosnian Serbs and the Serbian political leadership knew they were committing genocide in their expansionist plans to create a “Greater Serbia,” publicly they attempted to conceal their crimes to avoid accountability.

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Their genocidal intent was not as open or as loud as some of the sentiments expressed by Israeli political leadership.

Nevertheless, comparing the Bosnian Genocide with the current situation in Gaza necessitates a nuanced examination. While historical contexts differ, the core elements of mass displacement, targeted violence against civilians, and the overarching goal of extermination of a specific group are the same.

To comprehend the concept of genocide, it is crucial to understand its legal definition and sociological framework. Coined by Raphael Lemkin after the Holocaust, genocide encapsulates acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.

Genocide goes beyond the mere act of killing; it encompasses a deliberate and systematic attempt to annihilate a specific group based on its identity.

Genocide is a process. In Bosnia, it did not simply occur one day in July of 1995, nor did it suddenly rear its head in October of 2023 in Gaza. It is a process that starts with dehumanisation, discrimination, and persecution.

The aim of genocide is to destroy, certainly, but also to is erase the very fabric of the group’s existence, their history, their culture, and in many ways, their very soul.

We see these criteria in Israel’s war on Gaza — a systematic attempt to destroy the Palestinian population. Deliberate targeting of civilians, destruction of homes, and severe restrictions on basic resources contribute to the violence's systematic nature. The parallels with the Bosnian Genocide, both in intent and execution, cannot be ignored.

The personal becomes political as I join the chorus calling for the recognition of the crisis in Gaza as genocide. South Africa's bold move to bring a case against Israel for genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has opened a crucial door for international accountability.

This landmark case at the ICJ, coupled with the horrors of the war in Gaza unfolding in real-time, resurfaces traumatic memories for Bosnian Genocide survivors like myself.

The parallels between the international community's response to Bosnia and the current situation in Gaza are hauntingly similar, emphasising the need for swift and decisive action to prevent further atrocities.

The echoes of Srebrenica serve as a stark reminder of the consequences of geopolitical inaction. The ICJ's ruling on the Bosnian Genocide found that genocide did occur but absolved Serbia of direct intent.

Now, three decades later, Israel faces accusations of genocide, thrusting us into a familiar debate.

Watching as the world allows another genocide to unfold underscores the failure of the international community to implement crucial measures in 1993 following Bosnia's plea for a ceasefire. The memory of the international community's hesitation and delayed action during the Bosnian Genocide should serve as a calling to act with urgency.

Reflecting on the narrative of my own experience, the recurring theme of displacement, loss, and targeted violence becomes palpable. My childhood experiences, once confined to the Bosnian landscape, now find an unexpected resonance in the unfolding tragedy in Gaza.

The personal narrative is not merely an account of past trauma but a plea to recognise the urgency of the present.

As the ICJ prepares to issue its ruling on whether Israel is committing genocide in Gaza, genocide survivors have called on the international community to act urgently to prevent further atrocities. [Getty]

The narrative arc from Bosnia to Gaza illuminates the thread of human suffering woven through history. The Bosnian Genocide serves as a haunting backdrop against which the ongoing tragedy in Gaza unfolds.

Today, we find ourselves at the crossroads of history, poised to determine whether we have learned from the past or are condemned to repeat it.

As we navigate this complex terrain of memory and international responsibility, it becomes imperative to address the failures of the international community. The Bosnian Genocide, like many instances of mass violence, revealed a profound inadequacy in the global response to atrocities.

The United Nations faltered in the face of systematic genocide and forcible displacement, raising questions about the limits of our moral responsibility and the efficacy of international institutions when confronted with the spectre of genocide.

The tragedy in Gaza becomes a contemporary crucible, testing the international community's commitment to preventing historical mistakes from recurring. The alarming death toll, composed mainly of civilians, underscores the urgency of the situation. The impact on the civilian population, particularly children, mirrors the harrowing experiences of Bosnian children caught in the crossfire.


South Africa's decision to bring Israel to the ICJ for genocide marks a pivotal moment in the pursuit of accountability, echoing the Bosnian Genocide case. The ICJ, as a forum for adjudicating disputes and addressing international law matters, plays a crucial role in this pursuit of justice. The case against Israel must be approached with a clear commitment to upholding international law and preventing further atrocities.

As the ICJ prepares to issue its ruling on South Africa's proposed provisional measures this Friday, the urgency intensifies. In hopes of making a difference, last week I initiated an open letter to the ICJ, signed by over 3,500 Bosniak genocide survivors across Bosnia and throughout the world.

The letter implores the UN court to prevent the repetition of history by implementing the "provisional measures" proposed by South Africa, such as a ceasefire, to mitigate the risk of genocide. Israel decries these measures as "unconscionable," citing an inherent right to defend itself.

This moment extends beyond Israel and Gaza; it encapsulates the entire framework of international humanitarian law. Many Genocide Survivors unite, leveraging their traumatic experiences to implore both the ICJ and the International Community at large to act decisively, break the cycle of inaction, and prevent further atrocities.

The echoes of past genocides underscore the global community's responsibility to learn from history, ensuring that the tragedies of Bosnia do not replay in Gaza at even more horrific levels.

As we stand at the crossroads of history, the choice is clear — whether to heed the lessons of the past and strive for a world free from the shackles of genocide or succumb to the inertia that perpetuates cycles of violence.

The urgency lies not just in recounting historical horrors but in the collective responsibility to prevent the recurrence of such atrocities. The narrative arc from Bosnia to Gaza illuminates the path forward — a path that must be paved with the unwavering commitment to justice, accountability, and the preservation of human dignity.

In the echoes of past genocides, we find a collective responsibility to rise above geopolitical inertia. The tragedies of Bosnia must not replay in Gaza, and the global community must stand united in preventing further atrocities.

As we await the ICJ's ruling and witness the ongoing crisis, let us not be mere spectators but active participants in shaping a world where the term "genocide" becomes a relic of history, not a haunting reality.

The narrative from Bosnia to Gaza is not just a recounting of personal trauma; it is a call to action, an urgent plea for a world where the innocence of children is safeguarded, and the echoes of genocide are silenced forever.

Arnesa Buljusmic-Kustura is a genocide researcher and educator, writer, and activist. Her work deals with ethnonationalism, genocide denialism, and trauma of children and women in war zones. She is the author of "Letters from Diaspora" and the former Deputy Director of Remembering Srebrenica. Her words and work has been featured and published on the BBC, in The Guardian, The Independent, CNN, The Intercept, amongst others. Currently she is part of the Scholars of Genocide Expert Group working to elevate genocide discourse and research the genocide in the Gaza Strip.

Follow her on Twitter: @Rrrrnessa

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