Bisan Owda Is Still Alive

Bisan Owda, under her Instagram handle @wizard_bisan1, posts stories and reels that document the realities of daily life—and death—in Gaza during the now 100+ days of military siege by Israel. While before October 7th Owda was a filmmaker and hakawatieh, or storyteller—or artist—the twenty-five-year-old is now practicing as a de-facto journalist in an occupied territory where journalists and artists are martyred daily. Owda’s videos range in tone from hopeful to cheerful to melancholic to fearful to angry, between stories and often also within them. We watch her march with thousands carrying all their belongings across the Strip in their frequent forced displacements, smoke rising from smoldering buildings in the background, civilians’ feet stepping across sand and rubble. We stare at a bullet Owda holds in the palm of her hand as we listen to her describe this bullet’s former trajectory through the shoulder of a little girl who had been resting in a refugee camp; we watch Owda eat hand-made chips from fried Saj bread a woman has made for her children`as Owda explains that there are no food products entering Gaza; we watch the roof of her tent withstand the rain as she wonders whether others are lucky enough to have shelter like this, we watch a father bless his lifeless daughter. The majority of the videos are in English, and they begin with Owda saying “I’m still alive.”

Why, after I watch Owda’s videos, do I feel swiftly alternating currents of relief and dread? The dread I think I understand well, the experience of viewing the horror of the genocide in Gaza, the feeling that there is nothing I can do about it. But what is the impact of “I’m still alive”? Maybe that proof of life, unbeknownst to us all, is baseline what we’re looking for when we hear from loved ones, maybe the fact of the writing is the actual message, and the writing itself is just details. The explicit assertion of ongoing life perhaps causes this cognitive dissonance in the receiver: I’m looking for you to be alive, but I’m not looking to be reminded of your someday-death. Just tell me that it’s sunny. Just tell me I can find you well.

But a message is a message; it is not the source of the message. It is the “still” that introduces a threat context, that “I am still alive despite ____.” Without a change in context, in circumstances, Owda is going to die. She is reminding us of it in English because that feeling, the dreadful feeling that there is nothing I/we can do about it, is erroneous.

In his Rwanda Project, Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar sought similarly to document and tell the story of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. One such element of the project, which he called Signs of Life, comprised Jaar sending some 200 Rwandan tourist postcards (decorated with enticing pictures of the flora and fauna of Akagera National Park) to English-speaking friends around the world with messages like:




To have survived the massacre of 800,000 people was a miracle, and these were some names of such survivors Jaar met in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda and the epicenter of the genocide. Aside from being a nod to conceptual artist On Kawara’s seminal 30 year-long project “I AM STILL ALIVE”—Kawara sent 900 telegrams to friends and colleagues that all broadcast the same terse message, resulting in a meditation on self-harm, and on media technology’s capacity for connection as well as affectual alienation—“Signs of Life” also shifted “I AM STILL ALIVE” from a conceptual, individual, and apolitical art project to a journalistic project that is communal, politically engaged, and embodied. Because as David Levi Strauss wrote about the mindset of Rwanda’s Hutu-led government, who were the authors of the genocide of over 800,000 Tutsis:

It was important to kill everyone. If someone survived, they could tell the story of what had happened, and name names. It was especially important to kill all the children. If any of them were spared, they could go on telling the story for a long time, and they would never forget.

The Hutu-led government advocated for the massacre of the ethnic-minority Tutsis in language eerily similar—forget “eerily,” this is textbook—to the language Israel uses now to describe Palestinians; both political parties had used that language for years. Amongst the many propagandist statements of Radio Mille Collins, a Rwandan radio station that essentially served as an arm of the government, was a call for Hutus to “finish the work begun in 1959.” This date referred to the year 100,000 Tutsis were massacred. Similarly, in October 2021, Israeli finance minister Bezalel Smotrich said from the Knesset plenum that the Palestinians were “here by mistake—because Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and throw you out in 1948.” 1948, in this case, refers to the Nakba, or Disaster, in which 750,000 Palestinians were violently displaced from their homes. Radio Mille Collins explicitly stated that “the children must also be killed,” and Hutu politician Dr. Léon Mugesera in a speech stated, “We the people are obliged to take responsibility ourselves and wipe out this scum. No matter what you do, do not let them get away.” Assigning culpability to a civilian population, as well as dehumanizing them as “scum” in comparison to a civilized “we the people,” is not unfamiliar to Israeli mainstream leadership calling Palestinians “human animals.” On October 16th, at the very beginning of what has now been over 100 days and over 20,000 deaths in Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza, President Isaac Herzog said in a press conference, “It is an entire nation out there that is responsible. It is not true this rhetoric about civilians not being aware, not involved. It’s absolutely not true.” At this press conference US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Israeli President Herzog are photographed clasping hands.

At the end of the hundred-day genocide of the Tutsis in June 1994, US President Bill Clinton instructed US officials to avoid calling the Rwanda killings “genocide.” This reluctance was based on a simple and self-interested case of avoidance of responsibility: under the 1948 United Nations Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, signatories (including, of course, the United States) made a pledge to respond to genocide whenever and wherever it was committed by whoever. In the case of Rwanda, America’s strategic dismissal of the killings constituted complicity in genocide. In the case of Israel, the most powerful country in the world is actively funding and sending weaponry to Israel to aid in Israel’s relentless assault of Gaza and is directly attacking the Yemeni Houthis who are disrupting trade in the Red Sea in support of Palestine. Dismissal of genocide is genocide. Direct aid to genocide is genocide.

All of this is going on as South Africa, under the terms of the same 1948 convention for which the United Nations was founded, accuses Israel of genocide at the International Court of Justice. While it is heartening to watch these proceedings, it is also hard to; very few major American news organizations are broadcasting them, or even reporting on them. The implicit bias of western journalism—its strategic avoidance of calling the Israeli killings “genocide”—is inextricably tied with the explicit assault on journalists in Gaza. As of today, eighty-three journalists have been confirmed killed: seventy-six Palestinian, three Lebanese, and even four Israeli journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The CPJ further states that this is the most journalists ever killed in one year in a single location. In the same way that the murder of 10,000+ Palestinian children cannot be called “indiscriminate,” the consistent media blackouts, communication disruptions, and extensive power outages are part and parcel to the targeting of journalists, and part of a larger program to blot out the very fact of the genocidal goings-on in Gaza. Again: “It was important to kill everyone. If someone survived, they could tell the story of what had happened, and name names.”

Not only, then, are the people of Palestine up against the most powerful country in the world, as well as against the military with the most sophisticated weaponry in the region, but they are up against a robust international network endeavoring for their silencing and discreditation. For this reason the very fact of being still alive in the face of all of this is an act of resistance, and the broadcasting of that fact—“I’m still alive”—is an act of revolution.

Which brings me to midnight today, January 17th, and an Instagram post from Owda with a black background, set in white lettering:



Shortly after, Owda posted an accompanying reel in her more typical format, her face at the center of the screen, greeting us with “Hey everyone, this is Bisan from Gaza. I am still alive.” This time she is wearing a powder blue uniform and helmet that has emblazoned on it PRESS. I watch this and wonder if it makes her more safe or less safe. As the video continues, it becomes clear she’s not wearing it for safety, but for the sake of dignity and responsibility. There are frequent sounds of explosions and shelling in the background. Her speech is measured but emotional, and you can see she is trying not to cry. “I don’t know if I can survive this or go anywhere. I am just alone. Alone,” she says. She explains how Nasser Hospital is the last operating hospital in Gaza, in the refugee area of Khan Yunis, and that it is under attack from the carpet bombings of the military. “It’s a war against hospitals. Against women. Against children. Against people with disabilities,” she says. “People are just dying. I’m now talking to you in a risky place, a dangerous place. While my eyes do not tell you anything, it’s not true. It is true.” This is the plight of Gaza; truth is itself a contested territory, and no one else can see what the Palestinians themselves cannot look away from. And now I can only see Owda’s face, and I can only hear the destruction, and the only way I can have some inkling of the horrors going on is Owda; she is an artist, a journalist. “They are invading the hospital, I am here to leave the phone and upload this video. If I can get back to the phone and see if it is published, I will. If I couldn’t, then that should be my last video. I’m still alive but, I don’t know if I’m surviving this night. It’s now 12:32 AM, 17th of January 2024. Salaam.”

Bisan Owda is still alive, I think. The way I know this, I think, is that it is not her last video. But I can only ever know in brief, almost instantaneous moments when she is still alive, by her posts. I don’t know that she doesn’t die in the next moment, until I see “signs of life.” This is the brief relief I feel every time I see one of her posts, and then I am once again subsumed by dread.

I think that, if Bisan dies, there will be an outcry, there will be a flurry of activity and action, and then it will die down. And then we will say her name, the way we say the names of other martyrs, and we are angry, and we are hurt, but we honor them. But we’ll still have lost another life.

Necropolitics is a politics built off the dead. Israel continues to build its foundation upon the bodies of Palestinians and is weaponizing its genocidal action in the name of the Holocaust, and in the name of Hamas’ October 7th attack, in order to justify further genocide. I believe in honoring the dead, but I believe even more strongly in preserving the living.

I am waiting for the day when I don’t see an “I’m still alive” update from Bisan, and then another day, and then another, and another. But I don’t want that day to arrive. I have come to a point where I refuse to believe any longer than a witness is coextensive with a martyr. I want to say the name of every living Palestinian, I want to write the name of every living Palestinian, I want us all to do it, and then it is our responsibility to cross their names out if we fail them. I am tired of monuments. The names of the living ought to cause revolutions, and we ought all be custodians of the lives of the names of the living. I repeat, for the second time, so we never forget, the words of David Levi Strauss regarding the rationale behind Rwanda’s government’s genocidal intent: “If someone survived, they could tell the story of what had happened, and name names.”

There is still no ceasefire, and Bisan Owda is still alive.

*Update: February 9th, 2024

On January 26th the International Court of Justice issued its provisional ruling favoring the plausibility of South Africa’s charge that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza. “Plausibility” is an interesting word; it generally is directed towards future likelihood, or a predicted outcome. Thus, there is something anachronistic about it, insofar as it does not functionally speak to the past—the genocide that has taken place—nor to the present—the genocide that continues to take place. Keeping this in mind there should be no surprise, then, that the ICJ did not issue an immediate ceasefire. Instead, the ICJ severely censured Israel and rejected its legal defense and issued six provisional directives to Israel, chief among them to “take all measures within its power to prevent the commission of acts” in Gaza that violate the Genocide Convention. Again, it is the term “prevent” that is profoundly disorienting here, because you cannot prevent a genocide that has already occurred, and you also cannot prevent a genocide if you do not explicitly call it genocide. And thus another Rwanda-like situation occurs, where the commission of mass genocide is made possible by its only being named as such in retrospect, post-mortem.

It is for this reason that, instead of editing my essay to update the figures, I bear this “update,” to highlight the absolute strangeness of living in a time when time does not seem to progress, where what is happening in the present does not seem to be recognized: again, “plausibility” can only be determined in the future, at an autopsy. There are so many updates in numerical data, in the sheer quantity and scale of destruction, and yet there is still—that word that has so strongly marked this essay, “still”—no qualitative change in what is happening. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the number of journalists killed has jumped to eighty-five. Nearly 27,000 Palestinians have now been killed, now over 12,000 of them children. Over the cries of the international community, and the weak wrist slaps of the US, Israel is preparing a ground invasion into Rafah, where over half the two million-plus Palestinian population is sheltering with no recourse to escape, providing exactly the sort of conditions that will lead to the commission of acts in Gaza that violate the Genocide convention. We need to cry out without equivocation the name of what is happening in Gaza—genocide—in the name of the still-living Palestinians we must protect.

I hope by this essay’s publication there can be a different kind of update, the kind of progress that actually grounds us in the present, something actual and not plausible, something faced rather than censored, so that I, for one, can trade in my dread for some confidence in a future.

There is no ceasefire, and Bisan Owda is still alive.

Jared Joseph

Jared Joseph attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop and now lives in Los Angeles and teaches at Los Angeles City College. Recent work has been published in Action Books, the Iowa Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Gulf Coast. A Book About Myself Called Hell was published with Kernpunkt Press in February 2022, and a novel,Danny The Ambulance, was published by Outpost 19 in September 2023.