Bushra al-Maqtari's 'What Have You Left Behind?': A devastating account of Yemeni loss and despair
Taiz-born Yemeni writer, human rights defender, and journalist Bushra al-Maqtari (b. 1979) tries to make sense of chaos, injustice, and despair in her home country.
First translated to German before its English translation by Sawad Hussain, What Have You Left Behind? gives voice to the voiceless—the survivors of the forgotten war in Yemen.
Yemen’s civil war began in September 2014, as the Ansarallah movement took over Sana’a.
The conflict further escalated in March 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition launched a military campaign to repel Houthi advances, backing the internationally-recognized government led by former President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.
"Al-Maqtari wants to elicit compassion in tragedy as an antidote to war. Names of survivors and victims are kept to the end of each chapter, frontloading the spectral voice of those who have seen the unthinkable. This serves to randomise testimonies and convey a brutal sense of totality and inescapability"
Entering its eighth year, the crisis has evolved into a long war of attrition which continues to generate humanitarian catastrophes and immense suffering for the people of Yemen.
Over 4 million Yemenis have been displaced since 2015, forced to leave their homes. The United Nations estimated that extreme hunger looms for 161,000 people by the end of 2022.
What Have You Left Behind? a dignified account of pain and war’s debilitating effect on our ability to remain human, covers the period 2015-2017.
In short chapters, the book – A PEN Translates award winner – presents a selection of over 40 testimonies, diverse vantage points, and multiple sets of eyes and ears coalescing in an impossible consolation.
In each of these chapters, someone has lost a father, a husband, a child, several, a sister, neighbours—a life. It’s the unmeasurable cost of war. Al-Maqtari stops registering entries of civilian casualties on 29 September 2017 (the book was originally published in 2018). How many more hardships are we left to contemplate?
What we are meant to quickly understand is that war spares no one. Women, children, all civilians. And nowhere is safe either. Aden, al Hudeydah, Sana’a, Sa’ada, and Taiz, names of governorates and localities converge in a dizzying succession of mourning sites.
On land and on sea, horror literally strikes. Al-Maqtari found Sabah Abda Ahmad Fare still in shock soon after an Arab coalition plane dropped bombs, killing her daughter and son in Sana’a. “Can you imagine? Your house and everyone in it, just gone, swallowed whole by the earth.” And the combined gap of absence and pain is unmendable. On sea also, fishermen trying to earn a meagre living are killed. Yemenis and asylum seekers alike.
“I looked for her everywhere on the boat, but I didn’t find her. Had the sea split open and swallowed her whole?” 20-year-old Muna Awad Mahmoud remembers her friend, Salma Kis, dead at 18.
Three months before the disaster, the two friends had decided to leave their home country of Somalia. Off the Yemeni coast, she recalls that “the boat was jam-packed with one hundred and forty Somalis,” comprising of women, children, and elderly people.
“At noon, we heard the occasional buzz of an Apache helicopter, but couldn’t see it. None of us paid much attention to it.” But this quickly changed. “After a good fifteen hours at sea, the helicopter flew closer to the boat. Then it came down very low, and at around seven in the evening the Apache helicopter opened fire on us. Our dream quickly became a nightmare.” What did Muna, Salma, and the other asylum seekers with them, do wrong?
“The captain turned off the engine in the hope that the Apache would stop firing. The boat lay on the water for three hours. I listened keenly, looking for somewhere to hide. I curled up under the corpses – two of them had been friends of mine, refugees like me. The other bodies I didn’t know. The dead bodies were my shield, absorbing the Apache gunfire”
The open fire continued for hours, indiscriminately. Killing is just that: senseless and cruel. Bombs hit wedding celebrations, funerals, and even cemeteries.
Hospitals and schools. What’s left of decency vanishes for good; rescue workers often steal gold and other valuables from crushed houses and corpses still warm. Families watch—helpless in their sudden grief.
Survivors recount more crimes. Mohammed Ahmad Daghmoush’s brother, 10-year-old Riyadh, succumbed to cluster bombs in Al Hudeidah, on 16 March 2017.
“The pieces pierced my body, and Riyadh was fatally injured. Do you know how a cluster bomb kills its victims? It explodes in the air into small deadly fragments, sometimes you can’t even see them, and you think you’re safe, but then you feel nails digging into your body, your flesh becoming a sieve,” he tells al-Maqtari.
Reports confirm that UK, US and Brazilian-made cluster bombs have been used in Yemen. Cluster bombs have been banned since 2008, though non-signatories include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.
Munira Mahyoub Qaid al-Hamidi lingers in her mind in the unkind abyss of trauma. “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry from the absurdity of all the death around me. I now stay at home, between these four blue walls, and never go outside, with both my daughters, my husband, and my unborn child.
I talk to them all the time, and they answer as if they’re still around; I hear their laughter and footsteps,” she says. Munira lost her two daughters, her husband, and her uncle. “Will they hear me if I yell?” she asks Bushra al-Maqtari.
There are fewer than 50 psychiatrists in Yemen and only four public psychiatric health facilities across the country. With one psychiatrist for 750,000 people, how will trauma-affected survivors like Munira ever find ways to cope with their suffering?
Inspired by Nobel Prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s works of preserving oral histories of Soviet and post-Soviet life, al-Maqtari patiently records the unspoken.
Her elegiac chapters are like broken mirrors. In them, we perceive slices of life permanently shattered. The war is perversely asymmetrical, in which civilians going about their lives are at the mercy of planes, missiles, firearms, and forcible disappearances.
Al-Maqtari wants to elicit compassion in tragedy as an antidote to war. Names of survivors and victims are kept to the end of each chapter, frontloading the spectral voice of those who have seen the unthinkable. This serves to randomise testimonies and convey a brutal sense of totality and inescapability. Where is justice, where is accountability?
In such a setting, the role of the writer is one of a timeless scribe. The discreet author carries and amplifies the story of others. Al-Maqtari adds context when deemed important (“She cries. Her voice catches. Her husband tries to calm her down.”) but the notion of truth—experiential, raw, and unmanufactured—is what drives all these recordings.
Beyond daunting statistics, al-Maqtari crafts individual shrines honouring lost lives. Though gripping, heart-breaking, and often unbearable, we must listen to these voices.
Farah Abdessamad is a New York City-based essayist/critic, from France and Tunisia.
Follow her on Twitter: @farahstlouis