What Have You Left Behind? Voices From A Forgotten War by Bushra Al-Maqtari | Book Review

“From that morning, what’s engraved on my mind (…) it is the shock of how war was conjured, how life collapsed in one fell swoop: civil infighting, the humiliation of hunger, the indignity of it all, our generation’s lost dreams. They split the citizens into two warring camps, leaving the majority of us transformed into victims or voiceless beings.”

“(…) these witness testimonies, their voices are a finger in the eyes of the murderers (…). They are a testament to ward against forgetting, against feigning ignorance, against indifference. They are a balm for the souls of all those who have been killed, those whose loved ones have been left behind, left with nothing but memories.”

A Yemeni writer and journalist, Bushra Al-Maqtari collected over 400 firsthand accounts to document the nearly decade-long Yemeni Civil War. She chose 43 witness testimonies to include in this book. She also provides a list of every victim she was told about by their families during her collection of the testimonies and her own research during the period between 26 March 2015 and 29 September 2017.

“(…) just write what you see. I can’t describe my disaster, just write what you see in our faces.”

Testimony of Tahani Mohammed Saif Al-Qudsi

Bushra Al-Maqtari gives us not a politicised or sanitised version of war. She does not choose sides alternating between testimonies from the victims of the Saudi – led coalition and testimonies from the victims of the Houthi militia.

“I’m not concerned with listing the political details of the war here. Instead, I have recorded in the introduction (…) the memories remaining in my mind of the bitter war we are still living through. An attempt to capture the essence of it all: (…) the disappearance of any kind of normal life, the damage and defeat that took root in my soul when the godfathers of war trampled patriotism, sovereignty and national unity beneath their heavy boots.”

This book is an act of witnessing, a tool against forgetting voiceless victims and against dehumanisation of victims, their forgotten lives. It is also a testament to the resilience of the ordinary Yemeni people.

Bushra Al-Maqtari’s work was inspired by writings of the great Belarusian writer, Svetlana Alexievich. Similarly like Alexievich, Al-Maqtari has travelled across her grief-stricken homeland to collect the accounts of the victims of this war, often putting her own life at risk. In the introduction to this book, Al-Maqtari describes her visit to the city of al- Hudaydah where the militia haunted any journalists arriving from the outside or her stop near Al-Dhalea when she was treated by the Southern Resistance like “a stranger in [her] own country”.

The last testimony in the book is that of the author herself and it’s titled ‘For Reham Badr’. Reham was Bushra Al-Maqtari’s friend, a fellow sensitive soul, a witness to the horrors of this war who herself documented testimonies of many victims “wiping away the tears of their loved ones with [her] gentle touch”. Both Bushra and Reham listened “to the sorrows of those present about those absent, (…) knocking on the closed doors of bereaved mothers waiting for their children who would never return”.

What have you left behind? constitutes a written record of the contemporary history giving the voice to countless victims of the Yemeni Civil War which has killed 377,000 people between 2014 and 2021 according to United Nations, with 85,000 Yemeni children died from starvation between 2015 and 2018, with over 2.5 million cases of cholera recorded between 2016 and 2021 and with 4 million people cumulatively displaced between 2015 and 2020.

Writing is simple, compassionate, nuanced, and impactful, full of empathy but at the same time painful, disturbing, purposefully serving as a blow to our heart and an arrow aiming at our conscience.

Throughout these heart rending testimonies we witness the innocent lives lost, we see what the war does to innocent lives, and the impact of this war on those left behind. We read about people who lost their all children, children losing parents and siblings, individuals coming back from the front limbless, severely disabled with no access to treatment or help, those suffering from severe mental health issues, confused, disappointed full of an internal anguish, psychological wounds and trauma, worn out by life, crushed by violence with “life goes on around [them], indifferent to [them]”. It’s a portrayal of the war which tears people out of everything: themselves, their family ties, friendships.

We hear testimonies of hospitals being bombed, air and sea blockade imposed by either side, people unable to visit the graves of their loved ones because the cemeteries are constantly being shelled, people without any chance given to grieve, unable to receive any aid, with those in power demonstrating the worst human instincts, victims’ tragedies being often downplayed by each side of this war, with no one checking on the victims and those left behind, people being killed for no reason, with rescue workers stealing victims’ money, people disappearing from the safety of their homes, from streets, people being falsely accused, unjustly imprisoned, subjected to torture, starvation and sickness, with their lives marked by segregation, rejection and with “hatred everywhere”. We learn about people who became paralysed because their homes were bombed, people suffocated by pain, no hope, no support, people struggling to keep their sanity, often losing every belonging of their loved ones in bombings, including the only photos they had of their family members. This is the war that “has destroyed the nation and divided the people”.

“Can you imagine it? An entire family, wiped out. They did not leave anything for me to remember them by, no smells of them, no pictures of them, for me to convince myself that they actually walked this earth. No personal documents. They burnt everything – not a single photo survived the tragedy. I often dream of my mother, but she never speaks to me. She smiles and carries on with whatever she’s doing. I touch her face, but she disappears and I wake up, my own face wet with tears. I dream of my brother Saddam, remembering how he’d pick me up from school. I remember our chats and his advice, how we’d sit in the bookshop, watching people walk by. I restored the bookshop after the militia burnt it down; I want to keep the memories of my brother alive. (…) I’ve lost my family and don’t have a single photo of them, not a single photo that I can slip into my wallet and remember that I had a family once. A photo for me to look at, on those sleepless nights I spend searching through the rubble of our house for the life that I once had.”

Yassin Abdelqawi Saleh Al-Jabri

Poverty can be seen everywhere, people losing their livelihoods, impoverished to the level that they stop questioning the meaning of the war. Arbitrary arrests, disappearances are a commonplace, with secondary wars breaking out over the control of various cities, including Aden.

Cities without electricity, no clean water, the Yemeni citizens being denied their civil and basic human rights now are a norm.

Al-Maqtari refers to this war as “the world of the new war rich, the war profiteers, the black-market tycoons”, the war of the Yemeni elites “who enrich themselves at the expense of the millions starving in Yemen” with “only ordinary people who are paying the price” with cultural elites lacking any shred of conscience.

“The more I think about it, the more I realise that these intellectuals, media professionals, journalists and human rights activists have contributed to the terror by taking one side or the other, and are in fact supporting the war.”

“Those who had signed an appeal to all the warring parties to make peace were persecuted and denounced as traitors.”

What Have You Left Behind? unsettles. It portrays people who are forced to live just with memories of their loved ones, with pain engraved on their faces. This is a record of the enormous tragedy taking place contemporarily. This book also questions the complicity and motivations of each of the sides in this war, including those in power, journalists, intellectuals, cultural figures, government officials, humanitarians and many others.

Needless to say this is the book that should be on the bookshelves of every home library. I can only hope for the peaceful resolution and some modicum of justice for the victims and their loved ones.

I will end with words of one of the heroines, Munira Mahyoub Qaid Al-Hamidi whose testimony is included in the book:

“But why is there war in the first place? Will they hear me if I yell? Will they bring back my daughters and my husband and my uncle and my unborn child? (…) But tell me, this war that killed my family, what is it for? Why all this death and destruction? What are they fighting over? What is worth all this death?“

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