Down in the Hole, by Bushra al-Maqtari

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From What Have You Left Behind?, which will be published next month by Fitzcarraldo Editions. This account was given by Fatima Mohammed Salam, whose husband was killed in 2015 following Houthi-Saleh attacks on Taiz, in southwestern Yemen. Translated from the Arabic by Sawad Hussain.

War has turned me into someone I don’t recognize, someone worn out by life, someone who is now both mother and father to their children. Before the war, I didn’t know what went on beyond our home; my husband was my only link to the outside world. But war tore me out of everything: myself, my family ties, my friendships. I’m now a different person, born from the womb of an unjust war.

The first year of the war was the beginning of my devastation. It was the last week of April when the first missile fell on the city of Taiz, hitting the workshop where my husband worked. I still remember every detail from that day, like a photograph in my hands. In the corner of the photo is my husband Mohammed in his smock, laughing.

My young son had been crying, because he’d wanted to go with his father. Mohammed kissed him and then quickly left with our older son without turning back to look at us again. But I remember his eyes resting on everything a little longer than usual, as if bidding the objects farewell. I closed the door behind them as I did every day, without any alarms going off inside me. No nightmares, no worries, no fears. Mohammed had convinced me we were better off staying here at home, despite the shelling that had started to target homes in our city. Even at its worst, the war would be more bearable here than in the village, and if we just stayed together, we would be secure enough to face anything.

The phone rang. Wrong number. It rang again. Silence from the other end, and then they hung up. I start to lose patience. Then more phone calls, relatives with conflicting news: “Your husband and son have been injured.” “They’re both dead.” “They’re fine, just some minor injuries.” Then, a knock at the door. My uncle and sisters were on the doorstep, and I knew something unspeakable had happened. I begged to see my husband and son. They had been taken to Yemen International Hospital. We couldn’t get to them; shells were falling on the city, and the transport to Al Hawban had been cut off after the militia took up position on the hill opposite the hospital.

My son Abdelrahman had been critically injured; shell fragments in his heart and spine had left him bedridden. Easing his physical pain was simpler than answering his questions about his father. When he asked, I pretended I was busy or hadn’t heard him. I didn’t tell him that I’d seen his father in the ICU after they’d cut off his leg because of gangrene, and that he’d died, leaving me alone. That day, they buried his amputated leg in the Kalabah Cemetery in Al Hawban, and his body in the Al Ogainat Cemetery. The thought of his leg buried in the east of the city with his body in the west always saddens me.

My mission in this life is for my son not to be disabled, but I can’t afford his treatment, or to go abroad as the doctors recommended. I cry all the time; I don’t know how to help him any more.

No one is helping us—not the Houthi opposition, not the organizations for the wounded, no one. They only look after their own; those from the same sect. As for people like us, they’ll just let us rot and die from our wounds. When I see my son lying in bed, unable to move, or groaning on the cold nights, it breaks my heart. His silences send me into a fit of crying. What’s going through his mind? I try to get him to open up, and sometimes he talks about his nightmares, how the missile just dropped out of thin air while they were safely inside the workshop, their bodies and their shoes flying. His father had asked him for help, but he had been too injured to move, and was racked with guilt. Sometimes he cries, protesting the war, and how unfair life is, but with time I’ve been able to sew up the hole from which such nightmares crawl out.

When you become everything for your family, the only way you can manage life is by depending on charitable people who know what a desperate situation you’re in, or turning to your relatives. You have to do everything a mother and a father is expected to do, your back bending under the burden as each day passes. But when I think of all that I’ve been through, I can say that I’m strong. I go to the market on my own and buy things for the house: vegetables, bread, gas, medicine. Sometimes I have to fetch water from far-off places. I take my children to school and come home with them. I train them to swallow this different way of life that I’m still wrapping my head around.

I know it’s war that has made life so difficult for me and for many women in this country, but I don’t get angry. I stay at home, locked up with my children, satisfied with these four walls protecting us from the outside.

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