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The details: surviving the war in Yemen

We are all survivors of a kind of mass abuse called war whether as human rights defenders and monitors or as simple Yemenis under the worst kind of internal and external war.

People stand on the rubble of houses destroyed by Saudi-led air strikes in Sanaa, Yemen, 09 June 2017.Picture by Hani Al-Ansi/DPA/dpa. All rights reserved.It is the details that kill you. It is the details that really get to you: a simple gesture, a sarcastic smile, a shadow of a tear in someone's eyes when telling their story, and all the little details you see and hear. That is what really haunts you whenever you close your eyes, and that is also what keeps me going as a human rights activist in Yemen.

Working in Yemen, I am used to seeing rubble, blood, and grief, and working in the field of monitoring human rights violations I met with fear, anger and despair. I work in maybe the only human rights organization in Yemen that was able to accomplish independence despite all the madness and all the pressure. Although this topic - the difficulties human rights defenders face in Yemen - is very rich I write today to honor the details, the excruciating details, all the names that I type into my computer, all the ways each name has been tortured and abused, maybe writing about them would help me drop off some of their load into this sheet of paper.

It was a good morning, the kind of morning where when someone greets you with "good morning" you can't help but agree. Sana'a manages to keep these beautiful mornings despite the very ugly war. We were to visit a market that was bombed by aircrafts belonging to the Saudi-led coalition. The minute we arrived, I knew the morning was to change drastically. All the details of the place were wiped out but I could still tie the words of the survivors to each and every corner of the market. The airstrike happened at noon which is the peak time for most markets in Yemen, a survivor explained. He did not forget to mention all the details, how his brother and his little daughter were sitting in a corner (he aimed at a corner in the market) and all the details were there. I can almost see the father sitting casually on the ground and his three year old child sitting on his lap. He would wear the Yemeni traditional "Zana" which is a kind of long shirt designed for men, and just his pair of Sandals and like most Yemenis it would be torn from the front, a small detail but still strikes hard.

I could also imagine the little girl, she would be her father's favorite. He wouldn’t take her out with him at that time if she wasn’t. The Yemeni men are constantly searching for their peace of mind, and for some reason I believed she was his peace of mind: so playful and full of life and love. The witness would then tell me where the first missile struck, the second, then the third. I noticed something while working through these two years of war: survivors are divided into two types. The first type is the very emotional and angry survivor, you can see in their eyes how vengeful they have become but I feel it’s the normal reaction for someone who lost everything without knowing why.

The other type really scares me, when you listen to them you can't find any emotions. Their eyes feel dead and they talk to you very specifically. They remember everything with a very organized chain of thought but with no emotions at all. My witness said "we carried what's left of the dead bodies into a pick-up truck not knowing what belongs to who". He did not flinch nor did he break eye contact. He wasn’t a medical personnel trained to look at such details and explain them so thoroughly, and he shouldn’t be able to tell me that piece of information so easily, but he did, while keeping that dead look of nothingness aimed straight to my eyes. It keeps me wondering after every tragedy, what is the time limit this ugly war would need to turn the very warm Yemeni people into that?

Mwatana for human rights mentioned in its report ( Blind Airstrikes) the very drastic effect of these airstrikes on civilians. Working with Mwatana in monitoring these cases changed the perspective of details for me. I was never a very detail-oriented person, but after I saw how all the wounded people became very detailed, it became as if the detailed memories of their lost loved ones is their most expensive possession. That changed me in two different ways. First, I started cherishing every detail in my life with my loved ones: the simple sit-downs with my mother and father, and the long unimportant discussions we enjoy having about everything. These details became very important: the way my dad listens and nods when I speak even if he didn’t agree, the way my mother moves her hand when she speaks and changes her posture, as if she is speaking in some of her conferences, or how my sister laughs at my jokes every time, and how every time me, my sisters and brother sit in the same room alone I feel safe to say absolutely anything. Every reaction my friends make is important. Every time I close my eyes I want my brain to register it all and keep it forever because I saw that at the end they will be all that matters.

Another way this affected me is that every single detail the survivors tell me or ever detail I imagine when visiting a specific market or house that has been bombed, or in a detainee's family, is still with me. The details haunt me every time I close my eyes. All these details stopped me from having the little political discussions I used to enjoy. When I start talking, my mouth freezes because all the details come rushing by to make that political observations sound like nothing. As if it doesn’t matter, and all that matters are those details that are stuck in my brain and the many more details that torment the survivors of this war.

I wonder at the end, when the war stops, will the details stop existing? I know they will never do, but I keep telling myself that they might, and that some miracle will dawn upon us to make us forget everything. We are all survivors of a kind of mass abuse called war whether as human rights defenders and monitors or as simple Yemenis under the worst kind of internal and external war. I also ask if the details stop existing due to some miracle, will the scars they left in our hearts and souls stop existing too?

About the author

Bonyan Jamall is a legal assistant at Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, she worked as a field researcher for a year at Mwatana before moving to work in the Legal Support Unit. Bonyan graduated from Sana'a University’s faculty of Sharia'a and Law.

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