Zubair ur Rehman is afraid of blue skies. After all, it was a bright, clear day when his grandmother, Mamana Bibi was killed by a drone strike in a field outside of his home in Pakistan’s Waziristan region.
“When the sky brightens and becomes blue, the drones return and so does the fear,” the thirteen-year-old told members of Congress at a briefing organized by Representative Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat, yesterday.
Zubair wasn’t always so anxious. Not even on that day when he was out collecting okra with his grandmother, siblings, and cousins in preparation for the Eid holiday.
“As I helped my grandmother work in the fields,” he said through a translator, “I could hear the drone hover overhead, but I didn’t worry. Why would I worry? Neither I nor my grandmother were militants.”
That is why it was so surprising when a hellfire missile fell from the sky and shattered his family’s life. Zubair’s sister, Nabila, nine years old, recalled what happened next. “I was very scared and all I could think of doing was just run. I kept running but I felt something in my hand. I looked at my hand and I saw that there was blood. I tried to bandage my hand but the blood kept coming. The blood wouldn’t stop.”
The two were badly injured along with four of their cousins. Their grandmother did not survive the attack.
The incident is one of many that humanitarian organizations point to as proof that drone strikes have been responsible for more civilian casualties than the U.S. government claims. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that 400–900 civilians have been killed by drone strikes since they began in Pakistan in 2004, a figure that the administration refuses to acknowledge. No civilian deaths were reported in connection with the strike that took the life of 67-year-old Mamana Bibi.
“What I would say to President Obama if I had the opportunity to meet with him,” Rafique ur Rehman, the children’s father, said, “is that what happened to me and my family was wrong. And I’d ask him—request him—to find a peaceful end to this war, to these drones.”
Rafique envied the tranquility he observed in Washington. ‘I realized during my short stay that everyone lives peacefully here, that it’s a nice life.’
Shahzad Akbar, the Rehmans’ lawyer, might have said the same, but he was denied a visa to accompany his clients to the briefing. Akbar, a legal fellow with Reprieve, the U.K.-based advocacy organization that helped bring the family to the Washington, believes that his work has something to do with the denial. He only had trouble obtaining a visa after he started to litigate on the behalf of drone victims.
In an interview at his Islamabad office, Akbar told me that he was first denied entry to the United States in 2010, even though he had an open visa at the time. He said that the head of visa services at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad told him his visa could not be processed there because of his history. “And I looked at her and I said what do you mean by history? She just smiled and she said, ‘You know very well what I mean by history.’”
He assumes she was referring to his decision that year to sue the CIA station chief in Islamabad. “It’s very simple,” Akbar said. “You mess with [the] CIA and they mess with you to the extent they can. I mean, I’m not in Waziristan, thankfully, otherwise they would have killed me in a drone strike.” The vast majority of drone attacks in Pakistan have occurred in Waziristan, a northwestern territory where the Taliban have been active since the U.S. invasion drove them from neighboring Afghanistan.
Gallows humor aside, Akbar contends that the U.S. drone program is deliberately killing civilians. That is why earlier this year he argued before the Peshawar High Court that the strikes are war crimes. The court agreed. He then wrote to the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to remind him, “The court has very clearly ordered to shoot down the drones.”
When asked if he sees any benefit to the use of drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal regions, Akbar said, “Nope, not at all.” He called the supposed effectiveness of the attacks “rubbish” and loosed a volley of questions. “Where are the names? Where are the charge sheets? What evidence do you have against these people? Yes, you have killed 60 or 70 al Qaeda associated people, but have you achieved anything? Has the new leadership not been even worse and more fierce than the last you had killed? Is Pakistan safer now? Are there no bombings anymore?”
Like many in Pakistan, where drone strikes are hugely unpopular, Akbar sees them as violations of the country’s sovereignty. They are, he told me, murders—executions without charge or due process. Worse, he fears that drone strikes only breed more militants, who take up arms largely against their own countrymen through bombings and assassinations.
While his client Rafique ur Rehman did not stake his own claim to revenge when Representative Grayson asked how the drone strike that killed his mother has changed his opinions of the United States, the schoolteacher did say that his fellow tribesman tell him he should be angry.
Rafique expressed only his envy of the tranquility he observed when he arrived in Washington to give his testimony. “I realized during my short stay that everyone lives peacefully here, that it’s a nice life,” he said. “My hopes and dreams are that my children too can live in a similar environment in North Waziristan.”
The briefing represents the first time drone victims have testified before American officials about the violence they have faced. To Akbar, though, it is a small step in changing policy. Low attendance on the part of elected officials, he said, did not bode well.
“If only five or six people from Congress showed up to hear from the victims of drone strikes,” he said, “It just proves that it is a government and society where money and lobbying are stronger than the aim to find justice.”
Still, Akbar said, “These faces will remain in people’s minds and memory whenever they hear that this or that many were killed in a drone strike.” And that might be what it takes to begin to change things for people such as Rafique ur Rehman and his family.
Video courtesy of the Brave New Foundation