Meeting the Victims of a U.S. Drone Strike
First thing in the morning I’ll board the bus heading for South Waziristan. Thirty five westerners will be heading for Dehr Ismail Khan and on to the border town of Kotkai, including Clive Stafford Smith of the London based organization Reprieve, who started our defending prisoners in Guantanamo, and is now focused on mounting lawsuits for the survivors of drone attacks and the families of those who did not survive and other members of Reprieve; including about 30 members of the colorful American antiwar group, CodePink and their intrepid leader, Medea Benjamin, who organized this mission; including representatives of the Christian Peacekeepers, Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars and the United National Antiwar Coalition in the United States and many others.
Our hosts for this mission are Shahzad Akhbar and the three lovely Maryams (all lawyers) on his staff at the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, a sister organization to Reprieve, conveniently based in Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan which happens to be located in the north of the country, not for from the rural home of the Pakhtuns. Besides hosting us, the Foundation for Fundamental Rights invites the injured parties to come to Islamabad and tell their stories, then prepares lawsuits to bring before the high court of Pakistan for them against the Pakistani government and American authorities in Pakistan. It was the Foundation for Fundamental Rights that sued the American CIA chief in Pakistan some time last year, thereby causing him to make a quick exit from the country.
Our sponsor or the Delegation is Imran Khan, leader of PTI, the Pakistan Tehreekh-e-Inshaf party, a rightist, leftist, populist party that has a surprising number of women and young people among it’s supporters. Khan has adopted the anti Drone campaign, and supports ending American military presence in Pakistan and ending American abuses of Pakistani sovereignty as a prelude to true friendship between our countries. Earlier this evening we went to a rally with PTI Youth. We gathered with them in a large ‘Super Market’, which is something like a cross between a traditional bazaar and a modern mall, and marched through the streets chanting and singing. We were shouting “Stop! Stop! Drone Attacks! and singing “We are Maaaarching to Waziristan; Marching to Waziristan”. Then, “Bandkro! Bandkro! Drone Humlah Bandkro!” and “Jarub, Jarub Waziristan. Jarub!”  Nice symmetry in the messages, I thought.
I opened the newspaper when I got home and saw a little back page article saying that the Taliban had denied ever giving permission to Khan for a march into their territory. It’s a push pull. Yesterday, he gave a big press conference and we got lots of coverage. Today a little nip of a backlash. When I first arrived, PTI had a press conference for us to talk about our intention to go to Waziristan with Imran, and the next day there was a front page article stating that the Taliban were determined to block us. Shahzad said the information was a week old. Khan’s stance is that we are free people and have a right to travel where we will. Furthermore, the tribesmen whose land we will travel through have invited us and will treat us as guests.
Wow! We will be guests of of the Mehsud tribe. I think a couple of generations of their leadership have been primary targets of Drone strikes. Yesterday Richard Hoagland, the Charges d’ Affairs of the US Consulate in Islamabad, came to call at our hotel. He was preceded by a contingent of Pakistani military men bearing weapons, who checked the place out and stationed guards at strategic points before he arrived. He gave a little talk, inviting us to avail ourselves of embassy services, and then had his security liaison say a (surprisingly) few words about the dangers of going into the Tribal Areas. Then we had some Q&A. I felt that we asked some good questions, but got little in the way of answers. Others were satisfied with tidbits and hints.
This afternoon, some members of the victims of Drone strikes families came to meet with us, along with one of their tribal leaders Malik Jalal Khan, who spoke for them, and a translator and Noor Behram, the photographer who has taken most of the photos we have of the victims and post attack wreckage in the villages of North Waziristan in Pakistan. Noor says that he has photographed the bodies of 100 children, and has seen more. Whenever he hears of an attack he goes to the location immediately, but even so he sometimes arrives too late and the child has already been buried. Sometimes there is nothing left to photograph.
Malik Jalal Khan is a handsome man with a big turban, a big beard and a twinkle in his eye. He’s a guy whose cellphone rings during the meeting and his business has precedence. According to Jalal Khan, women killed in the strikes are often not reported as missing or dead. Women are part of the private space and their lives and deaths are not appropriate subjects for public discourse. It’s a cultural context that seems very alien to us, but it is their way of life. He said that in many cases, the missiles strike while the women are working in a kitchen, just off the main room where men may be meeting and drinking their tea. He seems to find this detail particularly disturbing; women murdered while doing housework; women killed while caring for their families. Is that worse then women killed while sleeping; women killed while having a conversation among themselves?
I always remind people that the compounds we hear about in the news, the compounds that are the most likely targets of drone strikes are actually people’s homes. Shahzad explains to us that these homes which are compounds, house extended families with as many as 50 or 60 people. It told him it appears to me that the strikes are in a very small area. The translator, at this point, became very agitated, and after a lively discussion in Pashto, he asserted that the strike were not confined to a small area, but rather they are everywhere. Shahzad followed up by pointing out that one person’s small area may not seem so small to another.
In any case, the vision is that the drone strikes are everywhere in their world, and anyone who reads a newspaper anywhere in the world knows that they occur pretty regularly 1 or 2 a week, or perhaps every other week. Someone asked if the strikes caused people to leave the region. Jalal Khan said that some do leave, and others just retreat into the mountains when they are feeling unsafe, then return to their lands. He said that he himself does this at times. When asked how the constant threat affects their lives, he said that their culture is being undermined because people no longer congregate in large numbers for public functions, weddings, funerals. Children don’t go to school. Jirgas are threatened so leaders don’t meet in large groups.
When asked whether he supports terrorists, Jalal Khan said that they don’t go to fight in Afghanistan because the border is no longer open the way it was before the war on terror. He said they lived open and dignified lives then, before they became the target of our wars. But now they can’t even visit their relatives in towns a few miles away on the other side of the Afghan border. People have become isolated, anxious and depressed. According to Shahzad, there are increasing numbers of people taking Zantac and other anti-anxiety drugs to get through the day.
Yesterday we met with Acting Ambassador Richard Hoagland, Charge d’Affairs at the American Embassy in Islamabad. Ambassador Hoagland came to our hotel to welcome us to Pakistan, and to warn us of the dangers of pushing the boundaries there. Here are some samples of the following Q&A with Ambassador Hoagland.
CodePink: Can you provide an estimate of civilian casualties?
A Hoagland: Since July 2008, “in the two figures”.
A Hoagland: Can’t answer. There are hardly any, if any at all.
The Ambassador first gives an estimate of civilian casualties due to drones that may be up to 100, a number considerably less than the number that emerged from actual research in the region, and through the work of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights. He then dismisses even that figure as ‘hardly any, if any at all’. Since we have seen the photos of 100 dead children and heard the stories of family members of other victims, this response seems not only inaccurate, but calloused.
CodePink: Is there compensation for drone victims in Pakistan?
A Hoagland: it has to be set up, but it’s not impossible.
CodePink: Is the Pakistani government at highest level complicit in drone strikes?
A Hoagland: I can’t answer that, ask the Pakistani Government.
The latter is an open question discussed at great length on the street in both Pakistan and the US. My take is that the drone strikes were far less prevalent during the Musharraf period when the ISI was directly involved in selecting targets. Since the Obama administration began, the Pakistani military has been excluded from decision making and any official complicity is superficial. Given the massive rejection of the strikes within large segments of the civilian population of Pakistan, recent public protests against the drone strikes by their government would appear to be sincere, if inexcusably weak.
CodePink: What can we do to stop the drone attacks?
A Hoagland: Maybe bring the issue of drones to the International criminal courts.
Shahzad Akhbar: Unfortunately it’s the Pakistani Government that has to do that.
Shahzad Akhbar: What does Pakistan have to do to get the US to pay attention to how bad the drone program is?
A Hoagland: Address the issue through legal mechanisms.
CodePink: How does the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty affect diplomacy?
A Hoagland: The government of Pakistan has lodged official protests against US Drone Program.
CodePink: Is it true the US ambassador signs off on every drone strike.
A Hoagland: Can’t comment
It’s tough to sort this out, but it looks like it is the Pakistani Government’s responsibility to file a complaint, and they have done so. However, no one is interested. And drone victims are only the tip of the iceberg in this context. Hundreds, maybe thousands of Pakistani nationals have been detained by or at the request of US officials during the War on Terror. There are men sold to the Americans or picked up by accident along the border, who have been incarcerated without charges at Bagram for as many as 10 years. We met their relatives last night. Apparently they have a process, but the process doesn’t necessarily lead to any resolution of their status. Worse, they have been deliberately silenced. If they talk about the details of their treatment during incarceration, or how they came to be there, they are threatened and punished.
And then there are the men in Guantanamo, and those in Pakistani prisons. I met with the relatives of some of the latter a couple of days ago. And there are the ones like Aafia Siddiqui who somehow ended up with more than a life sentence in the US. An American citizen with a PhD in cognitive neurology and 3 small children, Aafia was snatched from the streets of Islamabad and spent 5 years in Bagram before being extradited to the US. We’ll never know why this bright, passionate woman was picked up in the first place because, by the time she was accused of an actual crime she had already been in detention under the worst of conditions for 5 years.
And it would be worth remembering that just as Aafia Siddiqui is an American Citizen, Pakistan is an American ally. Aafia Siddiqui’s family has been threatened for speaking out just as the families of the Bagram detainees have. And it appears that the government of Pakistan dare not defy the US hegemon either. This is how we treat our friends and those who freely choose to join our society. Jalal Khan said, “Once we were Mujahedin. Now we are Terrorists.”
CodePink: Will there be Drone strikes during march?,
Hoagland: “I can assure you with 100% certainty; the march will not be targeted.
Well, that’s a relief. Too bad all the citizens of Waziristan won’t be under our umbrella.
Today, a busload of CodePinkers went to visit the American Embassy in Islamabad. They were denied entry. But tomorrow we are going to Waziristan, to stand under a pristine sky that has been darkened by drones, with a people whose lives have been dismissed in the name of our freedom. Pakistanis are saying, if we will go, then they have to go. We all have to go to Waziristan or none of us can be free.
 My sincere apologies to Urdu speakers for abusing your language
 Based on CodePink Twitters during the meeting, along with some clarifications.
Judy Bello is currently a full time activist thanks to the harsh and unforgiving work environment in the Software Development Industry. Finally free to focus on her own interests in her home office, she is active with The Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars, and with Fellowship of Reconciliation Middle East Task Force and often posts on their blog at http://forusa.org. She has been to Iran twice with FOR Peace Delegations, and spent a month in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya in 2009. Her personal blog, Towards a Global Perspective, is at http://blog.papillonweb.net and she is administers the Upstate anti-Drone Coalition website at http://upstatedroneaction.org. She can be reached at: email@example.com