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It was with great anticipation that those in the room at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC on Monday, October 29 awaited the first screening of director Robert Greenwald’s latest documentary, “Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars.” The film details the Obama Administration’s deadly drone program and its innocent victims in the tribal areas of Waziristan in Pakistan. For years, the US government has downplayed the number of civilian drone casualties, with innocent victims labeled as nameless “militants” in the media. Drone warfare has intensified in recent years as there has been a scaling back of ground troops in Afghanistan. Unmanned, therefore, arrives at an important juncture in the so-called War on Terror.
The American public is told that the drone strikes are precise and that they avoid or limit the collateral damage of warfare, but the truth is very different, according to the dozens of subjects interviewed for the documentary. Greenwald made a clear effort to include testimonies from not only human rights advocates, but also prominent journalists, national security experts, legal scholars, and even former CIA officials. Their viewpoints are unanimous that the Obama administration continually obfuscates the number of civilians killed by drones, and underestimates the amount of backlash created by such strikes.
The documentary also spotlighted several victims of the drone warfare. One in particular, Tariq Aziz, a sixteen-year-old soccer aficionado, was killed by a ‘Hellfire’ missile 72 hours after he attended a peaceful anti-drone conference in Islamabad, where he’d met numerous international journalists and human rights groups. Rather than arresting Tariq at the conference, the U.S. chose to kill Tariq, a minor, without any explanation except for noting, as usual, that “militants” were killed.
Also featured in the film was Brandon Bryant, an ex- Air Force pilot who narrated how he lives with PTSD after serving as a drone operator from 2007 to 2011. His descriptions of his view as he launched drone missiles is genuinely chilling.
The documentary’s release coincided with the visit by the Rahman family – innocent victims who lost their mother/grandmother to a 2012 strike – to the United States. Nine-year-old Nabila ur Rahman, her older brother Zubair, and their father Rafiq ur Rahman, were featured prominently in the documentary and attended the screening with their lawyer, Reprieve’s Jennifer Gibson. After the screening, an emotional audience listened to beautiful little Nabila and her well-spoken brother tell the harrowing tale about how their grandmother, Mamana Bibi, was killed while picking okra in their garden in preparation for Eid-Al-Adha. Nine children including Nabila and Zubair, were hospitalized with injuries from the strike. But their horrible memories live on – the next day, Rafiq, Nabila, and Zubair recounted their testimony for a briefing before members of Congress and asked for an explanation of why innocent Mamana Bibi was targeted.
For the first time, this heartbreaking documentary brings the drone program ‘out of the closet’ through the innocent victims themselves. If there is one criticism to level, it is that although the stories Greenwald choose to showcase are compelling, the audience is told that there are hundreds more, without the names and faces that bring numbers to life. One wonders whether screen time could have been distributed among more testimonies, rather than focusing narrowly on Tariq and Rafiq’s stories.
Regardless, Unmanned is a powerful indictment of the use of drone warfare. It shows that there is nothing brave or heroic about pressing a remote control button from the comfort of a base in the United States to create terror in far away lands – and often kill innocent people. It provokes the question: “How can we now remain silent?” And what answer does one have when 13-year-old Zubair says, as he did in his Congressional testimony, “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey.”