Members of a family in Pakistan, who became victims of the United States drone program in October of last year when their grandmother was killed and children were wounded, traveled to the US to inform Americans of what the US government is doing to Pakistanis and how it directly impacts them.
Rafiq ur Rehman, the son of 67-year-old Mammana Bibi who was obliterated by Hellfire missiles fired by a drone while she was out in the family garden, addressed an audience at a congressional briefing convened by Congressman Alan Grayson today. Rafiq’s son, 13-year-old Zubair, who was injured in the strike, and his daughter, 9-year-old Nabila, also injured in the strike, spoke as well. Brave New Films director Robert Greenwald was present to introduce the family and show a clip from his new film in which the family appears, “Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars.”
The message for Americans was simple. Rafiq asked that the American public “treat us as equals. Make sure that your government gives us the same status of a human with basic rights as they do to their own citizens.”
He declared, “We do not kill our cattle the way US is killing humans in Waziristan with drones. This indiscriminate killing has to end and justice must be delivered to those who have suffered.”
The family lives in a small close-knit village in Miranshah in North Waziristan. It is a peaceful community. There are no suicide bombers, but, for some reason, the US attacked people in the village where the family lives.
Rafiq said to those in attendance, “Nobody has ever told me why my mother was targeted that day. Some media outlets reported that the attack was on a car, but there is no road alongside my mother’s house. Others reported that the attack was on a house. But the missiles hit a nearby field, not a house. All of them reported that three, four, five militants were killed.”
“But only one person was killed that day – Mammana Bibi, a grandmother and midwife who was preparing to celebrate the Islamic holiday of Eid. Not a militant, but my mother,” Rafiq added.
He further detailed, “Four of my children were injured that day and four of my brother’s children. We have had to borrow money and sell land to pay for the childrens’ medical treatment. There has been no compensation to help with these bills. The Pakistani government accepted my claim and confirmed the details. But it says it is not responsible; the U.S. is.”
Rafiq who is a teacher, eloquently asked, “Congressman Grayson, as a teacher, my job is to educate. But how do I teach something like this? How do I explain what I myself do not understand? How can I in good faith reassure the children that the drone will not come back and kill them, too, if I do not understand why it killed my mother and injured my children?”
Zubair recalled, “Just before the drone struck, my grandmother promised me that as soon as we finished our chores, we could start celebrating. The night before we had helped her make sweets. I couldn’t wait to try one.”
While helping his mother in the field, drones could be heard hovering overhead. It did not seem like anything unusual. He cannot remember a time in his life that drones have not been up in the skies. More importantly, “Neither my grandmother nor I were militants.” Why would there be any reason to worry?
“When the drone fired the first time, the whole ground shook and black smoke rose up. The air smelled poisonous. We ran, but several minutes later the drone fired again. People from the village came to our aid and took us to the hospital. We spent the night in great agony at the hospital and the next morning I was operated on. That is how we spent Eid,” Zubair described.
A shy but brave Nabila recounted how she had been wounded. She spoke about everything going dark and how she could not see. She was running. She saw something in her hand. She was bleeding. The blood kept coming and it would not stop.
The children are now afraid to play outside. They are afraid to go to school. Rafiq says he has fewer students in his classes because parents fear sending their children to school. They believe any moment the drones could attack again.
Only five congressmen, including Grayson, made an appearance at the briefing: Rep. John Conyers, Rep. Rush Holt, Rep. Rick Nolan and Rep. Jan Schakowsky.
Jennifer Gibson, a lawyer for the human rights organization, Reprieve, provided testimony and put the attack that killed their grandmother into perspective.
“This tragedy is far from the only one,” Gibson explained. “Since 2010, Reprieve and the Foundation for Fundamental Rights have interviewed more than 150 families and civilian victims of US drone strikes. Only three could make the long journey from the tribal areas of Pakistan, but all of them have stories, largely unheard and untold here in the US. Together they reveal a secret war that is immoral, unlawful and counterproductive. Mistakes like the mistake that killed Mammana Bibi are not stand-alone events. They started with the very first strike this administration took.”
For example, she said, “On January 23, 2009, the US launched a strike on 14-year-old Fahim Qureshi’s house in Zuraqi, North Waziristan. In a flash, Fahim lost 7 members of his family and his dreams for a future. As the only survivor of the strike, he suffered serious burns to his body, a fractured skull and the loss of sight in one of his eyes. A shy and slight young man, Fahim often tells me of how he still dreams of being a scientist or an engineer, but the ongoing headaches and the moodswings from his injuries and the constant fear of new strikes make school impossible for him.”
Gibson continued, detailing how some appeared to have been targeted simply because they have dared to oppose drone strikes. On October 20, 2011, a strike killed a youth, Tariq Aziz, who had volunteered to help Reprieve collect evidence of drone strikes. “Three days before he died, he was in Islamabad for a well-publicized Reprieve event.”
“I struggle on a daily basis with the question: if Tariq Aziz was such an imminent threat to the US national security, why wasn’t he arrested in Islamabad when he was just a few miles down the road from the US embassy?” she added.
Others killed are attacked because they had the same names as someone else, who was a target. They are also killed because they decided to help those wounded in strikes and a follow-up drone attack, which is a clear war crime, hit them. And, in “signature strikes,” people are killed because they engaged in a pattern of behavior that was deemed suspicious.
Grayson said the American drone policy was not just wrong. It is “dead wrong.” He also stated, “No other country in the world does this. Certainly, Russia has their enemies, but you don’t see the Russians sending drones to other countries. At this point, sending military forces to other countries is very unusual if you’re talking about any other country other than the United States.”
“The problem here is that people sitting here in this city in Washington, DC, are making life and death decisions over specific individuals in Pakistan and Yemen and elsewhere,” added Grayson.
There are no Taliban where Rafiq lives. There were no people in his village who thought about doing harm to America; that is, until a CIA drone blew Rafiq’s mother into pieces making many in Rafiq’s village angry. And, even so, the community has not turned to violence in response to the strike.
Asked what he would say to President Barack Obama if he had the chance, Rafiq powerfully articulated:
What I would say to President Obama if I had the opportunity to meet with him is that what happened to me and my family was wrong. And I would ask him to find a peaceful end to this war, to find an end to these drones.
I came here and I noticed during my short stay that everyone lives peacefully here. It’s a nice life. Everyone enjoys being with each other and no one lives in fear.
My hopes and dreams are that my children can live in a similar environment in North Waziristan. I dream that my children will complete their education and help rebuild Pakistan, a country that will be guided by humanity and peaceful means. And I think this is something that both the Pakistan government and the American government need to work together to achieve.
I sat in the briefing and heard Zubair say boldly, “I hope I can return home with a message. I hope I can tell my community that Americans listened. That America is not just drones that terrorize us from above but a country that listens and is trying to help us solve the many problems we face. And maybe, just maybe, America may soon stop the drones.”
I must admit, as an American, I feel something turning inside me when I think about how this family had to travel here and share their story, pleading for America to recognize what is that is being done.
It is heart-wrenching to hear a 13-year-old boy say, “Congressman Grayson, I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray,” because this is one of the few times he is not afraid he will be targeted by a drone. Yet, what evidence is there that those in the political class in Washington and those who are profiting off what essentially are legalized extrajudicial executions will recognize their actions are contributing to this death and destruction?
What are the chances that they will, as Grayson suggested people should do, “learn from the eloquence” of drone victims, who so courageously speak out against the US government, possibly putting themselves at risk of being targeted?
They spoke with a purity that should be considered irreproachable and yet, somehow, it is often people like Rafiq and his son and daughter whom we put on the spot demanding they come up with alternatives to drone strikes if they expect us to act in response to their words.
Furthermore, the State Department would not grant a visa for the family’s lawyer, Shahzad Akbar, to attend the briefing. Six thousand signatures urging Secretary of State John Kerry to allow him to enter the country were submitted but, clearly, they went ignored.
Zubair said he almost did not come to America to tell his story because the US refused to let Akbar come with him. Akbar “used to visit the US all of the time, but since he started helping people like me, the US now says he is not welcome. If he isn’t welcome, than why would I be?”
I do hope the drones will stop. I cling to this hope, no matter how thin, because cynicism will do nothing for the families whose lives have been disrupted. But I worry that our leaders have hardened souls and lack empathy. Any number of drone victims can be flown here and given a platform to speak and America’s dirty wars will continue in the darkest of shadows.
All of which means, as Rafiq, Zubair and even Nabila appear to understand, it is up to Americans to listen to their hearts and make it harder and harder for cold and callous political leaders to defend and continue America’s drone policy.
If these stories told by drone victims make us feel anything at all, let that be the driving force for a movement to stop a policy terrorizing villages, fueling hatred, destabilizing communities and killing and wounding innocent people like those in Rafiq’s family.