The victims of a drone strike alleged to be launched last year by the United States spoke to members of Congress on Tuesday and urged the US government to stop killing civilians with weaponized unmanned aerial vehicles.
Rafiq ur Rehman, a primary school teacher from North Waziristan, Pakistan, spoke through an interpreter on Capitol Hill on Tuesday along with his two children, ages nine and 13.
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Florida) invited Rehman to speak in Washington about the strike last October that killed Momina Bibi, his 67-year-old mother who was recognized around the region as a midwife, not a militant. Regardless, a weaponized drone purported to be under the control of the US Central Intelligence Agency executed Bibi in front of her grandchildren on Oct. 24, 2012. The US has not formally acknowledged the attack, nor taken responsibility.
"Nobody has ever told me why my mother was targeted that day,” Rehman said during the Tuesday morning panel. "All media reported three, four, five militants were killed. But only one person was killed that day. A mom, grandma, a midwife.”
“The string that holds the pearls together. That is what my mother was,” Rahman said. “Since her death, the string has been broken and life has not been the same. We feel alone and we feel lost.”
Speaking before members of Congress, Rehman thanked Rep. Grayson for the invitation and said it was reassuring that some members of the US government are willing to try and shed light on a gruesome operation rarely acknowledged publicly in Washington.
"As a teacher my job is to educate,” said Rehman. “But how can I teach this? How can I teach what I don’t understand?”
Rehman’s 12-year-old son, Zubair, told Grayson and the few congressional colleagues that joined him on the Hill Tuesday that he was with his grandmother last year when she was killed shortly after the buzzing of a drone was heard hovering above them.
"As I helped my grandma in the field, I could see and hear drone overhead but wasn’t worried because we’re not militants,” Zubair said. "I no longer like blue skies. In fact, I prefer gray skies. When sky brightens, drones return and we live in fear.”
“We used to love to play outside. But now people are afraid to leave their houses so we don’t play very often,” the boy added.
Zubair’s sister, nine-year-old Nabila, was picking okra in a field with her grandmother at the time of the attack. She testified that she heard the noise from above. “Everything was dark and I couldn’t see anything, but I heard a scream...I was very scared and all I could think of doing was just run,” she said.
The Rehman’s were joined at the hearing by Robert Greenwald, a filmmaker who has been working in Pakistan over the past several months on a project related to the ongoing US drone strikes. Testifying on his own behalf, Greenwald suggested that the ongoing operations waged by the US as an alleged counter-terrorism operation are breeding anti-American sentiment at a rate that makes Al-Qaeda jealous.
“Yes, there are 100 or 200 fanatics, but now you have 800,000 people in this area who hate the United States because of this policy,” Greenwald said. Indeed, last week a former US State Department officialclaimed that drone strikes in Yemen are creating dozens of new militants with each attack.
Greenwald added that the research he’s seen indicated that 178 children have been killed in Pakistan by US drone strikes. Independent studies suggest that the total number of civilians killed by unmanned aerial vehicles may be in the thousands.
“We’ve gone from being the most popular country among Pakistani to, according to the polling I’ve seen, the least popular,” Grayson said. “And if you ask people why, the reason is this program.”
Despite these numbers, though, the White House maintains that the best intelligence agencies in the world work in tandem with the mightiest military in order to gather information about targets, then order hits intended to take out extremists and cause as little collateral damage as possible.
According to Greenwald, this system is not without its flaws.
“How could we make decisions, let’s be clear about this, making decisions to clear people based on guesses?” asked Greenwald. “Guesses. No jury, no judge, no trial, no defense but because they are sitting in a certain pattern, because they’re in a certain place, an entire community of leadership has been wiped out.”
“I hope that by telling you about my village and grandmother, you realize drones are not the answer,” pleaded 12-year-old Zubair.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) said at the hearing that she would bring up the witnesses’ plight with the White House. Grayson said that “friends of the military industrial complex” in Washington would likely keep a full discussion from occurring immediately in Washington, adding that “I don’t expect to see a formal hearing conducted on this subject anytime soon.”
Family's Pakistani lawyer denied entry into US
The Rehman’s testimony to Congress was originally intended to take place in September, but delays in the visa processing for their lawyer, Mirza Shahzad Akbar, pushed that back.
Speaking to RT, Mr. Akbar was straightforward in his belief that the ongoing denial of his entry into the country with his clients was directly tied to his involvement in pressing against US drone strikes.
“I think the reason is very obvious, the reason is my criticism of the US drone program in Pakistan, and the legal action I’ve brought since 2010 against CIA officials acting in Pakistan, and against the Pakistani government.”
“The congressional briefing was one occasion where the clients I’m representing would have a voice to speak to American lawmakers, who would also challenge president Obama’s contention that drone strikes are very precise, and they only hit militants, which is not true. Raffiq and his family is a living example of that.”
Mr. Akbar was meant to travel along with the Rehman family, but has faced recurring problems entering the US since he began representing civilian victims of drone strikes in 2011.
"It's not like my name is scratched because there is some sort of confusion. My name is blocked!" Akbar told the Guardian in September. He later wrote a column for The Hill newspaper, which is widely read on Capitol Hill, trying to bring light to his entry issues.
"Before I started drone investigations I never had an issue with US visas. In fact, I had a US diplomatic visa for two years," says Akbar.