Death from above

Faheem Qureishi sat in his uncle’s home in the hujra, a gathering space for men and male guests. He gathered that night with his uncle Mohammad Khalil, other relatives, and some of Khalil’s neighbors for conversation and tea.

Without warning, the men heard a distinct hissing sound, and all instinctively bowed their heads down. A drone missile hit the center of the hujra, blowing off the ceiling and the roof, shattering all the windows, and damaging neighbors’ homes.

Faheem, who said he was about ten steps away from the center of the hujra, was the only survivor of the strike. “[I] could not think,” said Faheem, “I felt my brain stopped working and my heart was on fire… my entire body was burning like crazy.”

Faheem looked for water to splash on his burning face. After a few moments of panic-stricken confusion he walked out of the rubble of the hujra and out of his uncle’s destroyed compound. Neighbors found him, put him in a pickup truck and rushed him to a government hospital, where he was bandaged and then sent to a larger hospital where doctors operated on him to remove shrapnel from his abdomen.

Faheem suffered from a fractured skull, burns and shrapnel wounds all over the left side of his face and body. His left eye has been replaced with an artificial one, and he has lost hearing in his left ear; he also has limited mobility. Faheem was only fourteen when he was attacked by the drone in January 2009.

Being a top student, Faheem said that afterwards he found it hard to pay attention in school, was unable to learn, and could not study. He was quick to get angry and annoyed by trivial issues, had a very short temper, and was usually emotionally distressed. Medicine helped him regain his focus and allowed him to continue his education but, once again, he says he finds it hard to learn and study.

Life under drones

This is one of the narratives described in Living Under Drones, a joint study by the NYU School of Law and Stanford Law School, which highlights the effects of drone presence in the Pakistani region of Wazirastan, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas[G1]  (FATA), on the border of Afghanistan.

The study is substantial, highly informative and the result of nine months’ worth of research. Living Under Drones is based on “over 130 detailed interviews with victims and witnesses of drone activity, their family members, current and former Pakistani government officials, representatives from five major Pakistani political parties, subject matter experts, lawyers, medical professionals, development and humanitarian workers, members of civil society, academics, and journalists.”

The research team also reviewed an extensive amount of data from news reports to legal and governmental documents to physical evidence. The report is a substantial synthesis of relevant information and an amplifier for first-hand experiences of living under drones and witnessing their effects on people.

There is already a debate over the legal and moral issues surrounding drone strikes, and the program’s results. Taliban operatives are said to cross the Pakistani border into these tribal borderlands, and thus the drones are deployed, with the consent of the Pakistani government, to target militants taking refuge in these areas.

The U.S. government purports that the drone program is an effective way of ensuring our safety by targeting people who threaten the United States, while being able to clearly distinguish between “terrorists and innocent civilians.” The precise and surgical nature of the strikes, according to the U.S. government, enables the U.S. to target threats with minimal collateral damage to the general communities in the region. After nine months of intensive research, the authors of the study simply state that “[t]his narrative is false.”

If Faheem had not been able to walk out of the hujra he would have most likely died because no one would have come in to look for him, or any other potential survivor who may have gotten caught in the strike. One of the issues the report highlights is the fact that rescuers–whether they are people in the vicinity, such as neighbors and family members, or humanitarian aid workers–will not immediately try to rescue survivors for fear of the drones striking the site a second time. In other words, after an initial strike a drone will again strike the site, killing first responders.

One interviewee described how one home was hit and people immediately went into the house to look for the children who lived there, only to be killed by a second missile.  Another interviewee further explained this scenario. “[W]hat America has tried to do is attack the rescue teams . . . . So now, what the tribals do, they don’t want many people going to the strike areas,” says Noor Behram, a journalist who has extensively covered the drone crisis in the area.

“Only three or four willing people who know that if they go, they are going to die, only they go in. . . . It has happened most of the times . . . [O]nce there has been a drone attack, people have gone in for rescue missions, and five or ten minutes after the drone attack, they attack the rescuers who are there.”

The victims of drone policies

The assurance that the drone program does its best to make sure that there are no civilian casualties simply does not hold true given that there is no precaution taken when performing these “double taps”, as they are called. On the contrary, what it does show is a lack of any nominal precaution taken by the strikes.

The assertion that civilian casualties are “extremely rare” turns out to be even more dubious, given that the Obama administration’s apparent definition, according to a New York Times article, for “militant” or “combatant” is being “a male of military age in an area where ‘militant’ organizations are believed to operate [G2] ”, the study indicates.

Furthermore, the majority of those killed are not known by name, and according to one source, only two percent of the drone targets killed are militant leaders and the rest are “low-level combatants.” The fact that all males of military age are deemed “combatants” may cover-up male civilian deaths, the study points out. The number of civilian deaths is seriously under-reported.

In addition, the amount of damage the drones’ missiles, such as the Hellfire missile, cause to the surrounding environment also raises serious concerns.

For example, another drone strike described in the report said that a group of tribal elders had gathered at a large bus stop to perform a jirga, a gathering of tribal elders and notables to address and resolve community issues and legal matters. The elders had chosen the bus station so they could be in an open public space, and not cause any sort of alarm or attract suspicion.

The group also told the authorities that they were going to have this meeting ten days prior, according to a Pakistani military official. Feeling secure, for the jirga is a government sanctioned meeting, approximately 40 people met at the station and sat in two large circles close to each other.

During the meeting a drone flew overhead, causing no alarm amongst the attendees since they were conducting a preapproved government sanctioned meeting, until the drone fired a missile into one of the circles. Immediately after, the drone fired a series of missiles at the bus station, killing 42 people according to the Associated Press.

All that remained of those who died were bits of their flesh in pools of blood splattered all over a flaming bus station. Khalil Khan, whose father was one of the notables who had died in the strike, said that all he could do with his father’s remains was pick up random pieces of flesh and put them in a coffin. Allegedly, there were four killed in the jirga who were Taliban militants, only one of whom was identified by name; but as the above example demonstrates, to say that the drone strikes are “surgical” or “precise” severely undermines the reality of the situation.

The aftermath of many drone strikes resembles the one described above, where the only remnants of the targets and those killed with them are bits and pieces of flesh that are heaped into coffins. Drones have also attacked the funeral services of the victims, as well as gatherings to offer condolences to a deceased’s family.

People do not attend funerals anymore out of fear of a strike. Burial rituals themselves cannot be properly administered according to Islamic tradition because of the conditions of the bodies, assuming that there is a body and not merely unidentifiable pieces of flesh. These conditions do not allow for the communities under drone surveillance to have any sort of grieving period, but leaves them in a perpetual state of fear and violence only to be separated by its different episodes.

Life on hold

Life itself has all but stopped in the region. Because “signature strikes” target people whose identities are unknown but whose behavior arouses suspicion, such as gathering in a group, nobody can be certain who will be targeted, where, or when. Gatherings are not frequented anymore for people believe that the strikes target gatherings–not only ceremonial gatherings, but even a small gathering of friends or family.

One interviewee said he believes the more guests there are in a home, the more likely it is to be struck. Walking in the market was described by another interviewee to be problematic because he did not know whether somebody next to him was the next target. All these sentiments echo the seemingly indiscriminate nature of the strikes, or the lack of real concern about civilian casualties. A father noted he does not let his children go to a home if that home is entertaining guests.

Other normal social functions are no longer held by communities out of the fear of gathering in groups. The already impoverished region, suffering from one of the highest poverty rates in the world, is suffering even more economic hardship due to the loss of many household providers, the destruction of homes, and the inability or unwillingness to conduct business because of the presence of drones.

More and more families are losing providers, and are dependent on the charity of neighbors and relatives, something that is straining the economy of the community as a whole. Levels of suspicion and mistrust have risen in these communities as well. Neighbors suspect each other to be informants for the U.S., who may use drone strikes as a way to settle feuds by allegedly placing small chips on homes, cars, or people. “Just as with Guantanamo Bay,” says human rights lawyer Clive Stafford, “the CIA is paying bounties to those who will identify ‘terrorists.’

Five thousand dollars is an enormous sum for a Waziri informant, translating to perhaps £250,000 in London terms. The informant has a calculation to make: is it safer to place a GPS tag on the car of a truly dangerous terrorist, or to call down death on a Nobody (with the beginnings of a beard), reporting that he is a militant? Too many ‘militants’ are just young men with stubble.” On the flip side, there is also a fear of being suspected of being a U.S. or Pakistani spy by the Taliban and being killed because of it.

The most damage that is done to the community as a whole, however, is achieved by the mere presence of the drones. David Rhodes of The New York Times, who was kidnapped for a few months in FATA by the Taliban, described living under drones as “hell on earth.” Not knowing where, when, and why a drone might strike left him on the ground in a constant state of fearing for his life during his time in FATA.

Hovering above their homes and neighborhoods, people do not know who or when these drones will strike because they do so unprovoked. The possibility of being targeted, or being in the same home or space as a target, is a concern that never goes away.  Therefore, regardless of residents’ involvement in illegal activities or engaging in normal routines, they are uncertain if they will be targeted or not.“

Because whether we are driving a car, or we are working on a farm, or we are sitting home playing . . . cards–no matter what we are doing we are always thinking the drone will strike us. So we are scared to do anything, no matter what,” explains Haroon Qudus, a taxi driver. When the drones are seen or their propellers are heard, a “wave of terror” comes over people, as men, women, and children scream and all begin to run looking for cover.

Constantly under drone surveillance, the mental stability of people in the region is waning. Waziris feel helpless, and the main thing that ties these communities together now is the constant fear of death. Post-traumatic stress disorder is reported by mental health officials to be prevalent, even amongst children, as is insomnia, anticipatory anxiety, outbursts of anger and irritability; physical symptoms also are rampant, including loss of appetite, vomiting, and aches. Family members are reported by some of the interviewees to have gone insane and are locked in their rooms because of their mental instability. There is no sign of life in Waziristan.

Results from a study on child cognitive and physical development by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, founder and former Medical Director of the CPMC Bayview Child Health Center in San Francisco, show that children living in stressful environments leads to stunted physical and mental growth, that will adversely affect them well into their adulthood.

Dr. Harris conducted her research amongst kids in poor inner city neighborhoods–neighborhoods which foster trauma inducing atmospheres due to the violence and abuse present in these areas. Children living in these neighborhoods do not fully develop their mental capacities due to the high level of stress in their lives at a time when most of their cognitive development takes place.

Specifically, the prefrontal cortex, responsible for self control, impulse control, reasoning, memory skills, and other executive functions, does not develop properly. The situations that these children are confronted with shut off their thinking part of the brain, and turns on their primal aggressive side. If a person is in a dangerous situation, his or her brain automatically blocks out all other cognitive functions except for the emergency response part of the brain.

When the emergency response system is activated repeatedly, because the danger comes home every night from sources of violence and crime (e.g., abusive parents, gang shootings, etc.), the brain creates pathways to this primal part of the brain that become engrained in the brain and stunts the growth of the prefrontal cortex. Because of the damage done to the brain, children under such conditions grow up being literally unable to learn or control their impulses. They grow up dealing with the world through an aggressive primal way of thinking and in a reactionary fashion.

Similarly, if the danger is consistently overhead, then we can expect the new generation of Waziris to come out mentally stunted because of the drones. For the young living in FATA, the drones are creating an atmosphere of relentless fear and anxiety that does not allow them to develop into anything but fearful, angry, and reactionary individuals incapable of learning or thinking, the types of individuals that are most easily swayed by fanatics.

School dropout rates are growing as parents are not allowing their children to leave home, while the children that are going to school are finding it difficult to learn anything because of their stunted brain development. The constant fear of drones is crippling their minds, and the death and destruction that they see all around them is leaving them afraid and angry. The drone program is setting a future for Waziristan that will be marred by the stunted children which it’s fostering.

Lack of oversight and transparency

Waziris used to know little to nothing about America, but now the name is synonymous with murder for them. The people interviewed in the report wonder what they ever did to a country they did not even know to deserve this, and the flames for revenge are being easily stoked. Our aims in our military campaigns abroad include keeping the United States safe and making the world a safer and better place for all. The drone program is doing the opposite in FATA. The drone strikes are a primary recruiting tool for militants who promise people revenge. They are also leaving all those under its surveillance in a paralyzing state of emotional and psychological distress.

There is no doubt that the Taliban and Al-Qaida fighters are in the area. However, why should innocent individuals die, including children, and homes be destroyed to kill but a few targets? What gives us the right to call all males of military age “combatants”? Why should we collectively punish a people for circumstances that are far beyond their control?

The lack of transparency in the program leaves these questions unanswered. Maybe it is the connection between sadism and power. Whatever the reason is, the report says that drone activity is seriously damaging and counterproductive at best, and possibly a war crime at worst. This is our tax money at work. There has to be another way.

As we gather with friends and family this month to be merry and celebrate the holidays, remember the innocent civilians suffering in Waziristan. Remember how good we have it not to be living under those circumstances. Give thanks that you and your children do not live under drones – and pray that you never will.