Two days before Americans all over the country took part in the annual tradition of dressing up in costumes representing their inner fears and fantasies, a family hailing from more than 7,000 miles across the globe – a place where fear could never be confused with fantasy – arrived in the halls of the nation’s capital to share their horrific experiences with members of the United States Congress. The occasion for which they’d arrived was a long over-due congressional hearing convened by Florida’s 9th district House Representative Alan Grayson (D), who also serves on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa. The testimony that was given at the hearing was incredibly emotional and utterly heart-wrenching, so much so that the hearing’s translator was reportedly moved to tears. The overall effect the hearing had on members of congress however is debatable, seeing as the overwhelming majority of them didn’t even find it important enough for them to attend. In all, only five members of congress were present to hear this groundbreaking testimony dealing with a policy virtually all of them concede they know very little about. Aside from Grayson, those in attendance were Illinois 9th district Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky, Michigan’s 13th district Representative John Conyers (D), Minnesota’s 8th district Representative Rick Nolan (D), and New Jersey’s 12 district Representative Rush Holt (D). If attendance on the Democratic side of the aisle was unimpressive, the GOP fared even worse. Not a single Republican member of the House chose to attend the hearing meant to shed light on the Obama Administration’s and the CIA’s drone strikes, making it all the more evident that the GOP agrees in principle with this terrible policy, although they try to appear publicly as if they hold reservations about the strikes simply because it is a policy supported by the Obama administration. (*) Had members of congress chosen to attend, they would have heard first-hand accounts of what surviving a drone-missile’s attack actually feels like from the mouths of some of the survivors themselves, including that of nine-year old Nabila Rehman and her elder brother Zubair Rehman, who is thirteen. Both children were accompanied by their father Rafiq ur Rehman, who works as a school-teacher in a Pakistani Village in North Waziristan.
This unprecedented occasion in which victims of U.S. foreign policy were given the chance to share their experiences before lawmakers in the very country that had attacked them would not have been possible if it were not for the collective efforts of a dedicated team. There was the family’s lawyer, Shahzad Akbar (whose American travel Visa was suspiciously revoked right before he was to accompany the Rehman family to the hearing), film director Robert Greenwald who produced a documentary about the family for his Brave New Foundations, and of course the family themselves who had to sell large portions of their land and borrow money in order to help pay for their medical expenses. None of this would have been necessary had it not been for the horrific events that occurred on a field beside the small North Waziristan village of Tappi. It was there on a bright, sunny afternoon day on October 24, 2012 that the lives of the Rehman family changed forever. Zubair Rehman, his little sister Nabila, their 5-year old sister Asma, and several other cousins were accompanying their 67-year old grandmother, Momina Bibi, to the fields where she was instructing her grandchildren on how to differentiate between okra which is ripe for picking and okra which is not. Neither the children nor their grandmother paid too much attention to the drones hovering in the sky above them. After all, drones have become such a regular part of life here that unfortunately children are used to seeing and hearing them every day. “It’s something even a 2-year old would know,” says Zubair. “We hear the noise 24 hours a day.” Zubair also shared that neither he nor his grandmother were worried that they would somehow be targeted by one of one the drone’s missiles. After all, “neither my grandmother nor I were militants.”
Suddenly, what they thought unimaginable came true. It all started with what witnesses say sounded like two simultaneous clicking sounds. The next thing they knew they were submerged in complete darkness. “Everything was dark and I couldn’t see anything,” reported Nabila. According to Zubair Rehman, “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.” Whereas the first strike had caused extreme darkness and a state of confusion, the second missile would prove to be deadly. The drone’s apparent target was none other than the elderly grandmother Momina Bibi, who upon being directly hit by the missile, “exploded to pieces” and was thrown 20 feet away. That is when Nabila says she “heard a scream. I think it was my grandmother but I couldn’t see her. All I could think of was running.” In the meantime her hand would not stop bleeding after it was severely damaged in the explosion. “I tried to bandage my hand but the blood wouldn’t stop. The blood kept coming.” By that time local villagers had been alerted to the carnage that was taking place by the sounds of the children’s screams, and they ran to the field to discover the children injured and Momina Bibi’s body badly disfigured. Zubair recalled that “people from the village came to our aid and took us to the hospital and the next day I was operated on…” One of his legs was so badly wounded by the drone-missile’s shrapnel that doctors had to perform a unique and very expensive surgical laser operation in order to preserve it. When Rafiq ur Rehman returned to the village from his work teaching at the school and discovered that his mother had been killed and his children injured, he was beside himself with grief. The neighbors who’d removed Momina Bobina’s mutilated remains from the field refused to allow Rafiq to lay eyes upon his mother’s dead corpse, believing Momina’s beloved son’s heart would be unable to withstand the pain of seeing her body in such condition.
The experience of seeing his grandmother torn to pieces in front of his very eyes has had a profound impact on the way Zubair now sees the world. “Now I prefer cloudy days when the drones don’t fly,” he says. “When the sky brightens and becomes blue, the drones return and so does the fear. Children don’t play so often now, and have stopped going to school. Education isn’t possible as long as the drones circle overhead.” His father laments that his mother was “the string that held our family together.” Since Momina untimely passing, “the string has been broken and life has not been the same. We feel alone and we feel lost.” Rafiq is at loss for words as to why this happened, and questions why it is that “media outlets reported that the attack was on a car, but there is no road alongside my mother’s house.” Other news agencies “reported that the attack was on a house. But the missiles hit a nearby field, not a house.” “Nobody has ever told me why my mother was targeted that day.“
Rafiq ur Rehman is far from being alone in this assessment. Many in his village and all across Pakistan have similar stories to tell about the grief that has struck them and their loved ones due to these airstrikes. They also are at a loss to explain why their own government will not take a stand for the citizens whose interests it’s supposed to represent. When Pakistani Officials were approached by the Rehman family seeking some sort of compensation to assist them with their expensive medical bills, the government absolved themselves of any and all responsibility, their reason being that it is the United States who is solely responsible for the attacks. Pakistani Officials essentially washed their hands of the safety and well-being of their own citizens. Whether the Pakistani government in fact shares no responsibility in this situation is a source of great controversy. While current Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, has publicly called for an end to the drone strikes, the CIA has produced documents it claims offer definitive proof that Pakistani Officials had authorized a number of drone attacks. The country’s former president Pervez Musharraf has indeed admitted that while in office he authorized a limited amount of targeted strikes in order “to root out terrorists.” (**) And former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani believes that it is quite possible that deals or agreements made under president Musharaf’s administration could still be in effect without Prime Minister Sharif necessarily being aware of it.
Regardless of whether Pakistan’s government is in compliance with U.S. policy or not, the amount of devastation that has been brought about from the use of killer-drones has been immense, and the exact number of casualties is difficult to know for certain. There is no doubt, however, that these attacks are creating more potential terrorists than they could possibly be eliminating, according to a former U.S. Chief Deputy Officer who was previously stationed in Yemen, Nabeel Khoury. His first-hand experience allowed him to conclude that the United States “generates roughly 40 to 60 new enemies for every [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] operative killed by drones.” He is not alone in his belief that the large amounts of civilian casualties are fomenting anti-U.S. sentiment in the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere. Recent investigations carried out by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been able to confirm at least 900 civilian casualties in Pakistan alone; 200 of these deaths were of young children. The Obama administration meanwhile has declined to comment on the Rehman family’s case and continues to insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the amount of “civilian” deaths under the drone program has been at a minimal. This begs the question as to what criteria is being used to classify people as “civilians” vs. “combatants”. As for the CIA, it refuses to acknowledge the attack on the Rehmans ever even took place in the first place.
In one of the most emotional moments of the hearing, Rafiq ur Rehman asked Rep. Grayson rhetorically how he, a schoolteacher, was supposed to be able to “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?” Rep. Alan Grayson was apparently moved. Asked later if he thought the Rehmans would be called to share their testimony before a much larger congressional audience, Grayson admitted that prospects were rather dim. “The appropriate committees are generally staffed by people, if I may say this, who are friends of the military industrial complex, not even enemies, or even skeptics of it.”
In spite of everything, Rafiq ur Rehman says that his family’s visit caused him to recognize a lot of empathetic qualities in the American people. It is the American public, not their representatives, who he and his children were hoping to appeal to when they made the long journey from their remote village in Pakistan to the halls of the United States Congress. To the people of America he says categorically that “drones are not the answer.”
* The United States’ use of drone warfare dates back to 2002 when drone-missiles were first launched on Yemen under the George W. Bush administration. Under Barack Obama’s administration however, starting in 2009, strikes have been ramped up significantly, and have most often been done in secret.
** In all fairness there is some evidence to suggest that the United States in 2002 at the height of the “War on Terror” made it clear to Pakistan that they would either comply with U.S. “anti-terror” policy or else find themselves in the same position as Iraq.