The Rehmans: Nabila, Rafiq, and Zubair.
Two beams of light came down from the drone lingering over the field where they had been gathering okra and hit Nabila’s grandmother, Mamana Bibi. The earth shuddered. Nabila fell; terrified, she stumbled into a run. Blood was gushing from her arm. She wrapped her red chaddar (head covering) around the shrapnel wound; moments later it was soaked through. Through the smoke, Nabila caught a glimpse of Mamana’s brown sandal. She passed out.
The day Mamana was killed, October 24th 2012, was a beautiful one in the North Waziristan village of Tapi in Pakistan. A few clouds sprinkled over the bright blue sky—perfect weather for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which was the next day.
For Muslims, Eid al-Adha is the holiest day of the year, celebrating the sacrifice Abraham made. “They have told me that Eid is like Christmas,” Zubair, Nabila’s, 13-year-old brother said during his testimony at a Congressional briefing on October 29, 2013 the first time the U.S. body has heard directly from the victims of drone strikes in Pakistan.
Zubair could hardly wait for Eid. The night before he had helped his grandmother prepare sweets. She had promised him that the celebrations would start as soon as he finished his chores.
On the day of the strike, he tied up the bundles of animal feed, basking in the warmth of the sun. It was a quarter to three. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Nabila and his grandmother’s tall figure gathering okra.
As they hovered lower than usual, drones were particularly loud that day. In that part of Pakistan’s tribal region, even two-year-olds can recognize the unmistakable thrum. It resembles buzz of a bee, but with the promise of a far worse sting.
Snapped out of his thoughts, Zubair saw two light rays strike Dadi. A wave of heat knocked him off his feet. The smell of burning electric wires and burning flesh invaded his nostrils. A searing pain ripped through his leg. Shrapnel had lodged itself above Zubair’s knee. His thigh felt like it was on fire.
Terrified, Zubair’s siblings and cousins inside the house scampered outside when they heard the explosion. As the children watched, a few minutes later another missile struck near the same spot. A total of nine children were injured in the attack.
Missing from the audience at Nabila, Zubair, and their father Rafiq-ur-Rehman’s October congressional testimony was Shahzad Akbar, the family’s lawyer in Pakistan and the man who made it possible for their story to be heard on U.S. soil.
In 2010, Akbar sued the Central Intelligence Agency’s Islamabad Station Chief, Jonathan Banks, in an Islamabad court on behalf of three drone strike victims for $500 million. With his cover blown, the station chief was yanked out of the country within two days. The 2010 case is still pending, but Akbar says he will push for an international arrest warrant for Banks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Akbar has had difficulties obtaining a U.S. visa.
From a middle class Pakistani family with no political ties, Shahzad’s law practice was unremarkable until he started drone litigation. Once a special prosecutor at the National Accountability Bureau in Islamabad, where he cooperated with the FBI on a few cases, Akbar also worked as a consultant for USAID. The compelling case of Karim Khan who lost his brother and son to a drone strike in December 2009, turned this friend of the U.S. into one of its harshest critics when he took the case to court.
Today, Akbar resides in Islamabad, where he represents more than 150 clients, mostly from Pakistan’s tribal regions, through the Foundation for Fundamental Rights. His organization provides legal aid to enforce fundamental rights guaranteed under the Pakistani constitution. His clients seek compensation for family members killed or injured in drone strikes, the arrest of CIA officials responsible for these strikes, and an end to strikes altogether. While these lawsuits have yet to achieve their objectives (and likely never will), they have shed light on civilian casualties resulting from a covert program.
Last year Akbar crossed paths with documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald in Pakistan. Through Akbar, Greenwald met Nabila and her family. They are featured in Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars, Greenwald’s new documentary. Akbar, along with the teams at Greenwald’s Brave New Films production company and Reprieve, a British charity, worked for months to bring the family to America.
The Rehmans are also highlighted in an Amnesty International report, “‘Will I Be Next?' U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan,” which documents 45 U.S. drone strikes between January 2012 and August 2013. The group says it has found strong evidence that more than 30 civilians were killed in four of the attacks.
Mamana Bibi is one of them.
Since the implementation of the drone program in Pakistan in 2004, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) estimates that as of November 21, 2013 between 416 and 948 civilians have been killed by strikes in Waziristan. However, in a surprising move, the Pakistani Government recently released new official figures, contradicting its earlier estimates that 67 civilians were among 2,227 people killed in 317 drone strikes since 2008; it now contends that no civilians were killed in 2012.
A year after the attack, the Rehman family have yet to receive answers.
“Nobody has told me why my home was targeted,” Rafiq, Nabila’s father says.
Couched under the euphemism of collateral damage, civilian casualties from drones often occur because of faulty intelligence. While drones strikes are precise, and hit what they aim for, the intelligence that the strikes are based on isn’t necessarily accurate. In the tribal regions of Pakistan, how does an eye in the sky distinguish a 30-year-old civilian male from a 30-year-militant, when they look the same, act the same, and may have similar (or the same) names? Striking from a remote location through a videogame screen makes it easier to make mistakes; it also makes it easier to disconnect from the act of taking a human life.
“My Dadi [grandmother] was nobody’s enemy,” Zubair says.
The United States Government has yet to acknowledge that the strike of October 24th even happened.
“They have no option but to tell their story,” says Jennifer Gibson, the family’s attorney at Reprieve. “And hope someone does something about this,”
The Rehmans travelled over 7,000 miles to meet American lawmakers, but only five representatives showed up to their hearing. Alan Grayson the Florida Democrat who called the briefing said that such low numbers were not unusual, especially since there were six other hearings going on simultaneously. The other four attendees were all Democrats.
Although Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and prime ministers before him have verbally condemned drones, they have tacitly consented and actively colluded in their use. Leaked CIA documents show that top Pakistani officials have for years endorsed drone strikes, sometimes playing a direct role in the selection of targets, and providing airstrips for the launch of predator drones.
In Pakistan, an anti-drone civil movement is emergent, characterized by protests, lawsuits, and political candidates running on anti-drone platforms. Pakistani politician Imran Khan of the Tehreek-i-Insaf party has threatened to block supply lines to NATO forces in Afghanistan if strikes do not end. But in the past, little has come of rallies and threats. This time is unlikely to be any different.
The day of the attack, Rafiq-ur-Rehman got off the bus, and took his usual route home which ran by a cemetery.
The villagers had huddled around a freshly dug grave.
“What’s going on?” he asked a boy.
He was told that Latif-ur-Rehman’s mother has been killed by an Amreeki (American) drone.
Latif is Rafiq’s brother.
Frantic, he rushed home. Neighbors had collected around his house.
All that remained of his mother were fragments. The neighbors had scooped up her charred remains, and laid them in a long, narrow, wooden box. Throwing himself over it, Rafiq clung on to what had become his mother’s coffin. They wouldn’t let him see her face. There wasn’t a face to see. There wasn’t a body to bury. Just pieces. Rafiq wandered from room to room, calling them. Their names bounced off the walls of the empty, blackened rooms. His neighbor found him and told him Nabila and Zubair had been taken to various hospitals.
It suddenly dawned on Rafiq that he couldn’t see his children anywhere.
“I feared I had lost them as well,”
Rafiq spent the night in the hospital with Zubair. The father watched his son toss and turn in agony until the sun rose and the doctors filtered in.
“The told me that they would have to remove his leg, or he’s going to die.”
Wedged in a sensitive spot, the shrapnel refused to be removed safely. Afraid that his son might become a cripple, Rafiq rushed him to a hospital in Islamabad. But he could not afford the exorbitant doctor’s fees. Shuffling from hospital to hospital, he managed to sell land, and borrow from neighbors and relatives, to pay for an operation in Peshawar that saved Zubair’s leg.
“I spent my Eid in the hospital,” Zubair says simply, running his finger down the scar above his knee.
It’s been a few weeks since the family returned home. Zubair, to a house which “feels empty”; Nabila to her sky with drones; Rafiq to his debt.
“American children are lucky to live without drones,” Nabila says. A place without drones would be lovely indeed.