A new report featuring testimony from civilians, who’ve been victims of the US drone war in Pakistan, thoroughly examines what it is like for Pakistanis to live under drones. The International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic of Stanford Law School and the Global Justice Clinic at the New York University School of Law spent nine months conducting research and spoke with individuals, like Waziris, who agreed to be interviewed for the report and traveled long distances to share firsthand accounts, despite significant risks.
The report, “Living Under Drones,” directly challenges the “dominant narrative” that United States drones in Pakistan are a “surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling ‘targeted killings’ of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts.” It calls this “narrative” false and flatly states that, although civilian casualties are “rarely acknowledged by the US government, there is significant evidence that US drone strikes have injured and killed civilians.” It suggests publicly available evidence that strikes make the US safer is “ambiguous at best” and considers the legality of the strikes to be “doubtful.”
It breaks new ground is in the section of the report where it illuminates the “considerable and under-accounted for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury.” This section, Chapter 3, contains “firsthand narrative accounts of three specific drone strikes.” It also explores the “broader impacts of drone surveillance and strikes in North Waziristan.
Firedoglake was one of a select group of media organizations that was given an advanced embargoed copy for journalists so it could prepare full coverage of this incredibly exhaustive report and it has put together a series of posts. This post, Part 1, examines strikes against rescuers and funerals. Part 2 examines drone surveillance, the effect that the presence of drones in the sky has on the mental health of Pakistanis and how drones breed distrust in Pakistani communities. And Part 3 examines how drone strikes bring economic hardship and poverty to families and communities in Pakistan.
The practice of targeting a strike site “multiple times in relatively quick succession”—a practice known as “double tap”—has received some attention but, up until now, the terrible impact of this practice on Pakistani communities has not really been explored beyond the fact that it kills rescuers, who are trying to provide emergency medical assistance and that is likely a war crime. The researchers talked to Pakistanis, who were well-aware of the practice of “follow-up strikes” and explained these strikes have “discouraged average civilians from coming to one another’s rescue.”
“We and other people are so scared of drone attacks now that when there is a drone strike, for two or three hours nobody goes to [the location of the strike],” a father of four, who lost a leg in a drone strike, confessed. “We don’t know who [the victims] are, whether they are young or old, because we try to be safe.”
Those venturing out to “recover bodies,” according to journalist Noor Behram, know they are likely to be “killed or maimed.”
[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. 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.
Quite chilling is Hayatullah Ayoub Khan’s experience. He was driving between Dossali and Tal in North Waziristan when “a missile from a drone was fired at a car approximately three hundred meters in front of him.” The missile missed the car ahead of him but struck the road close enough to do “serious damage.”
Hayatullah stopped, got out of his own car, and slowly approached the wreckage, debating whether he should help the injured and risk being the victim of a follow-up strike. He stated that when he got close enough to see an arm moving inside the wrecked vehicle, someone inside yelled that he should leave immediately because another missile would likely strike. He started to return to his car and a second missile hit the damaged car and killed whomever was still left inside. He told us that nearby villagers waited another twenty minutes before removing the bodies, which he said included the body of a teacher from Hayatullah’s village.
The impact of “double tap” does not only dissuade Good Samaritans from helping out, but it also deters professional humanitarian organizations from being in the area to provide assistance. A “health professional familiar with North Waziristan” reported, “one humanitarian organization had a ‘policy to not go immediately [to a reported drone strike] because of follow up strikes. There is a six hour mandatory delay.’” This means, “Only the locals, the poor” will “pick up the bodies of loved ones.”
Simply put, the fact that humanitarian organizations feel they must wait six hours before they can go help people is a clear example of how criminal the US drone war happens to be.
Burials & Funerals
People interviewed informed researchers the drone war was impacting the ability of communities to engage in burial traditions or funerals. As the report notes, “Religion plays an important role in community life in Muslim-majority North Waziristan. Religion calls for a certain level of respect for the deceased. It is believed that a community has a duty to bury the dead “as soon as possible after death, to wash and cover the deceased and to hold a communal funeral service, an event that involves recitations of prayer for the deceased and often serves as a collective coping mechanism.” Funerals or services help reduce “psychological distress” in a community, but life under drones makes Pakistanis afraid of engaging in religious tradition.
Ibrahim Qasim of Manzar Khel said, “[T]here used to be funeral processions, lots of people used to participate. . . . But now, [the US has] even targeted funerals, they have targeted mosques, they have targeted people sitting together, so people are scared of everything.” Dawood Ishaq, “who lost both his legs in a strike,” said “people are reluctant to go to the funerals of people who have been killed in drone strikes because they are afraid of being targeted.”
Even more vile, drone strikes “incinerate” victims, leaving them “in pieces and unidentifiable.” This makes traditional burial traditions impossible for Pakistanis:
As Firoz Ali Khan, a shopkeeper whose father-in-law’s home was struck, graphically described, “These missiles are very powerful. They destroy human beings . . .There is nobody left and small pieces left behind. Pieces. Whatever is left is just little pieces of bodies and cloth.”563 A doctor who has treated drone victims described how “[s]kin is burned so that you can’t tell cattle from human.” When another interviewee came upon the site of the strike that killed his father, “[t]he entire place looked as if it was burned completely, so much so that even [the victims’] own clothes had burnt. All the stones in the vicinity had become black.” Ahmed Jan, who lost his foot in the March 17 jirga strike, discussed the challenges rescuers face in identifying bodies: “People were trying to find the body parts. We find the body parts of some people, but sometimes we do not find anything.”
And, in some instances, it is impossible to “separate individuals into different graves.” So, as one relative of a victim told researchers, a funeral was held for everybody in one location after the March 17 drone strike because no bodies could be identified.
Part 2 to be posted soon.