A delegation of around thirty-five people from the United States is in Pakistan for a week of action in opposition to drone strikes by the United States. The group of delegates, organized by CODEPINK, has had a positive and welcoming response so far. They met with Acting US Ambassador to Pakistan Richard Hoagland and had a breakthrough by getting him to talk specifically about US policy on the record. And the group is preparing for a protest in South Waziristan on October 7.
One of the delegates, Barbara Briggs-Letson, shared why she joined the delegation. A 78-year-old mother of three and a grandmother of six who lives in California, she and her husband volunteered in Guatemala and Honduras in the 1990s. In 1989, she learned when she visited Nicaragua her “government does not tell the truth. That was a life-changing realization” which started her activism.
“Being in Pakistan is surreal,” Briggs-Letson told Firedoglake. “Sixty-five percent of their national budget goes to the military, so it is not surprising that the armed uniform men are everywhere. The ill will toward the US, and therefore US citizens, is a concern, and with the publicity of this upcoming march, we are limiting our explorations outside the hotel.” But she added the National Defense University and a think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies, has welcomed them. Col. Ann Wright and Medea Benjamin, founder of CODEPINK, had shared why they were opposed to drones.
The delegation will be meeting with victims and the families of victims, who will share what it is like to “live under constant surveillance, never knowing when that noise will kill. They will learn about Pashtun traditions. They will also hopefully see for themselves the impact of US government policy when they venture into South Waziristan.
“We hope that our visit will draw attention to this situation both here and in the US, lead towards transparency and civil discussion,” concluded Briggs-Letson. “Citizens in both countries need to know the truth instead of rumor.” Then they need to seize upon what is known and take responsibility.
Delegate Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy participated in the meeting with the acting US ambassador, which took place on October 3. He asked Hoagland about reports that the CIA drone strikes are targeting “civilian rescuers,” which the international law community happens to consider a war crime. Hoagland asserted there had been “no deliberate strikes against civilian rescuers and that he has never in recent times seen any deliberate strikes on rescuers.” Hoagland, according to a delegation press release, has been Deputy Chief of Mission at US Embassy Islamabad since February 27, 2011.
Hoagland’s answer was challenged by Naiman, who followed up by noting there were reports just out from NYU/Stanford Law and Columbia Law/CIVIC, along with prior reports from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism/The Independent and the New York Times, contain details on civilian rescuers being targeted. Naiman pushed Hoagland to agree to releasing an Embassy statement that officially committed to investigating this practice or officially denied it was happening.
On The Matthew Filipowicz Show, Naiman called this a breakthrough because rarely is one able to get US officials on the record on any specific details related to the policy. Whether it is true that the rescuers are not being targeted, most of the time an official like Hoagland would have said they could not comment. And he addressed a detail specifically in front of activists or human rights advocates who would be opposed to most of what he said. These were not members of the press.
Additionally, the delegation delivered a letter and petitions during this meeting. The letter, signed by well-known people like authors Alice Walker, Noam Chomsky, Tom Hayden and Naomi Wolf, film director Oliver Stone, actor Danny Glover, columnist Glenn Greenwald, Nobel Peace laureate Jody Williams, professor Juan Cole and whistleblower Coleen Rowley, called for “an immediate moratorium on US drone strikes.”
The delegation met Fahim Qureshi, who lost an eye and had to undergo abdominal surgery after a drone strike injured him. They also met with Mohammed Ejaz. Qureshi lost four family members and Ejaz lost two family members in US drone attacks.
Qureshi’s experience living under drones was highlighted in the recent Stanford/NYU report. It described what happened when a drone struck on January 23, 2009, while he was with relatives and neighbors in his home:
At about 5:00 that evening, they heard the hissing sound of a missile and instinctively bent their heads down. The missile slammed into the center of the room, blowing off the ceiling and roof, and shattering all the windows. The immense pressure from the impact cracked the walls of the attached house, as well as those of the neighboring houses. Our research team reviewed photographs that Faheem showed us, which he said showed the destruction to the home. Faheem, who stated that he was approximately ten footsteps away from the center of the hujra, suffered a fractured skull and received shrapnel wounds and burns all over the left side of his body and face. All others in thehujra—at least seven, but as many as 15 people—were killed.
In the moments after the strike, Faheem said he “could not think.” “I felt my brain stopped working and my heart was on fire,” stated Faheem. “My entire body was burning like crazy.” Faheem wanted to splash water on his face, but he could not find any. After a few minutes of confusion, he stumbled out of the gate of his hujra, where neighbors found him. They quickly gathered Faheem into a pickup truck and rushed him to a government hospital in Mir Ali, a ten-minute drive away, according to Faheem. Medics there bandaged his wounds and transferred him to another hospital in Bannu, the closest major city outside FATA, where doctors operated to remove shrapnel from his abdomen and repair damage to his leg, arm, and eyes. Following the surgery, Faheem was transferred to a private hospital in Peshawar, where he remained for at least 23 days. In the end, Faheem lost his left eye, which has since been replaced by an artificial one; he also lost his hearing in one ear as a result of damage to his eardrum. His vision in his right eye is still blurred, requiring ongoing treatment, and he now has only limited mobility.
Ejaz’s experience was also detailed:
Ejaz, whose uncle and cousins were killed in the strike, and who is currently studying for an arts degree in college, said that he too “continued to go to school after the strike, but [is] tense all the time.” He hopes to become a teacher, but at this point plans to leave his studies after one year to move abroad to join his father. Ejaz also told us that the female members of the household who escaped the strike without physical injury have nonetheless been affected by “mental tension and anxiety,” and explained that both he and other members of the family have trouble sleeping at night.
Lawyers from the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, who have sued the Pakistan government for its involvement in drone strikes and also sued CIA officials for killings, met with the delegation. The lawyers helped the clinics at Stanford and NYU put together their report by introducing them to drone victims, who could share their experiences. They went to the US Embassy with the delegation.
*For more updates on the delegation, visit DronesWatch.org