“What could possibly justify terrorizing a community of 250,000 just for the purpose of killing one person?”
At a congressional briefing hosted by Representative Alan Grayson and organized by CODEPINK, this was one of a number of questions posed as a delegation of individuals from Yemen spoke about the direct impact United States drones have had on their country and lives.
Entesar Qadhi, a Yemeni youth leader elected to a position in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) from the Mareb province, told of the horror her village has experienced as they fight off al Qaeda and successfully drive members of the militant group out only to have them return after a US drone strikes her village.
“We were told that drones are used to target al Qaeda and only al Qaeda, but the reality is my village didn’t know al Qaeda [until] after those drones” started hovering over our skies, Qadhi said.
“Whenever there is a drone strike, drones heavily hover over the village so the entire village keeps living in constant fear waiting for the moment when it will strike,” she added. And, “Whenever the strike happens, we feel the earth is shaking. We see fire coming from the sky. Everyone is afraid for the fact they don’t know where or when these strikes are happening.”
“Most of the victims are not from our village. We don’t know who they are. Just the reality that they are passing by the village makes all the village a target of the strike,” Qadhi explained.
“My village and our tribes usually enter into armed clashes with Qaeda people. In fact, there has been a tribal treaty between the tribes and the government to hand over anyone who is suspected to be a Qaeda member,” she added. “But unfortunately whenever we have an armed clash the Yemeni government is not supporting us, and the drones are not supporting us.”
The drones only seem to come strike the village after they have kicked al Qaeda out “as if it is a sign that the al Qaeda people should get back to the village.”
“Drone strikes actually make al Qaeda people more popular because of the fact that they are striking inside of our villages, which makes the presence of Qaeda justified in our place,” she stated.”
Faisal bin Ali Jaber, who had relatives killed in a drone strike in the Hadramawt province in August 2012, also delivered remarks.
“After my son’s wedding, four missiles coming from a drone hit my village killing my brother-in-law, Salim, and Walid, who is my nephew,” Jaber said. “Those missiles came from the country that supposedly praises itself as a democracy. And, unfortunately, it killed those people without any court hearing or any law.” He suggested this is similar to how al Qaeda will kill people without any legal process.
“I cannot explain how horrific the scenery was,” he stated. There were bodies cut into pieces. An arm was thrown here. Another arm was thrown in another place. “It was a very tragic, tragic moment.”
Boldly, he continued, “I came here today to share with you my story and what has happened to my family and when I came here I had specific questions in mind: Who is the one responsible for the death of my relatives? Will anyone be held accountable for their deaths? And they left families behind. Is the United States willing to give any compensation to those families?”
Just hours before Jaber learned a drone had again attacked the Hadramawt province, where he lives. “The reality today that there was another strike in our area makes me afraid that there might be [more] victims and more people [Obama] will have to answer to in the future,” Jaber concluded.
He wrote a letter to Obama asking for an apology and an explanation for why his relatives were killed. Jaber has received no response, and the Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi sent a letter to Jaber indicating the families of Salim and Walid would be compensated. However, more than one year later, no compensation has been received and Hadi will not acknowledge in public that drone strikes kill civilians. [For more on Jaber's story, go here.]
Baraa Shiban, who works for Reprieve and is also a member of the NDC, conveyed to members of Congress his fear the people of Yemen are losing trust in the Yemeni government and that could further destabilize society.
“The whole process, unfortunately, is untransparent. No one knows. Everything is done in secrecy. The Yemeni government does not apologize,” Shiban said. He told members of Congress that he was just a human rights activist, who investigates and tries to hold the government responsible and neither the Yemeni government nor the United States will recognize victims who are killed.
“The US owes those families at least an apology. They owe an explanation of what has happened here,” he added.
The briefing took place exactly two weeks after another similar congressional briefing, which featured firsthand accounts from Rafiq ur Rehman and his two children, Zubair and Nabila, whose 68 year-old grandmother was killed by a drone when she was out in her garden gathering okra for dinner. Both Zubair and Nabila were injured in the attack. Brave New Films director Robert Greenwald showed a clip from his documentary, “Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars.”
Only five members of Congress attended that briefing: Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Rep. Rush Holt, Rep. John Conyers, Rep. Rick Nolan, and Grayson, who hosted the briefing.
CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin told those attending the briefing, “It’s been very hard to get the visas for people coming from Pakistan and Yemen. It was very hard to get the visas for this delegation. A number of members of the delegation from Yemen were not able to come because they couldn’t get a visa. Some other families that were going to come from Pakistan could not get a visa.”
Despite the struggle to bring voices to share stories with members of Congress, only five Congress members made appearances during this round: Schakowsky, Grayson, Rep. Barbara Lee, Rep. Charlie Rangel, and Rep. Chellie Pingree. However, the briefing was held in a room in the Rayburn House Office Building that could barely fit 70 people and was much smaller and less decorated than the room where the previous briefing was held. Various staff of congressional members’ offices came by and signed their name to a sheet indicating they had stopped by the briefing and that list remarkably included some Republicans.
Grayson, in opening remarks, asked those in attendance, “Does it make any sense to send these death machines from our shores to a location eight or nine thousand miles, have somebody watch a computer screen in the United States and on the basis of what they see on that screen decide who lives and who dies in a foreign country?”
He repeated what he had said at the briefing two weeks ago, that no other country in the world does anything like that, including Russia and China.
“Fifteen to twenty percent of the victims” are “people with no political history, no ideology, no sense of any possibility that they are even enemies of this country much less people who could possibly do us harm,” he also suggested. Yet, “These people are dead, dead, dead, including 200 children.”
Lee used her opening remarks to restate her support for repealing the 2001 Authorized Use of Military Force, which has been cited as part of the legal justification for US drone strikes. She also said there should be a moratorium on drones until accountability measures and standards could be put in place and urged members of Congress to support her legislation, Drones Accountability Act, which she has introduced.
For the Yemeni delegation, Schakowsky wanted to know if they had a list of victims, “collateral damage,” who could be compensated. Human rights organizations have tried to uncover the names of drone victims killed, but no comprehensive list for compensating (or possibly more importantly apologizing) to victims is known to exist.
Schakowsky was at one point very surprised to hear Shiban detail how it is not true that the Yemeni government cannot capture those the US has targeted in drone strikes.
“One of the strikes, the strike happened 1 km away from a police station,” Shiban recounted. “Another strike, it targeted a military officer and then the Yemeni government said he was an al Qaeda militant, but to be honest they could have arrested him. He came to the Yemeni military to receive his salary every month. They could have easily arrested him instead of terrorizing the whole community, making them live in fear of a drone strike.”
Often militants have to pass through checkpoints to enter villages. It would be possible to make arrests.
Grayson asked if anyone in Yemen other than president supports drone strikes. Shiban said he had not seen anyone including the advisers of the president praising the strikes.
It definitely is easy to look at the absence of Congress members at the hearings and say this is all for nothing, but there is something remarkable that happens when these victims are able to travel here and share their story in an official forum. They are relieved and grateful that there are Americans here willing to listen and acknowledge the terrible experiences they have suffered, which the United States government will not formally acknowledge. It gives them access to US media and Americans, who simply have no idea what terror they experience as drones dominate their skies.
Victims who travel to the US force this country to look inward and ask ourselves why this is being allowed to happen. It then exposes our society and the extent to which the government will go to protect this heinous and devastating policy by denying visas to people like Pakistani lawyer Shahzad Akbar, who represents drone victims. It demonstrates the indifference in Congress and the apathy (as Grayson said drones are not even in the top 100 things members care about on a daily basis).
There is a lot that I have written about drones over the past couple of years, but few experiences exemplify the terror of America’s drone policy like what Qadhi, a brave woman, has had to deal with in her life.
Can anyone imagine the demoralization and powerlessness that could consume a person living in a village where militant thugs from al Qaeda take over the village and are driven out by the community without any support from a government that is supposed to be allied with the US government in a fight against al Qaeda? Can anyone imagine thinking you have driven out all of these people when suddenly the skies erupt and a drone fires a Hellfire missile at someone in your village? Can anyone imagine those victims then being people who may not be al Qaeda members? And then, finally, can anyone imagine witnessing the return of militant thugs from al Qaeda, who wish to come back and take advantage of the drone strike by recruiting people to join their fight against the Yemeni government and America?
It is a circle of terror that no community should ever have to experience, and it is one of the many glaring examples of the bankruptcy of America’s drone policy.