One year ago this month, Rafiq ur Rehman’s children were gathering okra in a field in Pakistan with their 67-year-old grandmother, Mammana Bibi. A loud buzzing noise quickly grew louder, and a US drone fired a missile into the field. International news reports carried American claims that multiple militants had been killed in the strike, but there was actually only one death: Mammana Bibi. The two children were injured in the attack.
On Tuesday morning, Rafiq, his son Zubair, age 13, and his daughter Nabeela, 9, sat in a crowded room on Capitol Hill in front of a bank of television cameras and told their story.
“Nobody has ever told me why my mother was targeted that day. Some media outlets reported that the attack was on a car, but there is no road alongside my mother’s house. Others reported that the attack was on a house. But the missiles hit a nearby field, not a house,” Rafiq said in quiet Urdu, which was then repeated in English by a translator. (The translator at one point became emotional and had to collect herself.)
“As a teacher, my job is to educate,” Rafiq continued. “But how do I teach something like this? How do I explain what I myself do not understand? How can I 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?”
Zubair told a harrowing tale of hearing the drone overhead, and then having to endure multiple surgeries to remove shrapnel that was buried in his leg. “As I helped my grandmother in the field, I could see and hear the drone hovering overhead, but I didn’t worry. Why would I worry? Neither my grandmother nor I were militants,” he said. “When the drone fired the first time, the whole ground shook and black smoke rose up. The air smelled poisonous.”
The briefing was held by Representative Alan Grayson, and the victims were joined by documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald, who featured their story in his new film, Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars. It was an informal briefing—as in, not a formal hearing by a House committee. Grayson said he “didn’t expect to see a formal hearing on this any time soon,” since the Republicans who control the House committees, in Grayson’s view, are “friends of the military-industrial complex.”
But Grayson added he was heartened at the media presence, and that five members showed up on a busy day in the House: he was joined by Representatives John Conyers, Jan Schakowsky, Rush Holt and Rick Nolan.
The briefing garnered notable media attention, even though it was competing with a contentious hearing on the Affordable Care Act’s troubles and the testimony of top NSA officials before a House panel.
And it should have: Tuesday was the first time victims of the United States’ drone warfare program appeared before Congress to tell their tales. It was a remarkable to see people who were grainy images on the computer of a drone operator appear under bright lights in Washington one year later, and put a face to what’s really happening in Pakistan, Yemen and other areas targeted by US drones.
“I hope that by telling you about my village and my grandmother, I can convince you that drones are not the answer,” Zubair said. “More importantly though, I hope I can return home with a message: I hope I can tell my community that America listened. That America is not just drones that terrorize us from above.”
Jeremy Scahill on the dangerous precedent set by drone strikes, kill lists and the so-called global war on terror.