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Soapbox: Drone wars

From the comfort of their leather easy chairs in Creech Air Force base in Nevada, a team of men control the USA’s fleet of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. These UAVs, or ‘drones’, are capable of reading the license plate on your car, or delivering death with a Hellfire Missile, all from thousands of feet above your head.

The USA uses these men and their drones to carry out ‘targeted killings’ of those deemed to be worthy of death in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Each ‘Terror Tuesday’ the President himself will decide which person on the ‘Disposition Matrix’ should be eliminated next. The Obama Administration asserted, first, that there were zero civilian casualties; now the claim is that such ‘collateral damage’ is merely in the ‘single digits’. Sad to say, this is just rhetoric: to date, there have been 381 drone strikes in Pakistan, with hundreds of civilian casualties, at least 200 of them children.

The strike that tore 13 year-old Zubair ur Rehman’s family apart in October 2012 was no exception. It was a ‘double tap’ strike, so-called because when the first Hellfire causes injuries, the Predator drone unleashes a second missile on the assumption that the Good Samaritan who is helping the (presumed terrorist) victim must be a terrorist sympathiser. Any male between 16 and 60 is assumed to be a terrorist unless he proves that he is innocent with evidence submitted post mortem.

Even by these extraordinary rules, the Hellfire missile that killed Zubair’s grandmother, Momina Bibi, rubbishes the claim that the strikes are clinically accurate. The 67 year-old granny was in the garden with five of her grandchildren. Another four had just returned from school and were inside the house. The first strike killed Momina, prompting the first five to run away and the other four to rush out to her aid. The subsequent ‘double tap’ missile injured nine of the grandchildren, including Zubair. The children’s father Rafiq a school teacher returned to a scene of absolute horror.

Zubair says: “As I helped my grandmother in the field, I could see the drone hovering overhead, but I didn’t worry. Why would I worry? Neither my grandmother nor I were terrorists. When the drone fired the first time, the whole ground shook and black smoke rose up. The air smelled poisonous. We ran, but the drone fired again. A neighbour rushed to my aid. He took me to a local hospital, where I spent Eid having surgery instead of eating sweets. My family spent Eid burying what was left of my grandmother.”

President Barack Obama came to the White House preaching the rule of law. His spokesperson Jay Carney recently declared that ‘US counter-terrorism operations are precise, they are lawful, and they are effective.’ He did not discuss their counter-grandmother operations, or the lasting psychological impact that the very presence of these drones has upon the populations living beneath them.

Zubair now prefers grey skies to the blue ones of that day. He says: “The drones do not fly when the skies are grey. And for a short period of time, the mental tension and fear eases. When the skies brighten, though, the drones return and so too does the fear. You see, no one is safe in America’s drone war, not even women and children.”

Zubair is not alone in this. Stanford University’s report, Living Under Drones, describes how drones ‘terrorise men, women and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities.’ Children are afraid to go to school, parents are afraid to let them even go outside. Zubair puts it simply: “Drones terrify us. We used to play outside all of the time. Now, when we step outside to play, we hear the scary buzz from above and run back inside…So we don’t play very often.”

On October 29, 2013, Rafiq, Zubair and Rafiq’s nine year-old daughter, Nabila, told their story before US congress. As a result, Zubair remains hopeful that the US will change their terrifying ways: He says: “It was important for me to tell my story. I hope by telling Congress about my village and my grandmother, I have convinced them that drones are not the answer.

More importantly, though, I hope to tell my community that Americans listened and are trying to help us solve the many problems we face. And, maybe, just maybe, America may soon stop the drones.”

Written by Clive Stafford Smith, Director of Reprieve 

Free speech is a right that is worth preserving. We give our SOAPBOX pages to others to tell us their view of the world. 


“Drones terrify us. We used to play outside all of the time. Now, when we step outside to play, we hear the scary buzz from above and run back inside..."

Comment (1)
1 Comment

Nash Kelly

about 6 years ago

Just wanted to say that this sounds like a truly devastating situation and I look forward to seeing if the US government can take on the responsibility of innocents' deaths and quickly resolve their greatly flawed methods.