U.S.

Drone victims give US lawmakers first-hand account of attack

Rafiq Rehman and his two children testify about the day a drone murdered his mother; five lawmakers attend

Nabila Rehman, left, 9, watches as her brother Zubair reads a statement about the day their grandmother was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan, at a hearing in Washington, Tuesday.
Jason Reed/Reuters

Nine-year-old Nabila Rehman rested her head on the table.

Nabila, a shy girl with startling hazel eyes and red streaks in her dark hair, along with her father Rafiq and 13-year-old brother Zubair have told the story of the day when a drone fell from the sky in their village in North Waziristan so many times that by Tuesday morning the tale was rote — even if this particular retelling was before U.S. lawmakers, at a briefing which was the first opportunity for members of Congress to hear directly from Pakistani victims of American drones.

It was Oct. 24, 2012, the day before the Islamic holy day of Eid-al-Adha in North Waziristan. Zubair, Nabila, their little sister, five-year-old Asma and some of their cousins were all in the fields beside their house as their grandmother, 67-year-old Momina Bibi, showed them how to tell when the okra was ripe for picking.

Zubair knew the drones were circling overhead; he has known their distinctive buzzing since he was even younger — a methodical zung, zung, zung, he says.

"It's something that even a 2-year-old would know," he said in Pashto, speaking to Al Jazeera through a translator. "We hear the noise 24 hours a day."

Before the missile hit, he remembers hearing two clicks, like a trigger being pulled. Suddenly, day seemed to turn to night as they were enveloped in darkness and heat. Their grandmother, Momina Bibi, was thrown 20 feet away and killed instantly.

Zubair, Nabila and the other children wounded in the attack were taken to a hospital. Zubair had shrapnel lodged in his leg — an injury that would take expensive laser surgeries to heal — while Nabila looked down to see her hand bleeding.

"I tried to bandage my hand but the blood wouldn't stop," she said. "The blood kept coming."

Momina Bibi's wounds were so severe that neighbors would not allow her sons to see the body, said Rafiq, a primary schoolteacher in Pakistan who was in town buying school supplies and sweets when the attack happened.

In the days and weeks after, Rafiq said the newspapers reported that militants had been killed in the strike. As far as he knows, his mother was the sole fatality. He has never received an answer from the Pakistani or U.S. governments about why she was targeted or whether the strike was a mistake.

The Rehmans traveled halfway across the world, from their remote village of Tappi, to tell their story and to urge lawmakers to put an end to the covert CIA program of "targeted killings" in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. They also participated in an Amnesty International report about casualties of drones and a documentary by filmmaker Robert Greenwald, called Unmanned. According to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 376 total strikes have taken place in Pakistan, killing up to 926 civilians and as many as 200 children.

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Since they arrived in Washington last weekend — their first time outside of Pakistan — the Rehmans have patiently sat for hours of interviews with dozens of media outlets in a dogged effort to change hearts and minds, with only a few breaks to go see the sights in the U.S. capital.  

The Obama administration, for its part, until recently did not even acknowledge the existence of the program. Now, officials say drone warfare is a precise and effective means to neutralize enemies in remote regions of the world where capturing terrorists is difficult and that civilian casualties are minimal.

That rationale holds little solace for Rafiq and his family.

Opponents of the United States have pointed out, beyond the legal and moral implications, that the U.S. policy engenders hatred of America and breeds extremism.

But even after what his family has been through, Rafiq Rehman said he does not resent the United States. In fact, even after witnessing his first Halloween weekend in the States, he does not believe all that much separates him from Americans.

"It's very peaceful here. For the most part, there's a lot of freedom and people get along with each other. They're nice, they respect each other, and I appreciate that," Rafiq told Al Jazeera.

"We're all human beings," he said. "I knew that Americans would have a heart, that they would be sympathetic to me. That's why I came here — I thought if they heard my story, they would want to listen to me and influence their politicians."

Rafiq, like so many fathers, wants his children to have peaceful lives and the best education possible. He hopes Zubair grows up to be a doctor and that Nabila is a lawyer.

"(The drone attack) created a disruption in our lives," he said. "Our children live in fear. They don't want to go to school. They don't want to play outside."

Ultimately, only five members of Congress arrived at the briefing to hear their testimony Tuesday morning: Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida, who organized the briefing, along with Reps. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., Rush Holt, D-N.J., John Conyers, D-Mich., and Rick Nolan, D-Minn.

What compelling interest did the U.S. government have in murdering a grandmother of nine and a midwife who helped deliver babies in the village, Rehman asked them. How can he reassure his children that the drones will not come back?

"I no longer love blue skies," Zubair said. "In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray."

Grayson said the briefing, held a full decade after the first drone strikes in Yemen by the Bush administration, was a promising start and dismissed the seemingly low attendance, noting that five members showed "a fair amount of interest." Grayson doubted, however, that a full committee hearing with members of Congress would be called anytime soon.

"The appropriate committees generally are staffed by people, if I may say this, who are friends of the military industrial complex, not even enemies, or even skeptics of it," he said.

Still, Zubair Rehman remained hopeful.

"I hope I can return home with a message," he said. "I hope I can tell my community that Americans listened."

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