Friends and family members of victims of U.S. drone strikes in Yemen are launching a national drone victims’ organization Tuesday to support affected communities and lobby for a change in Yemeni government policy regarding the covert program.
The National Organization for Drone Victims (NODV), with the assistance of UK-based legal charity Reprieve, will conduct investigations of drone strikes and highlight the civilian impact of the U.S.’ controversial drone program in Yemen.
Baraa Shiban, the project coordinator for Reprieve, told Al Jazeera that the constant presence of drones in Yemen is devastating communities. “We are talking almost 50 percent of the country — ten provinces in total — who suffer from the constant hovering of drones.”
Shiban said that NODV will assist affected communities in the aftermath of drone strikes by focusing on the economic impact of the loss of families’ primary bread-winners, psychological trauma and physical injuries.
NODV is the brainchild of Mohammad al-Qawli, an adviser to the Ministry of Education who lost his brother, an elementary school teacher, in a 2013 drone strike.
Frustrated with the Yemeni government’s refusal to provide any answers or explanations for his brother's death, he began reaching out to other families impacted by drone strikes with the aim of establishing a large support network and coordinating public resistance.
Human rights groups have denounced the drone campaign as illegal, maintaining that the majority of victims have been innocent civilians.
In a report released Thursday, the United Nations Human Rights Committee called for more oversight and transparency in the program and expressed concern that the U.S. government had not clarified the criteria or legal basis for drone strikes.
While the Yemeni parliament passed a resolution in 2013 criminalizing drone strikes, they continue with the approval of the Yemeni administration.
The past year has seen a surge in drone strikes in the country and there have been at least 17 such attacks in the past two months alone, Shiban said.
To date, there have been 293-430 people killed by confirmed drone strikes in Yemen and 311-499 people killed by possible drone strikes, according to estimates by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an independent nonprofit organization based in London.
The White House has stressed that its policy is in line with domestic and international law, and carried out in close partnership with the Yemeni government.
Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the White House's National Security Council, said that in advance of any strike there had to be "near-certainty" that no civilians would be killed or injured.
In situations where civilians have been killed, the U.S. investigates "thoroughly" and makes condolence payments "where appropriate and possible," she added.
NODV will largely focus its efforts on getting the Yemeni government to investigate these strikes, Shiban said. “Under Yemeni law, the attorney general is required to investigate these deaths. That hasn’t happened yet. We hope to open a number of legal cases challenging the drone program,” he said.
Reprieve began investigating the social costs of the U.S. drone program in Yemen several months before the launch of NODV. "Researchers documented a number of troubling issues including increasing numbers of children dropping out of school, high numbers of miscarriages, and other signs of trauma,” Shiban said.
Their findings are buttressed by a 2013 study that looked at the psychological impact of drones on civilians in Pakistan. The study, commissioned by Reprieve, found that civilians experienced "anticipatory anxiety," a constant fear that they might come under attack. The report goes on to note that interviewees described emotional breakdowns, fainting, nightmares, insomnia, loss of appetite and other physical symptoms.
Faisal bin Ali Jaber, an environmental engineer who lost two relatives in a 2012 drone strike, told Al Jazeera that leading a normal life "when you have a drone hovering above your neighborhood" is impossible. "Yemen is losing an entire generation to drones,” he said, adding that the U.S. is alienating the very communities it should be working with.
Jaber lost his brother-in-law, Salim bin Ali Jaber — an influential anti-Al-Qaeda cleric — to a drone strike just hours after he had finished delivering a sermon critical of the group. "Salim was worried that he would be targeted by Al-Qaeda for his work. Instead, he was killed by the Americans," Jaber said.
He added, "The stories of our innocent should be made public."
Rooj al-Wazir, an anti-drone activist and co-founder of SupportYemen media collective, told Al Jazeera that NODV will give impacted families the opportunity to play an independent and leading role in their struggle against the drone campaign.
"The ongoing drone strikes and the increasing civilian toll have turned public apathy into anger," she said. "Mohammed and many families I spoke to feel that there is a missing ingredient in the drone debate and that was their voices."
The organization will seek to counter misinformation about the drone campaign, al-Wazir added, including the "myth" that every victim who is labeled a militant by the U.S. government is a terrorist. "The U.S. definition of militant is any male over the age of 16 — that's nearly half the population of Yemen," she said. "Causalities of drone strikes are forced into a militant/civilian binary that reinforces a huge misunderstanding of who is a 'militant' in the first place."
Al Wazir told Al Jazeera that the only real, long-term solution to terrorism is to work with people like Salim bin Ali Jaber. “You can't just kill your way to security and think you've figured out the solution to combatting terrorism. They might go unnamed in media reports, but those murdered are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and lovers.”
The best way to combat Al-Qaeda is by investing in Yemen's future, added Jaber. "Instead of investing in drones, invest in civil projects and institutions. Encourage development to absorb the large numbers of unemployed youth," he said. "If you ask any person in my village what do you know about America, they will simply say drones.”
“Build trust, build a relationship. This is what will defeat Al-Qaeda."