I am writing today as a grieving brother, haunted by questions about Ali al Qawli’s death and the complicity of the United States and the Yemeni governments in bringing it about.
My brother Ali died on Jan. 23, 2013. He was an elementary school teacher at the Khaled Ben Waleed School in the Juhana province of Sanaa, Yemen — an area with a limited number of schools and teachers. The day after my brother died, the teachers’ log had a glaring blank space next to his name. The students waited patiently. Ten minutes passed, then 30 minutes and finally an hour. The principal walked into the classroom and said, “Mr. Ali will not be coming in today.”
Ali had stood in front of his classroom every day, rain or shine and amid heavy clashes that erupted near Yemen’s capital because of demonstrations calling for political and social change beginning in 2011. His students relied on him. Since he started teaching in 2000, my 34-year-old brother hadn’t missed a single day of work. But after 13 years of uninterrupted teaching service, a U.S. drone strike took his life.
It was 8 p.m. when I heard the news. I was sitting with friends drinking tea and chatting when I received a phone call from a relative in the village of Sanhan who said a Toyota Hilux SUV similar to the one my cousin Salim drove had been hit by a U.S. drone. The sounds of drones had been filling our skies for a week. Now they had taken the lives of Ali and Salim, who was 20 years old and working part time as a driver to support his family while he went to college. Ali was in the car with Salim when he gave two alleged members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, a ride. Ali and Salim had nothing to do with these groups — but by the logic of counterterrorism, they all had to go.
At the scene, I stood motionless, frozen by shock. Slowly, as if in a nightmare, I picked up parts of my brother, his body charred and scattered across the ground. Ali’s love of life couldn’t save him. My love for him couldn’t save him. He was burned, broken, dead. I burst into tears at the sight, and then I fainted. It all felt like a bad dream. It still does.
Ali was an optimist. His sense of humor was a powerful antidote to the ongoing clashes, power outages and poverty in Yemen. Ali loved reading and reciting verse by the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani. With his beautiful personality, he taught and enriched the lives of hundreds of children and young people in his village. Everyone was devastated by his death. Imagine the pain and sorrow I felt and still feel when my brother was ripped from my life. It is the same pain that is felt by our mother, our father, Ali’s wife, their three children and all those who knew and loved him.