'Every Person Is Afraid of the Drones': The Strikes' Effect on Life in Pakistan

Interviews with the civilians terrorized daily by American foreign policy

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Tribesmen sit with Sadaullah Khan, a man from Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region, who says he lost both legs and one eye in a 2009 drone strike on his house. (Reuters)

Do you remember how it felt in America on 9/11?

The humanitarian worker does. He was in New York City. "I remember people crying in the streets," he says. "People were afraid about what might happen next. People didn't know if there would be another attack. There was tension in the air. This is what it is like." He's describing life today where regular U.S. drone strikes happen. "It is a continuous tension, a feeling of continuous uneasiness. We are scared," he laments. "You wake up with a start to every noise."

As a Western aid worker, he is far safer than most, and still he is frightened. It is much worse for the innocent Pakistani men, women and children in tribal areas. They are trapped. Terrified. Powerless.

Remember how you felt on 9/11? Every day, U.S. foreign policy makes innocent people feel even worse.

The scarce attention given to the Obama Administration's drone war in tribal areas of Pakistan is mostly spent on the dead. News articles tally the number of "militants" killed. Occasionally dead innocents break into the headlines as statistics. "Drone Strike Kills 13 Civilians." There are never names.

A new report published by the international law clinics at New York University and Stanford grapples with dead innocents. But it also highlights interviews with people living through the drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas. They are human reminders that America's drone campaign affects not only those hit by missiles, whether rightly or wrongly, but also innocents all around them.

Our drones are attacking the community where they live.

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The American public is told by the Obama Administration that drone strikes are surgical. Precise. That they "limit collateral damage." And that civilian casualties are rare. Is that the truth?

Does it adequately capture reality?

Ponder a few interviews from the report -- decide for yourself.

All these stories take place in Northwest Pakistan's tribal areas, a remote part of the country filled with poor people. Most are guilty of nothing at all. A minority are militants. Even among them, almost none poses an imminent threat to the American homeland. Just traveling to the nearest major city requires a journey of hours or even days spent traversing multiple military checkpoints. There are Taliban, some of whom pose a threat to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and other bad guys fighting the dodgy Pakistani government. Some locals sympathize with the bad guys. Many others want no more to do with them than you want to do with the nearest street gang to your house. Why haven't you eradicated it? That's why they haven't gotten rid of the militants.

An interview with a typical mother is as good a place to begin as any. She described what happens when her family hears an American drone hovering somewhere overhead. "Because of the terror, we shut our eyes, hide under our scarves, put our hands over our ears," she told her interviewer. Asked why, she said, "Why would we not be scared?" Said a father of three from a different family unit, "drones are always on my mind. It makes it difficult to sleep. They are like a mosquito. Even when you don't see them, you can hear them, you know they are there."

Said a day laborer, "I can't sleep at night because when the drones are there ... I hear them making that sound, that noise. The drones are all over my brain, I can't sleep. When I hear the drones making that drone sound, I just turn on the light and sit there looking at the light. Whenever the drones are hovering over us, it just makes me so scared." Added a politician, people "often complain that they wake up in the middle of the night screaming because they are hallucinating about drones."

Would you have nightmares if they flew over your house?

"When children hear the drones, they get really scared, and they can hear them all the time so they're always fearful that the drone is going to attack them," an unidentified man reported. "Because of the noise, we're psychologically disturbed, women, men, and children. ... Twenty-four hours, a person is in stress and there is pain in his head." A journalists who photographs drone strike craters agreed that children are perpetually terrorized. "If you bang a door," Noor Behram said, "they'll scream and drop like something bad is going to happen." Do your kids?

The terrified parents react there as they would here. Many pull their kids out of school, fearing they'll be killed by drones if they congregate in big groups. Kids make the same decision for themselves: "The children are crying and they don't go to school," says Ismail Hussain. "They fear that their schools will be targeted by the drones."

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Faheem Qureshi is still just a teenager.

Back in 2009, he was the sole survivor of the first drone strike that President Obama ordered. He was "one of the top four students in his class before the drone strike fractured his skull and nearly blinded him," the report states. He's struggled ever since. "Our minds have been diverted from studying. We cannot learn things because we are always in fear of the drones hovering over us, and it really scares the small kids who go to school," he told his interviewer. "At the time the drone struck, I had to take exams, but I couldn't take exams after that because it weakened my brain. I couldn't learn things, and it affected me emotionally. My mind was so badly affected."

Of course, it isn't just parents and children who are affected.

Safdar Dawar, who leads an organization of tribal journalists, gave a superb description of what life is like for every innocent person in North Waziristan: "If I am walking in the market, I have this fear that maybe the person walking next to me is going to be a target of the drone. If I'm shopping, I'm really careful and scared. If I'm standing on the road and there is a car parked next to me, I never know if that is going to be the target. Maybe they will target the car in front of me or behind me. Even in mosques, if we're praying, we're worried that maybe one person who is standing with us praying is wanted. So, wherever we are, we have this fear of drones."

Said Fahad Mirza, "We can't go to the markets. We can't drive cars. When they're hovering over us, we're all scared. One thinks they'll drop it on our house, and another thinks it'll be on our house, so we run out of our houses." Some refuse to leave their houses. Funerals are sparsely attended. Friends no longer visit one another's homes. Yet no one ever feels safe anyway.

Some go crazy from the stress.

Others just go homeless.

Says the report, "In North Waziristan, extended families live together in compounds that often contain several smaller individual structures. Many interviewees told us that often strikes not only obliterate the target house, usually made of mud, but also cause significant damage to three or four surrounding houses."

A 45-year-old farmer with five sons had that experience:

A drone struck my home... I was at work at that time, so there was nobody in my home and no one killed... Nothing else was destroyed other than my house," he explained. "I went back to see the home, but there was nothing to do -- I just saw my home wrecked... I was extremely sad, because normally a house costs around 10 lakh, or 1,000,000 rupees [US $10,593], and I don't even have 5,000 rupees now [US $53]. I spent my whole life in that house... my father had lived there as well. There is a big difference between having your own home and living on rent or mortgage... I belong to a poor family and my home has been destroyed.

Said another man interviewed in the report:


Before the drone attacks, it was as if everyone was young. After the drone attacks, it is as if everyone is ill. Every person is afraid of the drones.

America is terrorizing these innocent people.

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.


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