WASHINGTON, DC — “What are you drawing?” I ask through the interpreter. Shyly, the nine year-old girl in the headscarf sitting across the table from me holds up the paper, showing me the shooting star and rainbows she’d drawn in crayon while I’ve been talking to her father and brother. Nothing on the paper would indicate that Nabeela Rehman and her older brother Zubair are the survivors of an alleged drone strike in northwest Pakistan, one that took her grandmother’s life and set them on the path to coming to Washington to tell their story to Congress.
In November 2012, Rafiq ur Rehman, a local school teacher, was visiting a bazaar in the North Warizistan area of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area to prepare for Eid, while his children remained behind with his mother and their cousins. Zubair and Nabeela were helping their grandmother pick okra in the garden at the time when they heard the drone. According to Zubair, who is twelve, the sounds of drones are nearly constant overhead, only vanishing completely on rainy days, to the point that he can tell the difference between them and other aircraft. This time though the unmanned craft sounded different, making more of a “dhuum dhuum” noise, Zubair said, opposed to the low thrum that the drone’s propeller normally casts over their village.
Soon after, Zubair describes, two missiles came down from the sky, striking his grandmother directly where she stood. A burning sensation in his leg soon followed, later found to be large amounts of shrapnel, which he ignored as he began to run. Nabeela’s arm was injured in the strike. Mamana was killed instantly. A second set of missiles rained down minutes after the first, injuring more of Zubair and Nabeela’s cousins. A total of nine children were injured in the attack, said Jennifer Gibson, the family’s legal representative in the United States.
When he returned from the bazaar, Rafiq saw that the family plot in the local cemetery that new graves had been dug. At that point, he realized something had gone wrong. As he entered his village, local children who did not recognize him told him that Letif Rehman’s mother had been killed. Letif Rehman is Rafiq’s older brother. When he returned to the house, while saying good-bye to his mother, he noticed that Zubair and Nabeela were nowhere to be seen, leading him to believe that they had perished as well. It was only later that he learned that they had been taken to the hospital, but at the moment, according to the translator, “it felt as if I had lost everyone […] as if a limb had been cut off.”
While in Peshawar, Rafiq learned that the rods that would be needed for Zubair’s leg and the other medical treatment related to the strike would be extremely expensive. On the bus back to their village, Rafiq was told of a lawyer named Shahzad Akbar, who represents dozens of drone strike survivors and the families of victims, and was urged that he had a case to bring. The two connected and Akbar arranged for Rafiq and his family to make the trip to Washington to have their story heard. Akbar had meant to accompany Rafiq and his family to the United States, but says the State Department has denied his visa to travel from Pakistan.
If the story of Mamana Bibi sounds familiar, it’s because it is one that has been told several times since it was first being reported on the liberal news program Democracy Now last year. Bibi’s death was also one of the narratives highlighted in a report out last week from Amnesty International examining the use of armed drones in Pakistan, which alleged a much higher civilian death rate from American drone strikes than the U.S. government has acknowledged.
On Tuesday, the three will travel to Capitol Hill, where Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) has arranged a briefing for his fellow legislators on the effects of the Obama administration’s drone policies. “I’m looking forward to hearing from the drone strike victims,” Grayson said in a statement. “When it comes to national security matters like drone strikes, it’s important that we hear not only from the proponents of these attacks, but also from the victims.” As of last week, the congressman’s office was unsure which of his colleagues will attend the briefing, which is not associated with any House committee.
An even wider audience will soon know of the Rehmans’ story as well, through their participation in an upcoming documentary on the use of armed drones called “Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars.” A clip of the film will be shown during the briefing and director Robert Greenwald will also attend the session on the Hill. Akbar first introduced Greenwald to the Rehman family, the latter of whom’s film company, Brave New Films, covered the costs of their travel to the U.S.
“What should be done is what has been done in other countries and other places,” Greenwald said when I asked him what actions should be taken against militant groups such as the Tarek-e-Taliban if drones aren’t to be used, “identify people, with evidence, people who are actually high-value targets, and then arrest them.” Using drones is “too easy, we’re killing too many people,” he continued, “And as many people have said, we’re making ourselves less secure. In addition to the moral issue, think of the number of innocent people who have been killed, every one of them members of families. Everyone of them members of extended communities. And that’s a recipe for disaster.”
Estimates of the number killed in drone strikes varies wildly depending on who is being asked, as does just how involved the Pakistani government itself is in allowing the strikes to occur. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif just last week visited the United States, holding meetings with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden alike. Pakistan has frequently condemned in public the number of drone strikes within the FATA, and Sharif – while in Washington – called for an end to the strikes. A memo leaked to the Washington Post last week showed, however, that Pakistan still continues to cooperate heavily with the United States in coordinating drone missions, receiving classified briefings on targets and operations.
Asked about what he wanted Pakistani government to do, Rafiq said he doesn’t know anything about politics, instead pivoting to the disparity between the Obama administration’s public statements on drones as they’re translated locally. “Look at my daughter, does she look like a suicide bomber?” he asked rhetorically through the interpreter.
In March, President Obama gave a speech on national security during his second term, defending the use of drones as being the most effective method of targeting terrorists available. “America does not take strikes to punish individuals; we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat,” he said at the time. “And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.”
North Warizistan and other areas in the FATA are the location of the vast majority of U.S. drone strikes, as militants operate with relative freedom in the region, free from extensive interference from Islamabad. That still doesn’t explain to Rafiq why his mother was targeted in the first place. “I teach children, I go back and forth from school, so I have no idea if someone is part of the Taliban or they’re not,” he said through the interpreter, “I don’t see any reason why they would have thought that in our area and my family that would have happened.”
“I am a teacher and one of my jobs is to teach people,” Rafiq said about his hopes for Tuesday’s meeting on the Hill. “My purposes is that I want to share my story. I’ve told many people my story, but I want them to know the truth.” Gesturing to Nabeela, he says that he wants Congress to know that her Eid was ruined, one that she had looked forward to spending with family, and instead wound up in the hospital. She glances up and continues coloring.
“This wasn’t justice,” he says.