WASHINGTON – What teenager Zubair Ur Rehman remembers most about the day his grandmother was killed is how “particularly blue” the sky was in the Pakistani tribal region of North Waziristan. Yes, just as New Yorkers say of 9/11.
The boy’s beloved Mamana Bibi, the midwife in the village of Tappi, was just a few meters away in her garden, showing his younger sister, Nabila, how to tell when the okra is ready to be picked. “I was excited,” he said of the upcoming Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha.
They all saw the drone hovering, Zubair said through an interpreter in his native Pashto, but that’s not such an uncommon sight where they live, and “I didn’t worry; why would I worry? Neither my grandmother nor I were militants.”
On Oct. 29, Zubair, 9-year-old Nabila and their father, Rafiq Ur Rehman, told a handful of lawmakers that they were deliberately attacked anyway — the first time members of Congress had heard directly from survivors of an alleged U.S. drone strike.
A report last week from Amnesty International said “we cannot find any justification” for the double strike of Hellfire missiles, on Oct. 24 of last year, that killed Mamana Bibi, 67, and injured eight of her young grandchildren, including Zubair, whose leg required two operations, and Nabila, whose hand was hurt. That was just one of 45 U.S. strikes in the area between January 2012 and August that Amnesty examined.
Which makes the attitude of this family — here to “ask the American public to treat us as equals,” as Rafiq Ur Rehman put it — all the more remarkable. And in an interview after the event, organized by Rep. Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat, and Robert Greenwald, whose documentary on drones came out last week, the three Pakistanis said they bear Americans no ill will.
“I’m very happy and thankful that I was allowed to come here and speak from the heart,” Ur Rehman said, drawing one foot up across his knee as he spoke but never looking up. “Americans are just like us,” he feels, so he knew they would in turn “listen with their hearts.”
That is quite a generous view from someone whose family was nearly destroyed in a place where children no longer dare to play outside. “I’m not going to lie,” he said, still looking down. “I did feel anger” initially, “because it was unjust. But when I thought about it, I thought we have good and bad people in Pakistan as well, and this isn’t the American people; it’s their government. It’s politics.” He blames his own government, too, for its private approval of such strikes.
No one in the family had ever traveled anywhere before, and Ur Rehman, a schoolteacher who has no computer or reliable telephone service, says all he knows about terrorists is what he has heard on the radio. He always had a positive view of U.S. President Barack Obama, he said, especially after he found out that he was responsible for sending aid after Pakistan’s floods in 2010. “Now I don’t know what to make of him.”
It’s Islam, he said, that keeps him from entertaining thoughts of revenge. “We believe in God, and we’re not the ones who are supposed to bring justice; you cannot cure harm through harm.”
And although he’s not here on vacation, his first impressions of the United States are unrelievedly positive: “One thing I’ve noticed is that everyone is nice to each other.” Told that he shouldn’t let that fool him, he smiles for the first time, and goes on: “And there are paved streets, and things are relatively clean, and I’ve noticed that men and women respect each other as well.”
Nabila, who had been playing with the interpreter’s iPhone, volunteers that she likes “everything” about the U.S. — and Zubair, who had been hanging on his father’s every word, his arms crossed over his chest in a mirror image of his dad, says he will go home and tell his friends how strange and beautiful D.C. is: “A place where there’s no drone strikes would of course be a lovely place to live.”
When Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, he gave quite a moving speech citing the centrality of the Christian just-war theory that dates back to Saints Ambrose and Augustine. However, just-war theory requires that an attack not only be proportional, but that it be a necessity — a last resort — and that it avoid needless suffering and have a reasonable chance of leading to the end of conflict. On that last point in particular, it’s hard to see how drone strikes could ever qualify, or ever lead to peace.
The New America Foundation, which tracks drone strikes in Pakistan, reports a total of 365 strikes in the country since 2005, the vast majority in North Waziristan under the Obama administration. Those attacks, the foundation said, killed about 1,600 to 2,700 militants and 258 to 307 civilians. Although the administration initially claimed it had no reports of civilian deaths, it now says those numbers are few. It never has given an exact tally.
Under new guidelines that Obama announced in May, no drone strike is allowed unless there’s a “near certainty” that no civilians are present. In responding to the human-rights reports last week, White House spokesman Jay Carney reiterated the “near certainty” language and said the strikes follow applicable law.
A year after Mamana Bibi’s death, her family still has no idea why she would have been targeted — and when a body takes a direct hit, as hers did, it was almost certainly intentional, the Amnesty International investigators said.
“The tragedy,” the report went on, “is that drone aircraft deployed by the USA over Pakistan now instill the same kind of fear in the people of the tribal areas that was once associated only with al-Qa’ida and the Taliban.”
And that Zubair Ur Rehman, who “shared a love of blue skies” with his grandmother, now says, “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I like gray skies; the drones cannot fly when the skies are gray.
Melinda Henneburger is a Washington Post reporter.