Living under drones – Part 1

In September 2012, the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic (Stanford Law School) and Global Justice Clinic (NYU School of Law) in collaboration with the Foundation of Fundamental Rights in Pakistan brought out a report “Living under drones: death, injury and trauma to civilians from US drone practices in Pakistan.” It took the dedicated team nine months of research, 130 interviews with victims, witnesses and experts and review of thousands of pages of documentations and media reporting.

The team was led by Professor James Cavallaro and Clinical Lecturer Stephan Sonnenberg of Stanford Law School. It is the most comprehensive document of 184 pages, covering all aspects of drone warfare in Pakistan and most importantly its legal aspect. An effort is made in this article to highlight some of the findings of the Report.

Much of the public debate about drone strikes in Pakistan, notes the Report, has focused narrowly on whether strikes kill militants or civilians. The Report, however, aims to draw attention to a critical gap in understanding, specifically about life under drones and the socio-economic impacts of drone strikes on civilians in North Waziristan.

Available evidence suggests that these impacts are significant, and challenges the prevailing US government and media narrative that portrays drones as pinpoint precision weapons with limited collateral impact.

When the same target is hit more than once, it is referred to as ‘double tap’. Chris Woods of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) independently confirmed 12 out of 18 such attacks. The secondary strikes hamper rescue work, humanitarian and medical assistance by civilians and professional workers. People no longer rush to the scene to help for at least half an hour. Those who do the daring, go with the knowledge that they may be killed.

“The dissuasive effect that the ‘double tap’ pattern of strikes has on first responders, raises crucial moral and legal concerns. Not only does the practice put into question the extent to which secondary strikes comply with international humanitarian laws’ basic rules of distinction, proportionality, and precautions, but it also potentially violates specific legal protections for medical and humanitarian personnel, and for the wounded. As international law experts have noted, intentional strikes on first responders may constitute war crimes,” notes the Report.

Naturally these attacks also cause damage to property and pose economic hardship. The survivors experience severe financial hardship as a result of strike damage to their homes, loss of a primary breadwinner, or medical costs incurred in caring for drone strike survivors.

In many cases they live on the charity of the village people, which may or may not be regularly available. In many cases young school or college going students are pulled out and discontinue education to earn a living for their families through hard physical labour. The rate of poverty is already quite high in Fata. Added to this are medical bills that include surgeries, medicine and hospital stays. One such bolt from the blue reduces a family to poverty or sometimes even below the poverty level.

“US authorities have not made any coordinated effort to provide compensation to strike victims in Pakistan. The Pakistani authorities have offered limited compensation in some instances, but these offers, rejected by many Waziris on principle, fail to address adequately the damage and loss of income the victims have sustained,” notes the Report.

Drones have given rise to a number of mental health problems. The most pervasive is the constant fear in which the entire population lives. A former New York Times journalist, David Rohde, who was kidnapped by the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2008 and kept for months in Fata from where he escaped, reported, “…..the buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death.” Describing the experience of living under drones as ‘hell on earth’, Rohde explained that even in the areas where strikes were less frequent, the people living there still feared for their lives.

In the words of one interviewee for the Report: “God knows whether they’ll strike us again or not. But they’re always surveying us, they’re always over us, and you never know when they’re going to strike and attack.”

“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,” Mohammad Kausar (anonymised name), father of three. People often complain that they wake up in the middle of the night screaming because they are hallucinating about drones.

Based on interviews with local psychotherapists, the Report notes, “People are proud and it is difficult for them to express their emotions…..” Reluctant to admit that they are mentally or emotionally distressed, the patients instead “express their emotional ill health through their body symptoms,” resulting in “hysterical reactions,” or “physical symptoms without a real [organic] basis, such as aches, and pains, vomiting, etc.”

It leads to anticipatory anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many people have been severely affected to the point of completely losing sanity because of which they are permanently locked up in their homes.

The impact of drone attacks on children is most worrying. Most have experienced a loss in comprehension and a drop in scoring in different subjects. Nobody can concentrate in class if drones are hovering above or are expected to make sudden appearances. Many children have stopped going to the school for fear of being killed

Noor Behram, a Waziri journalist who investigates and photographs drone strike sites, noted the fear in children: “If you bang a door, they’ll scream and drop (to the floor) like something bad is going to happen.”

A Pakistani mental health professional shared his worries about the long-term ramifications of such psychological trauma on children: “The biggest concern I have is that when these children grow up, the kinds of images they will have with them, it is going to have a lot of consequences…… People who have experienced such things, they don’t trust people; they have anger, desire for revenge…. When these young boys and girls grow up with these impressions, it causes permanent scarring and damage.”

By: A Rauf Khan Khattak, former federal secretary.

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