On March 17, 2011, a government sanctioned jirga was convened at Datta Khel, a small town in North Waziristan, attended by some 40 tribal elders, including 35 officially appointed maliks. The attendants gathered in an open space, located in the town centre. Their aim was to settle a dispute over a chromite mine. Around 10:45 am, an American drone circling above fired missiles into the congregation killing at least 42 people. According to an eyewitness, “everything was devastated. There were pieces - body pieces - lying around. There was lots of flesh and blood.” Afterward, the bereaved were informed that “none of the elders that attended survived, they were all destroyed, all finished!”
Many such tragic accounts have been revealed by an American report, Living Under Drones, recently published by Stanford and New York University. Previous reports relating to drones focused on the casualties. However, this report delves inside the socio-economic life of Fata that is devastated by US drones. Drones have so adversely affected the lives of the people that the New York Times journalist, Adam Rohde, has called the existence under the spectre of drones as “hell on earth”.
The report argues that the US is carrying out “signature strikes” in tribal area, a legally dubious method, in which a person is considered as a legitimate target, if he exhibits a certain “behaviour pattern.” These drone strikes have led to substantial civilian deaths, without seriously disrupting the terror networks.
This trigger-happy approach has led to indiscriminate targeting of rescuers, burial processions, commercial centres and social events, creating panic-stricken population, which is now reluctant to fulfil its basic social obligations. By employing double tap, i.e. hitting the same target twice, drones have severely harmed the rescue efforts and provision of humanitarian assistance. In words of a local journalist: “What America has tried to do is attack the rescue teams; so now, what the tribals do is - they don’t want many people going to the strike areas. Only three or four willing people go in, who know that if they go, they are going to die.”
Even after making a kill, the drones keep on haunting its victims and their loved ones. Hellfire missiles fired by drones, burn their prey so unmercifully that it becomes difficult differentiating incinerated humans from charred cattle, making identification of the dead impossible. People are even afraid of attending funerals, as a local tribesman said: “There used to be a funeral processions, lots of people use to participate. But now, the US has even targeted funerals, they have targeted mosques, they have targeted people sitting together, people are scared of everything.”
The US drone policy is also taking a heavy toll on Fata‘s economy. Drones destroy the targeted buildings and seriously damage nearby structures, forcing people to spend heftily on repairs. Similarly, the injured have to go through expensive medical procedures, which famish already impoverished families. People are avoiding markets and commercial areas. In words of Safdar Dawar, President of the Tribal Union of Journalists: “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. 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.”
The destruction caused by the drones, their constant vigil in the skies, and fear of an impending attack, are causing psychological problems among the indigenous population. According to a local psychiatrist, because drones are always prowling in the sky, many men and women have developed anticipatory anxiety, they are always worrying, “when is the next drone attack going to happen? When they hear the drone sounds, they run around looking for shelter.”
Researchers at Stanford and NYU have done a great job by highlighting the drone terror and its ruinous impact on the socio-economic conditions of Fata. The US administration is delusional, If it thinks that by targeting tribal assemblies, rescuers and burial processions, they can win the hearts and minds of the tribals and Pakistanis. Most Pakistanis haven’t seen the miracles of American democracy and capitalism, but daily they witness the aerial persecution of civilians by the drones. This is giving substance to anti-American rhetoric, begetting greater militancy in the region. As a tribesman cited in the report said: “Before the drone attacks, we didn’t know anything about America. Now everybody has come to understand and know about it. Almost all people hate America.”
The writer is a freelance columnist and has worked as a broadcast journalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org