NABEELA was just eight when her grandmother was blown to pieces in front of her.
It was late in the afternoon of Oct 24, 2012. Mamana Bibi, a 68-year-old grandmother married to a respected local head teacher, was picking vegetables from the family’s fields before dinner.
Her three granddaughters were playing in the field around her. In the distance, another grandchild, Rehman, was just coming into view on his way home from school in the village of Ghundi Kala.
And then, before her family’s eyes and without warning, Mamana Bibi was killed instantly by two Hellfire missiles fired by a US drone aircraft.
“The explosion was very close to us,” said Nabeela. “It was very strong, it took me into the air and pushed me onto the ground.”
Nine members of the family, all but two of them children, were injured in the attack, which also badly damaged the family home. Though injured by shrapnel, Nabeela helped to search for her grandmother.
“We found her body a short time afterwards,” she recalled. “It had been thrown quite a long distance away and it was in pieces. We collected many different parts from the field and wrapped them in a cloth.”
The US had killed an elderly woman in a field, leaving her remains to be pieced together by her grandchildren.
Pilotless aircraft, more commonly referred to as drones, are controlled from the ground by operators in US bases. Their use for surveillance and so-called ‘targeted killings’ by the US has become one of the world’s most controversial human rights issues. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Pakistan.
The US drone programme has been operating in Pakistan since 2004 in almost total secrecy. The US authorities refuse to say how many drone strikes they have carried out, or where, or when. They refuse to give explanations for the killing of innocent civilians such as Mamana Bibi.
The Pakistani government believes the US has launched between 330 and 374 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004. They estimate that at least 400 innocent civilians have been killed.
Earlier this week, Amnesty International published Will I be next?, the most comprehensive human rights analysis to date of the US drone programme operating in Pakistan. We investigated 45 separate attacks, interviewed more than 60 survivors, eye-witnesses, relatives of victims, and Pakistani government officials.
Our evidence conclusively shows that the US has carried out unlawful killings in Pakistan through drone attacks, some of which could be considered war crimes.
The vast majority of drone strikes in Pakistan have taken place in North Waziristan, a region along the border with Afghanistan. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, thousands of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters fled there to escape US forces.
They have used the region as a base of operations to attack US, Afghan, and allied forces in Afghanistan or, in the case of al-Qaeda, to plan attacks globally. The situation is made all the more confused by the presence of the Pakistani Taliban, which aims to overthrow the Pakistani state.
Many of these groups have committed serious human rights abuses, attacking schools, mosques, and marketplaces. They have killed and injured thousands of innocent people in Pakistan and Afghanistan over the last decade.
However, along with these militants, the region is home to around 840,000 people who live in constant fear, caught up in clashes between militant groups, the Pakistani military, and US drone strikes.
One of the most serious questions about the US drone programme is whether some of the attacks are deliberate attempts to kill those trying to help the dead and injured.
On July 6, 2012, a group of labourers and miners from the village of Zowi Sigdi gathered at a tent for an evening meal.
“It was our gathering place,” said Ahsan, a miner from the village. “Usually, at the end of the day after work, we would sit together and talk about our daily business.”
Four drones had been hovering over the village for some minutes, clearly visible to the local residents. Suddenly, multiple missiles were fired, hitting the tent and killing at least eight people instantly.
“I saw bodies without heads and bodies without hands and legs,” recalled Ahsan. “Everyone in the hut was cut to pieces. We started to panic and each person was trying to escape to different directions.”
However, some villages bravely returned to the tent to look for survivors, carrying makeshift stretchers, blankets and water. Minutes later, the drones were used to fire another series of missiles at those who had come to rescue the injured. At least six people were killed instantly and more died afterwards from their injuries.
Amnesty recorded the names of 18 people killed in the attacks on Zowi Sidgi village. Another 22, including an eight-year-old girl, were injured.
The attack on Zowi Sidgi was not an isolated incident. We have identified similar attack patterns at Darai Nishtar in July 2012, where at least six people were killed, and at Esso Khel in June 2012, where 10 to 16 people were killed in multiple, staggered strikes.
THERE is some suggestion that the US military simply assumed that anyone coming to help the survivors of a drone attack, whom they have concluded must be militants, have to be militants themselves.
However, international humanitarian law is crystal clear. Deliberately attacking civilians rescuing wounded is a war crime.
“Locals have now realised that they have to avoid trying to help after a drone attack,” a resident told us.
Right across the region, hundreds of thousands of people live in similar fear of drone strikes.
“People are scared of the drone attacks,” said Shakeen, a villager from Darai Nishtar. “They don’t walk together, they sit only in pairs, and if they gather in large groups, it would be only for a very short time. When the drone plane comes and we hear the sound people feel very scared.”
“Anyone who grows a beard and has a gun and drives a car — people think he might be a Taliban fighter,” said a resident of Esso Khel, one of the parts of North Waziristan most affected by drone strikes. “But over here, every man carries a gun, so you cannot tell who is Taliban and who is just a local in his village.”
Since taking office in Jan 2009, US President Barack Obama has expanded the use of drone aircraft significantly. Under his administration, the US military has adopted a policy known as “signature strikes”.
These are attacks carried out where the identity of the targets is unknown but their behaviour appears suspicious to US authorities. In effect, people are killed because their actions lead the US to believe they might be Taliban.
The US claims all of their actions are in line with international law, that attacks on the Taliban in North Waziristan are acts of self-defence.
Facing mounting criticism of the drone programme, Obama promised more transparency and accountability.
It hasn’t happened. US drone strikes are carried out by the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command. Both organisations have a long track record of ducking accountability for human rights violations.
The CIA refuses even to officially acknowledge the drone programme, let alone reveal its rules and procedures. The US won’t disclose basic factual and legal information about the drone programme.
Mamana Bibi’s family and the survivors of the strikes in Zowi Sidgi have never been told why they were targeted. There has been no official investigation. There is no way for these families to get justice, to see those responsible for the deaths of their loved ones held accountable.
As far as Amnesty International can determine, no one has been held responsible for the deaths of hundreds of civilians at the hands of the US drone programme. The US has not offered compensation or support to the families of civilians killed in these attacks.
The world’s most powerful country, led by a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, presides over a covert, unaccountable military programme that carries out unlawful killings.
Nabeela is, like the rest of her family, struggling to come to terms with the death of her grandmother. She, like thousands of people in North Waziristan lives in daily fear of the drones orbiting their communities.
“I wasn’t scared of drones before,” she said. “But now, when they fly overheard, I wonder will I be next?”
* Colm O’Gorman is executive director of Amnesty International Ireland
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