It was on the 23 of January 2009 that newly elected President of the United States Barack Obama commissioned his first drone strike. Three days after his inauguration he continued to follow the policy that was started under George W. Bush. According to American intelligence it was a successful attack, killing 10 to 14 militants. For Fahim Qureshi, an grade 8 student at the time, it was the day his life would change.
What US intelligence claimed to be a militant hide out, was Farhim’s house. He stays there with his family who, he claims, have no ties to Taliban or any other militant group. The young boy lost three of his uncles, a cousin close to his age and three neighbours. Shrapnel struck Fahim and went straight through his stomach. Another piece hit his eye, which he lost, leaving a big scar.
All most people know about US drone strikes is what they read in the newspapers. Headlines such as ‘US DRONE STRIKE KILLS FOUR MILLITANT’ and ‘25 KILLED IN NWA DRONE STRIKE’ have become common. Headlines dedicated to civilian casualties are much harder to find. Judging on reports by Pakistani and American intelligence, there are no civilian casualties.
But a report released last week gives a detailed description off the number of Pakistani civilians who have been injured or killed by drone strikes. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism took on the daunting task of examining each attack into detail.
Head investigator Chris Woods explains the need for a report that actually investigates what the drone attacks mean to people living in Pakistan.
“There have been two organizations before us to investigate drone strikes. But worryingly, although both of those organizations are used as an important source for policymakers in the US, neither of them monitored the death of civilians.”
He continues to explain the value of the report.
“When the drone attacks happen in Afghanistan they are conducted by the US military, which makes them accountable and open to inquiry,” Woods says. “The moment those attacks cross the border into Pakistan they are then carried out by the CIA. There is no transparency, when civilians die there is no record kept or compensation available for the victims”
Although the intensity of the strikes has gone up since Obama came to office, the number of casualties of each attack went down.
According to the bureau’s investigation, 385 to 775 civilians have lost their lives since the first strikes were launched by the Bush administration in 2004. More than 160 of the victims were children.
Going to court
Lawyer Shahzad Akbar helped the bureau compile the report. He is also the first lawyer willing to take the cases of drone strike survivors to court. He represents Fahim Qureshi and his family.
“I call them the lucky ones, because at least they survived the attacks,” Akbar says. ”Fahim is a bright child, I met him and his family at the end of last year. Although the people from their area are not very educated, the Qureshi family knows they can go to court to get justice”
Shazad explains how hard it is to confirm the identity of people the intelligence services label as militants.
“The image of a Taliban member is that of a man with a beard and an AK-47, who wears a turban and sits together with only men. They forget that almost everyone in the Waziristan region looks like that, it is normal to protect yourself with a weapon. And houses here all have a separate room for the men to gather”
In September of 2009 a 15 year-old boy named Sadaullah was serving his family food after fasting that day during Ramadan. A drone strike hit his grandfather’s house, killing four of his family members. Sadaullah also lost both of his legs and sight in one eye in the attack.
According to Pakistani newspapers, militant leader Ilyas Kahsmiri was killed in that attack. But three months after Kahsmiri resurfaced in Afghanistan, were he gave an interview to the recently killed Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad.
In a recent drone strike Ilyas Kashmiri is suppose to have been killed, but his death is still not completely confirmed.
Even though Sadaullah lost his legs, he kept his fighting spirit; like Fahim, he has taken his case to court with the help of Akbar.
“I asked Sadaullah if he had known Kashmiri or any other Punjabi Taliban in the area and his response was that I (his lawyer) was the first Punjabi he has come to know. He also denies presence of any militants at his grandfather's house.”
Like it never happened
Akbar’s clients have all been victims of attacks that never took place, according to American and Pakistani intelligence. This makes it difficult to fight for acknowledgement and compensation by the Pakistani government. But Akbar calls himself an optimist.
“We certainly believe that one day we will get the CIA in court, if not in Pakistan then somewhere else. It will take a long time, but my clients will get their day in court.”
Akbar is not giving up in part because he believes it is important to give these victims a voice. Otherwise, he says, they might resort to other way to find their justice for being attacked by a Western country and ignored by their own government.
Former Tariq-i-Taliban leader Mehsud is reported to have said that for every US drone attack he gets five new volunteers for suicide bombing missions.
“For anyone how has lost his loved one by a drone attack, the system is not offering him any solution,” Akbar says. “ There is no legal court available in the region, but there is the Taliban who gives him a quick fix to his anger. That is why it is so important that we at least try to help them get justice through the court.”
Unsurprisingly, the CIA has been very critical of the bureau’s report on US drone strikes. The intelligence agency questions the accuracy of the report, because they believe Akbar is a Pakistani spy and a possible ISI agent. Akbar strongly denies those allegations.