A Pakistani school teacher and his children will be the first drone victims to testify before Congress on Tuesday, October 29. Their lawyer, however, has been prevented from entering the US.
Last October, Rafiq ur Rehman was out visiting his sister when a drone missile struck near his home, killing his mother, Momina Bibi, 67, and injuring his three children.
Rehman, a primary school teacher in North Waziristan, will speak to Congress about his experience on Tuesday, as will two of his children: Nabeela, age 9, and Zubair, age 13.
“I have no idea why my grandmother was killed. When the drone hit, I was outside with my grandmother. Everything became dark, I was scared, so I started to run. Then I noticed my hand was bleeding, so I tried to clean my hand, but blood kept coming out. But I was very scared, so I just kept running,” the killed woman’s granddaughter Nabeela told RT’s Gayane Chichakyan.
“My mother was killed, my children were injured. I’m so glad that people are going to hear our story. That’s why we came to America. We have no idea why my village and our house was targeted,” the woman’s son Rehman said to RT.
The Rehmans were invited to the United States by Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who said it’s important to hear from those living under the eye of the country’s controversial drone program.
“When it comes to national security matters like drone strikes, it’s important that we hear not only from the proponents of these attacks, but also from the victims,” Grayson said in a statement. “They have a unique perspective to share with Congress, and I hope that my colleagues will attend this important event.”
Originally, the Congressional briefing was scheduled for last month, but the State Department declined to issue a visa to the Rehmans’ attorney, Shahzad Ahkbar.
“It’s not like my name is scratched because there is some sort of confusion. My name is blocked!” Akbar told the Guardian in September.
“Before I started drone investigations I never had an issue with US visas. In fact, I had a US diplomatic visa for two years.”
According to Akbar, his travel restrictions prevented him from speaking at a human rights conference in Washington last April, and most recently he was also absent at a “Life Under Drones,” part of a drones conference at New York University.
Despite Akbar’s absence, with Rep. Grayson’s help the Rehman family was able to secure travel arrangements for the October 29 meeting.
The briefing comes only a few days after a Washington Post report revealed that Pakistan’s government officials secretly approved of U.S. drone strikes in the country despite public condemnations to the contrary.
The Rehmans, however, would like to get some answers during their visit to the U.S. The family says it still has no clue why Momina Bibi was targeted and killed in her garden last year. In the account given to the Guardian, Nabeela said she was picking okra in the garden with her grandmother when she suddenly heard a loud noise
“I was scared,” she said. “I noticed that my hand was hurting, that there was something that had hit my hand and so I just started running. When I was running I noticed that there was blood coming out of my hand.”
“I had seen my grandmother right before it had happened but I couldn’t see her after. It was just really dark but I could hear [a] scream when it had hit her.”
Nabeela and Zubair were both rushed to the hospital, but by the time their father made it home the remains of Momina Bibi had already been buried.
The first reports concerning the incident claimed that up to four militants were killed in the strike, but Amnesty International Researcher Mustafa Qadri noted the many red flags that were raised by the various accounts.
“We got all sorts of different stories to begin with,” Qadri said to the Guardian. “One was that [Bibi] was preparing a meal for some militants and that’s why she was killed. Another one was that there was a militant on a motorbike, right next to her. And then there’s this story of, that there was a militant in a jeep, SUV, with a satellite phone, at the exact point that she’s killed, but 10 minutes earlier. He used the phone and then he drives off into the distance. And then the drones come later and they kill her. So we found that that just really did not add up.”
Qadri also found that the missile directly and physically struck Momina Bibi, suggesting that she was specifically targeted. The lack of answers, and the unwillingness of the U.S. government to clarify the situation, simply casts even more doubt on the drone program, Qadri claimed.
“That secrecy, the unaccountability, the lack of lawfulness to it, is the key problem,” he said. “In the context of Pakistan and just in the very micro sense, I don’t think drones alone are the problem. It’s the way they’re used and it’s the way they’re used in isolation, ignoring the broader factors in that region.”
Regardless of what the number is or isn’t, Rehman wants to take his opportunity to tell the American people what it’s like living with drones, and that the program is causing real damage.
“I want them to know the drones are having an impact on our lives,” he said. “It’s hitting our elders. It took my mom. It’s effected my children and we haven’t done anything wrong.”
For its part, the Obama administration says it has an official tally on civilian casualties as a result of drone strikes, but it refuses to share the number for national security reasons. It claims the count is significantly lower than the numbers floating around in public (ranging anywhere between dozens to hundreds of deaths).
Brian Becker, an anti-war activist, told RT that while congressional leaders have yet to devote any energy into finding a meaningful way to curb drone activity, it is up to them to stop what Becker says has become an inherently criminal program.
“What we see with this shocking case of a 67-year-old grandmother in her garden with her grandchildren is the direct targeted victim of the drone attack. In other words the missile hit her directly, blew her apart and then a second attack against her surviving family members when they came to the scene,” he said. “If nothing shocks the conscience of the Congress like this then nothing ever will.
“We see that this is a criminal action by the US government,” Becker continued. “The drone pilots who carried out the direct, violent death of this 67-year-old grandmother, they should be arrested and so should their superiors.”