If you thought drones were callous, how about the military lingo for referring to their victims?
US drone operators often speak of the people they kill as “bug splats,” because that’s kind of what people look like through grainy video images: bugs being crushed.
But people aren’t bugs, and that is the message behind the #NotABugSplat campaign: an initiative by a collective of international and Pakistani artists, who are targeting drone operators with a giant portrait of a young girl staring at them from the ground.
“When we first heard how the term bug splat is used, that’s where we had the idea,” Saks Afridi, an artist and member of the group, told VICE News.
"Now, when viewed by a drone camera, what an operator sees on his screen is not an anonymous dot on the landscape, but an innocent child victim’s face," the group said on their website, adding that the installation is also designed to be picked up by satellite, "in order to make it a permanent part of the landscape on online mapping sites."
Inspired by similar work by French artist JR, who is involved with the initiative through his Inside Out Project, the group set up the huge installation in the Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa region of Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan.
They are also hoping to set up more, in Pakistan as well as in other countries targeted by drone attacks.
The use of drones has been the subject of much controversy, with little sign of it getting reigned in. In the last decade, in Pakistan alone, up to 3,718 were killed by drone strikes, including up to 202 children, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has been monitoring the drone war.
On Dec. 1 2012 Brave New Foundation released a report titled “Youth Disrupted: Effects of US Drone Strikes on Children in Targeted Areas.”
Jack Serle, a drone expert at the bureau, told VICE News that most drone strikes target different areas of Pakistan, like North and South Waziristan, which are very difficult to access to outside observers.
“It’s a very interesting idea, maybe a bit misplaced in terms of where the drones are actually flying,” he said about the art installation.
People in Pakistan are universally pissed off about it.
When the military first started to use the rather unfortunate term, it did so in what was actually an attempt to minimize “collateral damage.” The phrase first described a Defense Department computer program that estimated collateral damage by drawing a circle around the target. But soon enough it evolved to include all the subjects hit by a strike: the ‘bugs’ themselves.
“It's sort of a groupie term, but it's really a mathematical process that we can go to that shows, depending on the direction the bomb is actually falling, where the effects of that fragmentation from the bomb will go,” an unnamed senior defense official said in a 2003 briefing about the subject. “So they look at that to determine what facilities are in that ring, and then how they might be affected.”
A Pakistani school teacher and his children have been the first drone victims to testify before Congress on October 29, 2013.
The phrase rarely shows up in official documents, but has entered the slang and imagination around drone strikes, much like the program’s association to video games.
“The term kind of speaks to the dislocation of the drones flying above the population," Serle said. "Regardless of how good the imaging technology is on the drone, you still have this effective looking down a drink straw on the ground… the operator might have a very sophisticated lens on a camera, but you are still getting a very partial view of what’s happening on the ground. That means sometimes you have a very indistinct view of who is actually there.”
In the recent VICE on HBO documentary “Children of the Drones,” Suroosh Alvi reported about the effect of drone warfare on both pilots and the civilian population.
“The reality is that these drone operators and these drone pilots actually see the impact of the bomb, when it hits, and their targets blowing up,” Alvi said. “On the receiving end… they just hear them buzzing all the time, it keeps them up all night, and it just drives them crazy.”
“People in Pakistan are universally pissed off about it,” he added.
The children in the photos are from the area — the collective behind the project did not disclose the specific location and identity of local artists out of security concerns. The unnamed girl in the portrait is also a victim of drones.
“Her family and siblings died in drone attacks and she was also injured,” said Afridi. The group worked on the project with the support of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, a local nonprofit. “The community was very receptive.”
The material used for the installation will eventually be recycled by local residents for alternative purposes, like “roofing,” Afridi said.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi