Rafiq ur Rehman testfying before Congress, via NBC's live feed.
Today, Congress heard testimony from civilian victims of drone strikes for the first time. At a hearing organized by Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL), Rafiq ur Rehman, a Pakistani school teacher, and his 13-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter gave gut-wrenching testimony about the day Rehman's mother was killed in a US drone strike.
As an Amnesty International report published last week detailed, as many as 900 civilians have been killed by drones in Pakistan, a number far higher than official US estimates. Many of those strikes hit the remote tribal region of Waziristan, where Rehman and his family live.
The attack came on October 24, 2012, on the eve of the Muslim holy day of Eid al-Adha. Rehman was not at home at the time, but his four children were—including his son Zubair and daughter Nabeela, who also spoke at the testimony— as well as his wife and mother. As Zubair testified, he was working in a field with his grandmother before the drone struck.
"My grandmother promised that once we finished our chores, we could start celebrating," Zubair said via a translator, after saying that he'd heard Eid compared to Christmas, although he couldn't be sure because he'd never celebrated Christmas. "The night before my grandmother had made sweets, which I was excited to try."
A drone appeared. "As I helped my mother and grandmother in the field, I could see and hear the drone circling overhead. But I wasn't worried. Why would I worry?" he said, explaining that he was just a member of a peaceful village. Why should he be concerned about being a target? Then the drone fired upon them.
"We ran, but several minutes later, the drone fired again," Zubair said. "People from the village came and took us to the hospital. We spent the night in great agony, and the next morning I was operated on. That was how we spent our Eid."
Zubair's grandmother was killed. In Rehman's testimony, which caused the translator to break into tears at one point, he questioned why a 67-year-old woman would be targeted.
Interviews with victims of drone strikes in Waziristan conducted by journalist Madiha Tahir
"Nobody has ever told me why my mother was targeted that day," he said. "Some media outlets reported that the attack was on a car, but there is no road alongside my mother’s house. Others reported that the attack was on a house. But the missiles hit a nearby field, not a house. All of them reported that three, four, five militants were killed."
"But only one person was killed that day–Mammana Bibi, a grandmother and midwife who was preparing to celebrate the Islamic holiday of Eid," he continued. "Not a militant, but my mother."
Rehman testified that four of his children, and four of his brother's children, were injured that day. As Zubair explained, his initial operation to remove shrapnel from his leg was unsuccessful, and he was sent to Islamabad, where a doctor said only an expensive treatment could remove the shrapnel. He was sent back to his village until his father raised enough funds from friends and family for the procedure. According to Zubair, the fundraising process took months.
"How can I in good faith reassure the children that the drone will not come back and kill them, too, if I do not understand why it killed my mother and injured my children?
"We have had to borrow money and sell land to pay for the childrens’ medical treatment," Rehman said. "There has been no compensation to help with these bills. The Pakistani government accepted myclaim and confirmed the details. But it says it is not responsible; the U.S. is."
Rehman's testimony ended on a bleak note.
"Congressman Grayson, as a teacher, my job is to educate," he said. "But how do I teach something like this? How do I explain what I myself do not understand? How can I in good faith reassure the children that the drone will not come back and kill them, too, if I do not understand why it killed my mother and injured my children?"
"My mother is not the first innocent victim of US drones," he continued. "Numerous families living in my community and the surrounding area have also lost loved ones, including women and children, in these strikes over the years. Dozens of people in my own tribe that I know are merely ordinary tribesman have been killed. They have suffered just like I have. I wish they had such an opportunity as well to come tell you their story. Until they can, I speak on their behalf as well. Drones are not the answer."
Notably missing from the testimony was the Rehman family's lawyer, which had originally helped organize the family's landmark testimony. The attorney, Shahzad Akbar, was inexplicably denied a visa despite having traveled the US before.
Also missing from the testimony was much of Congress. Only five congressmen appeared at the testimony, which also featured a preview of a feature-length documentary on the drone war in Pakistan. Joining Grayson were Reps. Jan Schakowsky, Rush Holt, John Conyers, and Rick Nolan. Grayson explained that it's pretty common for only a few members of Congress to appear at such hearings, and Holt noted that hearings about drones have been held behind closed doors.
That aside, the five congressmen that did appear all spoke harshly about the US drone program.
"Every time we take out one militant, we seemingly give rise to thousands, through the acts of this program itself," Grayson said. He didn't mince words about the US's use of drones, saying that even Russia, which has "plenty of enemies," has not taken to using UAVs to kill foreign nationals it deems militants.
"No other country in the world does this," Grayson said. "At this point, sending militaries to other countries is very unusual, unless we're talking about the united states."
Referring to civilian drone killings, Holt said, "War is brutal. It's not clear that what we're talking about here is war."
Rep. Grayson, via NBC's live feed
Early in the hearing, Conyers called for a Congressional investigation into civilian drone killings, as well as reparations for civilians killed by drone strikes. "Drones should be used only as a last resort," he said.
"We should reexamine the use of drones and the consquences that flow from that, whether it's the American reputation abroad or compensation to victims," said Nolan. "This is the beginning."
"The discussion has begun, and it's about time," he continued. "There are tragic consequences from the use of these drones."
There is not doubt that the use of drones has produced tragic consequences, but there is doubt that the Obama administration, which has become more reliant on drones than any other in history, will change its course. Until it does, civilians will be killed. Rehman asked the American people to call for change.
"In the end I would just like to ask the American public to treat us as equals," he said. "Make sure that your government gives us the same status of a human with basic rights as they do to their own citizens. We do not kill our cattle the way US is killing humans in Waziristan with drones. This indiscriminate killing has to end and justice must be delivered to those who have suffered at the hands of unjust."
"This is something all Americans should be asking. What is the appropriate way for our country to privide for the common defense?" asked Holt. "We've been moving towards using our intelligence communitry as a paramilitary organization, rather than an intelligence gathering entity. We've let some of our weapons of war get out of hand. It's not just drones, but the use of our special forces across sacrosanct international borders. This is something that requires a large scale, in-depth Congressional examination and a national debate. This is long overdue."