Rafiq Rehman’s family in northern Pakistan was devastated by the effects of US drone strikes. Now he is in the American capital to speak out for the victims of such attacks.
It was the most unlikely of sights: a Pakistani family, arriving on Capitol Hill to give members of congress their first-hand account of the civilian toll from drone attacks, writes Inigo Gilmore.
Watching Rafiq Rehman and his two young children, clad in traditional clothing, arrive for the hearing on a crisp autumnal morning in the heart of Washington DC, I was struck by just how improbable all this was: a journey from the remote North Waziristan to the United States to tell their story of being victims of a drone attack.
I saw two missiles coming down and hitting my grandmother, and everything became dark. Zubair, 12
Covert drone strikes have been at the heart of the Obama administration’s war on terror. So far the president has authorised more than 325 strikes in Pakistan – more than six times the total during President George Bush’s entire time in office. But until now legislators in Washington had not heard from victims first-hand.
In fact, the family almost did not make it after their lawyer in Pakistan was refused a visa, but in the end they bravely went ahead with the trip. Sitting in a park in the shadow of Capitol Hill, 12-year-old Zubair told me how he had been with his younger sister Nabeela when a drone missile strike killed his grandmother in October last year. He says his grandmother was picking vegetables at the time and that there was no military target in the area.
Zubair said: “I saw two missiles coming down and hitting my grandmother, and everything became dark. I could not tell the difference, if it was night or day, that’s how dark it was.
Look at my daughter and my son faces and injuries they have had, what wrong have they done to you? Why did my mother have to be killed? Rafiq Rehman
“I heard a scream. I don’t know if it was my grandmother’s scream but I heard a cry. Then I felt pain in my left leg, I felt pain as if i was on fire. So I started running, even though it was very painful.”
During today’s emotionally charged briefing, the Rehmans’ story was featured in video clips from a soon-to-be-released documentary by an American filmmaker, Robert Greenwald. The clips were shown on a specially erected screen. The Rehmans are among as many as 1,500 people who have been injured in US drone attacks in Pakistan.
As the family told Channel 4 News their story, Zubair’s younger sister Nabeela, pulled back her sleeve to show me scars on her right arm where pieces of shrapnel ripped into her flesh. She says she bled profusely before she passed out and later came to in hospital.
“The piece of the drone hit my hand right here,” she said softly, running her fingers over the scar.
Her father Rafiq explained his mission in coming to Washington, saying that he felt he was also speaking out for other victims of drone attacks in Pakistan.
He told Channel 4 News: “The reason I’ve come here is because I’ve heard that Obama, with a lot of conviction, has said he is going to be using these drones. But he says he will only use them on people who are bad.
“I am here to ask: ‘Look at my daughter and my son faces and injuries they have had, what wrong have they done to you?’ Why did my mother have to be killed?”
Talking about the impact he hoped to have by bringing the family to Washington and telling their story at the hearing, he said: “I know Americans are human beings. And naturally they also have hearts. So when they hear my story, I hope they will sympathise with me – even if the politicians do not listen.”
Certainly some politicians were listening as Rafiq Rehman delivered his message at a most unusual briefing. The family was invited to Washington by Alan Grayson, a Florida congressman and one of just five members of congress who showed up at the briefing – all of them Democrats.
This might perhaps be a reflection of American attitudes, with a recent poll showing 61 per cent are still in favour of drone strikes.
We should learn from this hearing and learn from the eloquence of the victims. Congressman Alan Grayson
I asked Congressman Grayson about how international outrage over drone attacks had damaged Americas standing in the world at a sensitive time and what alternative he would propose to the administration.
He replied: “The problem here is that people sitting here in Washington are making life and death decisions over specific individuals in Pakistan and Yemen and elsewhere. And that is very problematic.”
I asked what he would say to Democratic members of congress who support the Obama administration over drone attacks and insist it is “depleting the enemy”.
Grayson responded: “We should learn from this hearing and learn from the eloquence of the victims. In fact, there are all sorts of ways to deplete the enemy without making other people come to the enemy’s defence.”
His may still be a lone voice, but Grayson believes that by giving the Rehmans a platform for their moving story, he may start to change hearts and minds and challenge a policy which the Obama administration insists is still an effective weapon in the war on terror.