Living in Terror Under a Drone-Filled Sky in Yemen

In January, the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights launched an inquiry into the impact drones are having on civilians in countries like Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and Afghanistan and is aiming to assess whether the program is in-keeping with international law. Many activists in Yemen point to the tight-lipped policies of the American drone program, which make it extremely difficult to prove civilian casualties. "There is no accountability," said Atiaf Alwazir, a Yemeni-American researcher and blogger who has worked to document the cases of civilian victims. "There is no information regarding the kill list. An entire population could be deemed militant because they live in a certain area."

Calls and emails to the White House and Central Intelligence Agency were not returned. The Department of Defense pointed to past comments made by now-CIA director John Brennan last year about the program, in which he notes: "The United States has never been so open regarding its counterterrorism policies and their legal justifications...one can argue that never before has there been a weapon that allows us to distinguish more effectively between Al-Qaeda terrorists and innocent civilians."

Many in Yemen dismiss this. "The U.S. drone has entered the realm of the boogeyman here in Yemen," said Haykal Bafana, a Yemeni-Singaporean international lawyer whose hometown Wadi Hadhramaut has been heavily targeted. "What's the point of winning the war against Al Qaeda if America has to throw away all of its principles and moral values?"

Residents in the oasis governorate of Ma'rib say they are on the front line of this battle. Locals say Al-Qaeda is increasingly moving into their area, and bringing trouble ranging from air strikes to recruitment. At least one civilian has been killed so far this year by a U.S. drone, relatives and local activists say. Fatimah, 9, says she feels frightened from the "planes that shoot" and her heart beats fast every day when she escorts her younger siblings to school. "I'm afraid they will shoot me," she says.

In January, tribesmen blocked the main roads linking to the capital in protest of government neglect. A number of tribes had attempted to alert Yemeni authorities to the increasing presence of Al-Qaeda in their area. But the authorities did nothing. The tribes were forced to rely on themselves, taking up arms against militants in an effort to drive them out. "The reality is my tribe can protect me from Al-Qaeda, but they cannot protect me from drones," said Entisar Al-Qadhi, 30, a native of Ma'rib.

"The Yemeni government had a chance to capture them, arrest them and put them on trial, but they are ignoring this fact and instead, hitting them with drone strikes and causing fear and panic among the local residents and families of that area," said Baraa Shiban, Yemen project coordinator at Reprieve, a legal rights organization that has also worked with detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Yemen's president of 33 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh, an American ally, was forced out of office in February 2012 after a year of popular protests. Many in Yemen have cast doubt over their government's sincerity in the fight against terrorism since the military's offensive against the group has traditionally come in waves. It has also been a steadfast supporter of the drone program, opening its skies and granting liberties to the U.S. government, which last year committed an additional $52 million in aid for areas hit hard by the country's war against Al-Qaida, bringing total annual U.S. assistance to Yemen to $170 million.

In a September interview with the Washington Post, Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi said: "Every operation, before taking place, they take permission from the president."

The arguments in support of this evolving form of warfare are both spirited and defensive. Many point to national security, citing the need to take action in the face of credible evidence of deadly plots against the U.S. and its citizens. Advocates of the drone program say that using unmanned planes allows for more time, less pressure and better judgment by its operator than a fighter pilot would have at the controls of an F-18, for instance -- and, as a result, make less mistakes. Many different parties, including lawyers, also supervise drone operators, as opposed to fighter pilots who, in most cases, call the shots on their own. "You do not know collateral damage until you send humans dropping bombs from 35,000 feet who are afraid for their lives," said Mary Cummings, associate professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former fighter pilot for the U.S. Navy. "There is no question in my mind that this is a better way, and with any luck we will get better and better about it and maybe one day we can do it without casualties."

But that is a hard case to make to the people living in fear that they will be the next casualty. Magda Awad Mohammed, 25, was widowed from that double strike in Jaar and is now faced with a daily, gut wrenching fear that she cannot feed her three young children. Her husband Adel Ahmed Mohammed was a day laborer who often took jobs selling bananas in town. She was happy when he didn't come home that day because she assumed it meant he found work. As fate would have it, he was in a souk near to Anwar Al-Arshani's home when it was hit by a drone. "My son is sick and I don't have money to buy him medicine," Magda says. "I can't do anything for them. I am helpless now."

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Vivian Salama

Vivian Salama is a freelance journalist who reports on the Middle East.

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