8-Year-Old Girl on Drones: 'When They Fly Overhead I Wonder, Will I Be Next?'

The innocents killed in U.S. strikes in places like Pakistan are their biggest victims. But the human cost is also exacted on thousands who live in their shadows.
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An eight-year-old girl provided Amnesty International with the quote that leads its latest report on targeted killing in Pakistan's tribal regions. A drone strike killed the girl's 68-year-old grandmother as the old woman gathered vegetables last autumn. "I wasn't scared of drones before," the little girl said, "but now when they fly overhead I wonder, will I be next?"

Her uncertainty is understandable. An elderly matriarch's death is inevitably tragic for her grandchild. Her survivors are made to bear an even greater burden when the death is cloaked in mystery. Was the strike a murder? A terrible mistake? Did the grandmother inadvertently do something to make the drone pilot suspicious? How can other innocents avoid her fate? The U.S. doesn't just refuse to explain its actions (or to compensate the families of innocent people it wrongfully kills). Our government cloaks the killings in extreme secrecy, refusing even to acknowledge its role. Of course little eight-year-old girls wonder if they're next. What would you think if a Hellfire missile arbitrarily blew up your grandma? I wonder if an eight-year-old girl is next too. It would make no more or less sense. 

Last year, I encouraged readers to remember the fear that Americans felt on September 11, 2001. Many expected another attack to materialize at any moment. Anxiety even played on the nerves of people who lived far from any major city. That's how drones make innocents in Pakistan and Yemen feel every day, I wrote, citing research completed by the law clinics at NYU and Stanford. A mother they interviewed explained that "because of the terror, we shut our eyes, hide under our scarves, put our hands over our ears." Said a day laborer, "I can't sleep at night because when the drones are there .... I hear them making that sound, that noise. The drones are all over my brain .... I just turn on the light and sit there .... Whenever the drones are hovering over us, it just makes me so scared."

Children in these communities are particularly vulnerable. 

"When children hear the drones, they get really scared, and they can hear them all the time so they're always fearful that the drone is going to attack them," an unidentified man reported. "Because of the noise, we're psychologically disturbed, women, men, and children .... Twenty-four hours, a person is in stress and there is pain in his head." A journalists who photographs drone strike craters agreed that children are perpetually terrorized. "If you bang a door," Noor Behram said, "they'll scream and drop like something bad is going to happen."

Americans seldom hear from the people in Pakistan's tribal regions, ground zero for U.S. drone strikes. The interviews the NYU/Stanford report conducted were an important reminder that the Obama Administration's secretive drone war affects not only dead militants and the many innocents killed as "collateral damage." Drone strikes increase terror in whole communities—rational, fully justified terror. 

How terrified would you be if a foreign power flew armed drones over your house day after day?

The Amnesty International report released today is an effort to shed more light on targeted killing in remote areas of Pakistan. Its researchers gained rare access to people who live there, and relied on more than 60 interviews conducted between late 2012 and September 2013. There are too many noteworthy findings to lay them all out here, but having already written about the awful effects that U.S. drone strikes have on whole communities, I thought I'd return to that subject. In short, Amnesty International's new research is consistent with what NYU and Stanford researchers found. The hundreds of innocents killed by U.S. drones are their biggest victims, but far from the only humans who bear terrible costs. America makes life worse for a lot of innocent people who aren't ever killed or maimed every time it sends a Predator drone buzzing over populated areas.

There's no doubt that U.S. strikes have killed a lot of bad guys in tribal areas of Pakistan, as the Obama Administration's defenders are quick to point out. But official secrecy has obscured the severe human costs of U.S. drone policy, helped the U.S. to avoid compensating families of those it wrongfully kills, and perhaps enabled the death of more innocents than would be deemed acceptable under a more transparent policy of targeted killing with drones. As the report puts it, "While parts of the tribal agency serve as a base for insurgent operations, they are also home to around 840,000 people, who face the constant fear of being killed by armed groups, the Pakistan armed forces or US drone strikes." 

A few relevant excerpts from the report:

  • The presence of drones is awful even when they don't attack. "While the frequency of drone attacks has reduced over the last two years," the report explains, "the aircraft remain ever present in North Waziristan skies. 'Local tribal people generally live in fear and stress and feel psychological pressure. They think they could be the target of a drone attack because wrong information might be given to drone operators,' a resident of Tappi village, the population center next to the village of Ghundi Kala where Mamana Bibi was killed, told Amnesty International. 'Everyone is scared and they can’t get out of their house without any tension and from the fear of drone attacks. People are mentally disturbed as a result of the drone flights,' said a resident of Esso Khel, one of the most frequent sites of drone attacks. 'We can’t sleep because of the planes’ loud sound. Even if they don’t attack we still have the fear of attack in our mind.'"
  • Some families feel forced to put themselves in harm's way: "'If a foreign fighter or Taliban is living with a local family, they are scared of a [drone] attack. The host family lives in fear,' explained Fauzia, a student from Edak. Many said that they did not choose to host members of armed groups but dared not refuse them out of fear of reprisals and social pressure in areas with a strong presence of Taliban and al-Qa’ida-linked groups like Mir Ali and Datta Khel."
  • Residents avoid gathering in large groups for innocent activities like a prayer gathering or a community meeting. Local culture is severely disrupted.

President Obama entered office promising that he would govern with unprecedented transparency. According to Amnesty International, "Extensive secrecy surrounding counter-terrorism practice in general, and the drone program in particular, has stymied attempts to ensure accountability for human rights violations." If Obama would make good on his promise, accountability would increase and innocent Pakistanis would likely suffer less at our hands than they have in the past. But there is little chance he'll do so. There is no pressure from Democrats or Republicans for him to do it. 

For more information on the Amnesty International report, and a Human Rights Watch report on drone strikes in Yemen, see this summary by Sarah Knuckey. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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