“What about the security of those taking part in the anti drones protest” was the only question asked by journalists at the press conference held by Imran Khan, in Islamabad, on the subject. It was tiresome to witness the agenda of Pakistan’s rulers on such public display. Namely, to derail the growing mass movement in Pakistan opposing US drone attacks on its regional villages. To prevent the momentum of this movement, the spectre of foreigners being harmed was hyped up across the local media.
As political leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI), Imran Khan called for people of all age, gender and class to head to Waziristan and witness the real terror there; the terror being visited on one of the world’s poorest regions by the world’s richest, most heavily armed, superpower.
As the weekend of the historic convoy approached; Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve and members of US group Code Pink, all taking part, called for the rights of Waziri civilians be recognised, supported and protected.
South Waziristan is one of seven Pakistani Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Frontier Regions (FATA). Sixty percent of the population lives below the national poverty line, the region is inhabited almost entirely by Pashtuns. The governance is under the direct authority of the Pakistani President, who has the sole power to regulate ‘for the peace and good governance’ of FATA.
That ‘good governance’ includes refusing to condemn (or indeed supporting) Barak Obama’s drones policy in the region. Since Obama became President, drone attacks have surged in the FATA region; from an average of one strike every 40 days before 2007, up to one every four days by mid-2011.
Stanford University and New York University released their major study recently. This shocked the world, revealing that a mere 2 per cent of those murdered and maimed by unmanned American drones, were (accused) ‘terrorists.’ So much for the narrative that drones attacks in Pakistan (and Gaza and Yeman and elsewhere) are surgical, precise and thus, effective against ‘extremism’. Instead, their imprecision and their increasingly casual use, not only fail to contain resistance to American hegemony in the region, they fuel anti-US sentiments in Pakistan and destabilize the lives and safety of tens of millions of people. People who may be, as a result, genuinely at risk of militant attack.
Overwhelming the majority of those killed, injured, and handicapped by drones are innocent civilians going about their daily lives. Independent research puts the number of drone-related deaths over 3,000, including 175 children. During my time in Pakistan, an awareness of the massive impact of drone strikes became clearer. What is too little mentioned in the international media is the displacement of people from South Waziristan. Estimates now put the number of IDP’s (Internally Displaced Persons) at almost fifty per cent of the entire population. That is 300,000 people, unable to live in their homes as a direct result of America’s policy of launching random attacks on civilian villages and gatherings.
I remember being in Gaza earlier this year, hearing the drones overhead, trembling inside at the creepiness of being spied upon, judged for injury or death from afar. Israeli and US militarists have boasted in the past that drone attacks are so precise that ‘the colour of a woman’s hijab’ can be detected (the point here is not the colour – images are black and white – but the boast). This is the lie which keeps the US public supporting drone policy. This imaginary scenario where scary bearded terrorists are obliterated by ‘surgical’ attacks that somehow do no damage to ‘innocent’ people living, eating or sleeping, alongside them.
So what is like living under these wonderfully controlled killing machines? As in Gaza, the people of North and South Waziristan live with their skies constantly abuzz with flying metal destruction. Clive Stafford Smith reports that his mother remembered the buzz of ‘drones’ aka ‘doodblebugs’ used by the Nazis in WWII over London. ‘So long as they made a sound you were alive’ she remembered seventy years later, with a shudder. Today again, weapons of Fascism buzz in the skies over towns and villages. Breaking up the very fabric of community life. Women in Waziristan are afraid to shop at the markets, their children are kept home from school, funerals of those already killed, avoided (these have been targeted as ‘militant gatherings). And here in Europe our media gets all excited about the sexy sounding ‘double tap’ strikes. How we love the rhetoric of war these days. But ‘double taps’ should not be thrilled over. For what it refers to is America’s use of secondary strikes on the same target – at the time when medics come to rescue the injured and family members are giving comfort to the dying. As a result, a leading humanitarian agency now delays assistance to victims of drone attacks by an astonishing six hours.
Saturday 6th of October, hundreds of vehicles set off from Islamabad towards the Pakistan border region with Afghanistan. I had my own media shaped preconceptions about the people I would see there; specifically the men. I expected not to leave the car for ‘security reasons’ and that my white face (despite the hijab) would be met with suspicious glares from those modern bogeymen aka ‘tribal elders’. Hundreds of cars, buses and scooters, packed with people to suspension-bearing limits, travelled 400 sweaty, slow kilometres before stopping overnight in the city of Dera Ismail Khan. The plan for the second and final day was to travel another 120 kilometers to Kotkai in South Waziristan.
The next morning, thousands of every day Pakistanis from cities as far apart as Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore, set off towards the border provinces. The Pakistan military had been told to block the roads at certain points causing long delays. Undeterred, men simply joined together and removed the massive containers, and on we drove.
And then it began.
The greeting by the impoverished in the provinces – to the convoy members. The love and affection exchanged between Pakistan’s city dwellers and their rural people, a truly rare and special event.
Imran Khan is a visionary – whether you like or agree with that vision is neither here or there – this is what he is.
‘We are making history’ he told supporters. And I believe that last weekend, this is what happened. The reunifying of Pakistan’s people; an ethical revival, begun. The Government could only watch on. For the military men posted all along the rooftops of the mud buildings as we chugged onwards did not glare at the convoy.
They waved, giving ‘V – for victory signs.
‘We are with you’ shouted an older man in uniform.
‘Stop America attacking the people’ a younger soldier, smiling at me and waved.
At the village of Tank, I left the car, spurred on by the constant line of smiles and friendly cheers along the dusty, humble, streets. Here were the old men in long beards and turbans of TV footage, but nowhere were there scowls or threats or mutterings of ‘haram’ for women taking part in the protest. Islam was in the air in a way I have felt before only in the Gaza Strip. Truly Allah SWT is with the poor and the oppressed.
Sometime later, the military stopped the convoy in the town of Kawar. Their constant road blocks had made us too late to reach Waziristan and to return before nightfall.
But this was not a victory for the Pakistan government.
It was a victory for the people of Pakistan.
An impromptu rally of some ten thousand was assembled in a field in “Jahazi Ground” in Tank, a town of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, near the border. Imran Khan, advised the Zardari government to abandon the double standards concerning drones – saying one thing to America another to Pakistan’s people. The crowd cheered and called for America to leave them alone; huge chants of ‘Go America Go!’ rang out.
Khan said the convoy had sent the message to the world that drone attacks were unacceptable. He raised cheers with his certain words; “America is not God, Allah is God,”
Back in Karachi, the following day, the Pakistan government tries to seize the political moment. Interior Minister Rehman Malik claims that U.S. officials have given him an assurance to review the policy of using drones in tribal areas of Pakistan, following opposition (not from protestors of course) but from the country’s government.
The list of countries facing remote attacks will only grow. The US and UK governments are working on doubling the number of armed drones in their arsenals. Plus there’s the wonderful bonus that drone attacks kill civilians whilst protecting the security of military personnel who can be thousands of miles away.
Meanwhile, a few miles beyond the government’s machinations, hundreds of thousands of people continue to wonder what it is they can actually do to make themselves safe. You see no one has told the rural people, WHY they are actually being targeted. After all what can you say to a three year old child, or a wedding party of hundreds, or the sick and elderly injured and murdered by unmanned machines from a country they know little about? That they are terrorists by dint of their place of birth, their religion, their facial hair? No one knows who is on the American kill list. And on one knows what they can do to get themselves off.
Suddenly, and without warning, a missile launches. Women, men, babies, homes, everyone and everything is annihilated within a 15 metre radius.
Random and indiscriminate murder is the definition of terrorism.
Drone attacks are terrifyingly random.
Lauren Booth is a Patron of CagePrisoners. Lauren is a broadcaster and journalist, outspoken on issues as diverse as childhood vaccinations and the war in Iraq. She has presented shows for television and radio and regularly guests on programmes across the media. She has regular columns in the Mail on Sunday and writes features for the Sunday Times and Femail.