By Hamilton Nolan, September 25, 2012
On January 23, 2009, shortly after President Obama took office, the U.S. military blew up two houses in Waziristan with missiles fired by drones. These were the first of nearly 300 drone strikes in Pakistan the Obama administration has carried out. Here is what it was like from the other side.
The following account is taken from an important and devastating new report on America's drone program, from law professors at Stanford and NYU. The report, "Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan," is a deeply researched condemnation of how American drone strikes are terrorizing a civilian population in the name of national security.
One section of the report contains recountings of three different U.S. drone strikes, based on firsthand testimony and interviews, media reports, and legal filings. This excerpt concerns the January 23, 2009 drone strike, which led to a substantial number of civilian casualties—among them 14-year-old Faheem Qureshi, who suffered a skull fracture and lost and eye.
"The missiles fired from drones kill or injure in several ways, including through incineration, shrapnel, and the release of powerful blast waves capable of crushing internal organs," the report says. "Those who do survive drone strikes often suffer disfiguring burns and shrapnel wounds, limb amputations, as well as vision and hearing loss." As this account begins, a group of guests and relatives are gathered in the home of village elder Mohammed Khalil.
At about 5:00 that evening, they heard the hissing sound of a missile and instinctively bent their heads down. The missile slammed into the center of the room, blowing off the ceiling and roof, and shattering all the windows. The immense pressure from the impact cracked the walls of the attached house, as well as those of the neighboring houses. Our research team reviewed photographs that Faheem showed us, which he said showed the destruction to the home. Faheem, who stated that he was approximately ten footsteps away from the center of the hujra, suffered a fractured skull and received shrapnel wounds and burns all over the left side of his body and face. All others in the hujra-at least seven, but as many as 15 people-were killed.
In the moments after the strike, Faheem said he "could not think." "I felt my brain stopped working and my heart was on fire," stated Faheem. "My entire body was burning like crazy." Faheem wanted to splash water on his face, but he could not find any. After a few minutes of confusion, he stumbled out of the gate of his hujra, where neighbors found him. They quickly gathered Faheem into a pickup truck and rushed him to a government hospital in Mir Ali, a ten-minute drive away, according to Faheem. Medics there bandaged his wounds and transferred him to another hospital in Bannu, the closest major city outside FATA, where doctors operated to remove shrapnel from his abdomen and repair damage to his leg, arm, and eyes. Following the surgery, Faheem was transferred to a private hospital in Peshawar, where he remained for at least 23 days. In the end, Faheem lost his left eye, which has since been replaced by an artificial one; he also lost his hearing in one ear as a result of damage to his eardrum. His vision in his right eye is still blurred, requiring ongoing treatment, and he now has only limited mobility.
Faheem's cousin Ejaz Ahmad, who lives just a few kilometers away, did not attend the gathering in the hujra that evening, and was instead at a friend's home. He discovered the next morning that his paternal uncle, Khush Dil Khan, in whose hardware store Ejaz worked, died in the strike. "The bodies were completely destroyed," Ejaz stated. "All we could retrieve was the torso and upwards."
Later that year, Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.