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“These Drones Attack Us and the Whole World is Silent”: New Film Exposes Secret U.S. War

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A U.S. drone strike killed three people in northwest Pakistan earlier today, marking the first such attack since Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif publicly called for President Obama to end the strikes. Just last week, Amnesty International said the United States may be committing war crimes by killing innocent Pakistani civilians in drone strikes. Today we air extended clips from the new documentary, “Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars,” and speak to filmmaker Robert Greenwald. The film looks at the impact of U.S. drone strikes through more than 70 interviews with attack survivors in Pakistan, a former U.S. drone operator, military officials and more. The film opens with the story of a 16-year-old Tariq Aziz, who was killed by a drone just days after attending an anti-drone conference in Islamabad. We are also joined by human rights attorney Jennifer Gibson of Reprieve, co-author of the report, “Living Under Drones.”

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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A U.S. drone strike killed three people in northwest Pakistan earlier today, marking the first such attack since Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif publicly called for President Obama to end the strikes. Just last week, Amnesty International said the United States may be committing war crimes by killing innocent Pakistani civilians in drone strikes. In a new report, Amnesty closely examined two drone strikes in 2012, including one that killed a 68-year-old woman in North Waziristan who was picking vegetables in a field with her grandchildren.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on Tuesday, the dead woman’s son and her two grandchildren, who were with her in the field, spoke at a congressional briefing in Washington, D.C. It marked the first time victims of the U.S. drone wars addressed members of Congress. Nine-year-old Nabila described how she was injured when working in the field with her grandmother when the drone hit them.

NABILA UR REHMAN: [translated] It was the day before Eid, and my grandmother had asked me to come help her outside as we were collecting okra, the vegetables, and then I saw from the sky a drone, and I heard the dum-dum noise. Everything was dark, and I couldn’t see anything, but I heard a scream. I don’t know if it was my grandmother, but I couldn’t see her. I was very scared, and all I could think of doing was just run. I kept running, but I felt something in my hand. And I looked at my hand. There was blood. I tried to bandage my hand, but the blood kept coming. The blood wouldn’t stop.

AMY GOODMAN: That was nine-year-old Nabila Rehman describing the October 2012 U.S. drone attack that killed her grandmother. Her brother, 13-year-old Zubair, who was injured with shrapnel wounds in the strike, told Congress, quote, “My grandmother was nobody’s enemy.” It was the first time ever Congress has heard directly from drone strike victims. However, just five lawmakers, all Democrats, chose to attend. Congressmember Alan Grayson organized the briefing.

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: There needs to be increased oversight of the decisions to fly lethal weapons over another nation and kill people. And we should never accept that children and other loved ones in a faraway land are acceptable collateral damage.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Later in the program, we’ll speak with members of the Rehman family here in our New York studio, but we begin with a new documentary called Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars by filmmaker Robert Greenwald. The film looks at the impact of U.S. drone strikes through more than 70 interviews with drone survivors in Pakistan, a former U.S. drone operator, military officials and more. The film opens with the story of a 16-year-old, Tariq Aziz, who lived in a Pakistani village that had been hit by drones many times. In 2011, he attended an anti-drone conference in Islamabad.

NEIL WILLIAMS: It would have been a seven- or eight-hour trip for 16-year-old Tariq, through treacherous terrain, through potential Taliban hot spots—and, of course, under drone surveillance.

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: It was the first time that the international media, the drone victims, tribal elders, and the general public came together. It was held in a five-star hotel. The tribal elders spoke in terms of political implications, how they felt, and the drone victims spoke about personal stories.

KAREEM KHAN: [translated] These drones attack us, and the whole world is silent.

KHUN MARJAN KHAN: [translated] I raise my voice to take a stand.

DR. BASHIR KHAN: [translated] You press a button and annihilate entire families and tribes there.

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: This is a part of the drone, the missile that was used to kill that child.

UNIDENTIFIED: It was a gathering to get the voice of the victims of drone attacks out to the general public as well as the rest of the world.

NEIL WILLIAMS: That was the main goal. We were going to use the media to try and establish who had been killed and also why, where and how.

JEMIMA KHAN: Well, because of the inaccessibility of Waziristan, it’s very, very hard to compile any kind of credible evidence or evidence that other people will see as credible. That was part of the reason we organized this conference in Islamabad.

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: We called it a jirga.

JEMIMA KHAN: A jirga is a traditional tribal gathering.

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: It’s what people in that area use to settle their disputes.

TRIBAL ELDER: [translated] This is simply indiscriminate bombing. There are so many women and children killed.

NEIL WILLIAMS: At one stage, I came across a young boy, Tariq Aziz. When I was talking to Tariq, one of the first things that he did was he handed me his cousin’s student ID card. And as I looked at it, I looked back at Tariq, and I noticed that he was crying. He started to tell me the story of his cousin, who had been killed from a drone strike. He had come to the jirga primarily to inform us a little bit more about what had happened to his cousin, to people in his local village, and find out how to stop the killing.

We sat together all day. We ate together at lunch time. We laughed together. We became friends. Tariq was extremely intelligent and funny to be around. He had a nice sense of humor. He was fascinated by photography and intrigued by Western music, mentioning artists. And one that sprang to mind was Lady Gaga. He started to talk about drone strikes in his village, how he was unable to sleep at night. He was scared. He was worried about his family, his friends. Tariq was traumatized.

UNIDENTIFIED: He wanted to talk about how he was affected by drone attacks, and basically to give the message that the people of Waziristan want justice against the killings of innocent civilians under drone attacks that are operated by the U.S.

NOOR BEHRAM: [translated] I’ve been to Waziristan and have taken pictures and collected evidence that neither the CIA nor the American government can disprove. But the most painful story that I have come across was of these children. Their brother was killed in a drone strike. But what they didn’t know was that their parents were also killed.

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: And the people who were gathered there adopted a resolution condemning the strikes. The outcome of the jirga was a big success because it allowed people to come together, listen to stories and come to a common resolution. Then we went together to a rally, and Tariq Aziz traveled there with us.

NEIL WILLIAMS: We traveled towards the rally, and Tariq sat next to me. He seemed relaxed. He was laughing with his friends. Tariq and everybody else got out, and they went to the rally.

CHANNEL 24 REPORTER: Thousands of Pakistanis came to support a giant rally on Sunday.

TIMES NOW REPORTER: To protest against the United States’ drone attacks in Pakistan.

RALLY SPEAKER 1: [translated] The drones are violating the people of Pakistan, as well as their human rights.

REPORTER: People from all over the country, irrespective of their ages and backgrounds, came together to the rally.

RALLY SPEAKER 2: [translated] We want to send a message to America: The more drone attacks you conduct, the more people will resent you.

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: After that, Tariq Aziz and the other attendees returned to their homes.

FAISAL WALI: [translated] He said the rally in Islamabad was huge and that it would help our voices get heard.

IMDAD ULLAH: [translated] We were preparing for the soccer match the next day.

BADSHAH WALI: [translated] We told Tariq to pick up extra players for our game. Tariq left to tell some players, and we left to tell others. We were listening to music in the car. Tariq’s brother was with me.

MUHIB ULLAH: [translated] The car was completely destroyed, and the bodies of Tariq and his cousin were badly burned.

IMDAD ULLAH: [translated] We took their bodies out and put them into our car.

ABDUL AZIZ: [translated] When I saw Tariq’s body, I became very upset and disturbed. Other people took me away because I became faint.

BADSHAH WALI: [translated] It was deeply disturbing to see the dead bodies of our friends and relatives.

SHAHZAD AKBAR: Two days later, I got a call.

FAISAL WALI: [translated] When the attack took place, I was in school in Bannu.

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: You know, I heard about Tariq a few days later, after I’d gone back to England.

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] We were at prayer when we found out.

JEMIMA KHAN: I got an email.

UNIDENTIFIED: I was at work when we found out.

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: We got an email and a telephone call.

NEIL WILLIAMS: Four days after the jirga, I received a email from Shahzad. The email simply said “Tariq” as the heading. And I opened it instantly. To my shock, I found out that Tariq had been murdered by a drone strike.

SHAHZAD AKBAR: And that was a shock. I mean, it was like, how? How is it possible? Where was he? What was he doing? And it’s like completely unbelievable.

FAISAL WALI: [translated] He was just an innocent student. He was my student.

ABDUL AZIZ: [translated] They say that Tariq has been killed. I could not believe it.

NEIL WILLIAMS: My initial thoughts were: This wasn’t happening; this was just a dream.

UNIDENTIFIED: We didn’t think that Tariq, the 16-year-old kid who wanted to talk about football, would be killed in a drone attack the same week that we had met him.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from the new documentary, Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars, by filmmaker Robert Greenwald. He’ll join us after break, along with human rights attorney Jennifer Gibson of the British group Reprieve. Then we’ll speak with the Pakistani family who lost their grandmother in a U.S. drone strike and came to Washington to testify before Congress. You’ll meet Subair, he’s 13 years old; Nabila, she’s nine—they were both wounded; and their father, a school teacher, Rafiq Rehman, who is the son of the woman who was killed. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As we continue this special on U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, we’re now joined by two guests. Filmmaker Robert Greenwald is director of the new documentary Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars. He helped organize Tuesday’s congressional briefing on drones. The film was released this week, and you can watch it online for free for a limited time. Greenwald is the founder and president of Brave New Films.

We’re also joined by Jennifer Gibson, staff attorney at Reprieve, a human rights organization based in the U.K. She traveled with the Rehman family from Pakistan to the United States. Gibson is also co-author of “Living Under Drones,” a report published by Stanford and New York University in September 2012.

Robert Greenwald and Jennifer Gibson, thank you for joining us.

JENNIFER GIBSON: Thank you for having us.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: This tragic story of Tariq Aziz, shortly after being—attending a conference on the very issue of drones, then being killed—could you talk of the news, the impact of that, and also a little bit more about Tariq and his life?

JENNIFER GIBSON: Yeah, I mean, I think it was devastating for everyone involved. As it was mentioned in the clip, Reprieve had helped organize a jirga, which is a traditional kind of dispute resolution mechanism in the tribal areas. And our idea was, we can’t go to the tribal areas, so let’s bring the elders to Islamabad and have them discuss the issue. It was extremely well publicized. Everyone in Islamabad knew it was going on. It was receiving international press, as well. And so, the idea that the U.S. could have not known this person was at this hotel, which was, you know, mere blocks from the embassy, is unbelievable. And as you saw in the clip, many people spent time talking with him. Many people spent time getting to know him. And then, to our dismay, three days later, he’s dead in a U.S. drone strike, along with his cousin.

AMY GOODMAN: And he was in Islamabad at this drone conference to talk about his friends who had been killed.

JENNIFER GIBSON: Exactly. He was there talking about his cousin, his other family members he knew, his friends, the impact of the drones. He had accompanied a local elder to the event, and so was not part of the discussions, per se, but an observer there. He was like any other 16-year-old boy you might know here. He talked to people about his love of cricket and his love of football and his hopes and dreams for the future. Those hopes and dreams, nobody could have imagined would be cut short so quickly.

AMY GOODMAN: Has the U.S. acknowledged why they killed him and that they killed him?

JENNIFER GIBSON: No, they haven’t acknowledged why they’ve killed, and they’ve not acknowledged why they’ve killed anyone in the U.S. drone strike program. So, until recently, they denied the program even existed. We’ve now reached a point where the administration is acknowledging the program is existing but still refusing to acknowledge the criteria for who’s being killed, who—naming who is being killed, or even dealing with the follow-up investigations when there are these claims of, you know, civilian casualties. There’s just no response out of the administration.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what was the reaction of the Pakistani government after his killing?

JENNIFER GIBSON: The Pakistani government also gave no response to the family about the killing. In the case of the Rehman family, which has come a couple of years later, there was an acknowledgment that it was a U.S. drone strike. They did write a letter back saying, “We’ve investigated. It was a U.S. drone strike. Momina Bibi did die. The eight children were injured. But it’s not our problem. We didn’t fire the drone.”

AMY GOODMAN: Who said that?

JENNIFER GIBSON: The Pakistani government.

AMY GOODMAN: And the Pakistani government did not say who fired the drone?

JENNIFER GIBSON: They did. They acknowledged that it was a U.S. drone, and they told—

AMY GOODMAN: And the U.S. government?

JENNIFER GIBSON: And the U.S. government has said nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Greenwald, talk about the making of Unmanned.

ROBERT GREENWALD: It began, really, when I went to Pakistan and interviewed person after person, including the family that was at the briefing yesterday. And it was profoundly moving, it was profoundly upsetting, and it was profoundly infuriating. And I made a decision when I was there filming, interviewing, investigating, after I saw the family—you know, I have three daughters myself, so sitting with the family, seeing the daughters, I immediately felt a strong connection, and I said not only would we tell their story in the film, but if we could bring them to the United States, how powerful that would be, so people could see real living and breathing human beings who are paying this extraordinary price for this policy of ours that’s morally wrong and is not making us safer.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this whole issue, especially in Pakistan, unlike Afghanistan or Iraq, where the United States doesn’t even acknowledge the actions it’s taken or any responsibility or accountability for it—at least in Afghanistan or Iraq there’s some sort of compensation to civilians who are killed as a result of being collateral damage, as far as the United States is concerned, in these attacks. Your sense of the reaction in Congress as you put together the film and as you attempted to have a hearing there about this issue?

ROBERT GREENWALD: Well, the reaction was very strong. It was a very emotional hearing or briefing yesterday. Generally they’re pretty boring and, you know, boilerplate, but people were moved. There were tears flowing. And I think the congresspeople, the staffers—and thanks to many in the media—are now more and more aware that this is a policy that you can’t hide behind classified information. It makes no sense. So what the CIA says is, “Oh, you’re wrong in your film. You’re wrong about that strike. We know the real information. Oh, but we’re not going to give it to you, by the way.”

AMY GOODMAN: CodePink, Medea Benjamin and Pam Bailey wrote a very interesting piece headlined “$40 million Allocated for Drone Victims Never Reaches Them.” Can you explain what this $40 million fund is of the U.S. government, Jen?

JENNIFER GIBSON: I’m not sure anyone can, and that was the point of what CodePink recently released. What they discovered was that all of these calls for compensation, that actually there had been $10 million every year for the past four years earmarked, and I believe it was the foreign affairs budget, for paying compensation to civilian victims of drone strikes in Pakistan, and that instead this money was going to NGOs and other development programming, and not to civilian victims of drone strikes. If that is the case, which—

AMY GOODMAN: Because CIA is not acknowledging their engaged in drone strikes.

JENNIFER GIBSON: CIA is not acknowledging. Nobody in Pakistan is acknowledging that they’re carrying out drones strikes. So when you see the news reports like this morning’s news report, the U.S. never comments. It’s always an anonymous official.

AMY GOODMAN: News report saying there was yet another drone strike.

JENNIFER GIBSON: Saying, yeah, there was yet another strike. It’s never the U.S. commenting. It’s never an on-the-record official. It’s always an anonymous source—an anonymous source from the Pakistani intelligence, an anonymous source from American intelligence, an anonymous source from the administration. And these anonymous sources just say, “Yes, militants were killed.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The new report of the Pakistani government trying to downplay the number of civilian casualties, any coincidence of the fact that this hearing in Congress was happening this week?

JENNIFER GIBSON: That’s a question for the Pakistani government. You know, what is shocking about the numbers is it contradicts everything they’ve been saying for the past almost two years now. They gave figures to the Peshawar High Court in litigation we were involved in at the end of last year, where they cite a much, much higher number of civilian casualties. They gave, most recently, in March, new numbers to the U.N. special rapporteur for counterterrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson—they told him there were at least 400 civilian casualties. So—

AMY GOODMAN: We just had Ben Emmerson on the show. Now he is saying he needs Pakistan to explain why these numbers have gone down. Of course, it’s right after Nawaz Sharif met with President Obama in Washington.

JENNIFER GIBSON: Exactly. It’s right after he met with Nawaz Sharif. It’s right after Nawaz Sharif reportedly told him to stop the drone strikes. And these revision of numbers also coincidentally make them much closer to the CIA numbers in claims of civilian casualties, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to another clip from your film, Robert Greenwald, Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars, about the attack on a tribal meeting, which is known as a jirga. It was held in Datta Khel, Pakistan, in March of 2011. You hear voices of witnesses, family members of those killed. You’ll also hear James Cavallaro, Stanford law professor, and Akbar Ahmed, former Pakistani ambassador to Britain. But first, tribal elder Ahmed Jan explains what happened that day.

AHMED JAN: [translated] There were more than 40 people. We were talking about chromite and the cutting of wood from the mountains. I was sitting on the ground.

JAMES CAVALLARO: They held the jirga in an open space in a bus depot in broad daylight. Tribal elders informed the Pakistani military.

AKBAR AHMED: Brigadier Dogar was in command of the brigade on the border, so he is a key commander. The brigadier knew about the jirga 10 days in advance. His own army camp was 10 kilometers from the site of the jirga.

JAMES CAVALLARO: So this was an open, public event that pretty much everyone in the community and surrounding area knew about. So the jirga begins in the morning at about 10:00. And after about 20 minutes or so…

AHMED JAN: [translated] Four missiles attacked us at 10:45 a.m. on March 17, 2011. Two missiles targeted the group where I was sitting, while two more targeted the other group.

JAMES CAVALLARO: There’s smoke and debris and chaos.

PIR ZUBAIR SHAH: It was huge explosions, so people in the shop in the nearby area, they rushed to the place.

KAMRAAN ISMAEEL: [translated] When the attack took place, it became hell for us.

JALAL MANZAR KHAIL: [translated] I rushed there and found pieces of dead bodies all around.

KAMRAAN ISMAEEL: [translated] Some had no head. Some had no hands. Some had no feet. They were all dead.

MIR DAAD KHAN: [translated] Everyone was crying and screaming, asking, “Why do these drones attack and kill our people?”

KHALIL KHAN: [translated] When we got there, they said there were countless casualties. All I saw were body parts and charred clothes.

KAMRAAN ISMAEEL: [translated] When I got there, someone showed me my father. When I touched his skin, it started to break like ashes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was another clip from Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars. Robert Greenwald, if you could comment on that particular segment we just heard?

ROBERT GREENWALD: What we saw was a segment about something called “signature strikes.” What they are, literally, are guesses about what people are doing, based on their behavior, not who they are, not what they’ve done, not that we have any information about them. So, literally, some bureaucrat someplace is guessing that they might one day possibly do bad things, and people are being killed. This was the leadership of that community, 45 people decimated—again, based on no hard information, no judge, no jury, no trial. Even if people are in favor of drone strikes, signature strikes are beyond outrageous. And there can be legislative solutions to that, and I hope there will be.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, the signature strikes also create a direct line to the president, don’t they, in terms of his having to approve them?

ROBERT GREENWALD: Well, the president approves the so-called “kill list,” which is the individuals. With the signature strikes, which supposedly they’re moving away from, it’s not really clear who approves or decides that. What we understand is it’s the CIA who now believes they are so wise they can see thousands of miles away people sitting in a circle with guns: “Oh, yes, they must be bad guys. Let’s kill them.”

AMY GOODMAN: Before we move on to our final story and our guests who have come from Pakistan, who survived a drone attack, Jennifer Gibson, they were supposed to come to the United States with their lawyer. Instead, their lawyer was denied a visa, and you had to fly from Britain to Islamabad to pick them up, though you don’t speak Pashto, to come back here. Explain what’s happening with people trying to speak out around drones. What happened to the lawyer?

JENNIFER GIBSON: Well, Shahzad is an amazing individual who should be here today. He’s been working and investigating on drones for three years now, more than three years. He has amazing connections with the communities involved. And he, ever since he started working on this issue, has been unable to get a visa to come to the U.S. The last time he applied—and it should be noted he used to come all the time before without any problem. So, the last time he tried to come, it took more than 14 months of administrative processing for the U.S. to finally grant a visa. This time, once again, he applied in August, he went for the interview, and he was told, “You have a history with us. We can’t grant it. It needs to go through D.C.” And so his—since then, he hasn’t been able to get an answer. His application just consistently says it’s in administrative processing.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, Shahzad Akbar is featured in your film. And you are making it available for free, Robert Greenwald, online?

ROBERT GREENWALD: Yes, we fortunately have a wonderful donor who wants thousands and thousands of people to see it. At, we encourage people to sign up, see it, but then, most importantly, get other people to see it, people who don’t care, who don’t have information, or are even in favor of drone strikes. That’s the wonder of the tool and the wonder of being able to offer it this way.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the hearing in Congress that you were instrumental in helping put together, only five members of Congress attended?

ROBERT GREENWALD: Right. We’re told by Congressman Grayson and Jan Schakowsky, who were there, that that’s actually a good number for Congress. I, of course, was disappointed and hoping for hundreds. But they did show up, and I think they were affected. And we hope it will be the beginning of momentum.

AMY GOODMAN: Very few times have people come to testify who were victims of drone strikes. Their grandmother killed, they themselves wounded, and we’re going to hear from them in a moment. Robert Greenwald, director of Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars, and Jennifer Gibson of Reprieve, a human rights attorney, thanks so much for being with us. When we come back, you’ll meet the Rehman family. Stay with us.

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