Pakistani victims of the US War of Terror
I presented this talk in a panel discussion during the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s National Council (governing board) meeting on October 28, 2012.
I am honored to speak on this forum. My uncle was a World War II draft resistor and a lifelong member of Fellowship of Reconciliation. I began developing my ideas about peace and justice while opposing the Vietnam War in the ’60s. Then I spent many years as a single parent, focused on survival issues, then feminism, and then the inward journey of meditation and yoga in a Buddhist Sangha. After 9/11/2001, when I saw the response of our government to this devastating blow-back on U.S. foreign policy in Southwest Asia; when I saw the grounding of the War on Terror; I knew I had turn my attention back to the world; I found myself more and more engaged, not only in the antiwar movement, but in learning about the world. Great research tools are a perk when you work long hours in a little cloth cube with several high power computers on your desktop.
I found Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) through my friend and fellow activist, Ed Kinane, who came to my city to talk about his Iran Delegation in early 2007. I soon signed up, and joined a delegation where I met [Executive Director] Mark [Johnson] and [Middle East Program Director] Leila [Zand] and Seyed Rahim Bathei. Seyed has moved on to formal diplomatic delegations, but the rest of us are still doing civilian delegations of peace. So, here I am.
We’re still working to unveil the War on Terror for the War of Terror it really is; a War of Terror against the poor and the disenfranchised of the earth. Our country is waging a war of terror on those who have the temerity to reject occupation, to resist coercion, to insist on the rights of personal, cultural, and national sovereignty. This is the legacy of our culture and our national identity and our government, unless we decide otherwise.
Since my first Iran delegation with FOR the significance of global networking has been increasingly vivid in my mind. If we want change, real change, it will have to be global change, and it will have to come from the people. I have a vision of a global grassroots network of peace and justice activists, advocates and architects. To form this network, the people have to meet. We need opportunities to develop relationships, to experience one another’s cultures, to appreciate on another’s values. We need to spend some time together at various levels of intimacy to form a cohesive network of relationships.
My recent trip to Pakistan with the anti-drone CODEPINK peace delegation was very successful in forming relationships of many forms at many levels. The result was a life-changing experience, just as my first delegation to Iran with FOR was a life-changing experience. The latter forever changed my perception of that which is “foreign.” I learned that foreigners are also familiar. I formed an entirely new perspective on my own society. Everything in the United States is new and our government is intent on building an empire. It is arrogant and intransigent in this pursuit. Iran, on the other hand, is an ancient society with ancient traditions, ancient technologies that still work and ancient artifacts of ancient empires. It is proud, steadfast, equally intransigent in its claims to sovereignty and to the rights of regional diplomacy and the pursuit of local interests.
Pakistan changed my understanding of what kind of global collaboration is possible right now and moving into the future. It changed my perception of the structural divisions that often configure our social thinking; right and left politics; conservative and liberal religious culture; their methods and objectives. In Pakistan, our strongest allies in the fight against drone killing — and terrorism in general — were mostly politically conservative and supportive of traditional values and conservative religious practices. The socialists agreed that the drones and the wars are a problem, but many liberals were uncertain. They are swayed by western values, but also by western propaganda.
Overall, we were received in a very respectful and generous mode. We were invited to join discussions in the think tanks that advise the government, and spoke to law students at the Capital School of Law in Islamabad and students of international relations at the University of Karachi. The Military College had us in for a schmooze. Many students attended from their department of peace studies. Some members of the delegation attended a meeting at the Lawyer’s Guild; some fasted at the Press Club in atonement for the victims of our country’s wars. We met with members of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). They were not sure about the drones, but they were preparing for a conference where rural women would write a manifesto of their rights.
We met with the American ambassador [Richard Hoagland], who said that there were as little as zero civilian victims of drone strikes in Pakistan; and then met with the families of a few of the many victims of drone strikes in North Waziristan (Pakistan). We attended a couple of events planned by Imran Khan’s Justice Party members for us. They had invited us to join their caravan to Waziristan to protest the drones where they operate, and we were very excited about the opportunity. What we found was a land of rolling hills with sugar cane plantations and brick makers. Although we fell behind, an hour or more behind Imran’s caravan, there were people in every village waiting alongside the road to greet us, waving and holding up peace signs.
As we approached our goal, the signs of poverty increased and we saw goats and oxen grazing along the roadside, brightly garbed women walking across fields carrying bundles on their heads, white-gowned, bearded men working on farm equipment in front of a village garage, children playing in front of the compounds where they live. When someone tells you the drone struck a compound with Hellfire missiles, understand that means it struck a home, probably the home of an extended family, several families. When we reached the town of Tank that borders on South Waziristan, we were hosted in a compound where three brothers live with their families. There were so many people crashing there from Imran’s caravan that some weren’t certain the families were even present. However when we were eating dinner, I could see the women watching from the windows in the distance.
In the compound in Tank, we awoke to a courtyard filled with flowering shrubs and friendly people approaching to meet the Americans. We took the stage for an amazing rally with people chanting “What do you want?” “Peace” over and over. And then, “Welcome.” Ambassador Hoagland had promised that no drone would strike us; he also insisted that there were credible threats to our safety from terrorists. As it turned out, we were not attacked or harmed by anyone. The Pakistani police did make life difficult by creating a blockade of staggered cement barriers at the border of Waziristan which caused a massive traffic jam of several thousand cars. We had turned back after the rally in Tank, but many were trapped for hours out in the countryside after dark, and some overnight.
Several very independent women met with us, Tahira Mohammad, a liberal activist; Samar Minallah, a filmmaker and advocate who works with women in the tribal areas who are victims of wars in the region, or of patriarchal tribal practices, and their husbands and tribal chiefs; Fowzia Siddiqui a physician from Karachi who is trying to obtain the release and repatriation of her sister Aafia, who after suffering grievous wrongs including torture and the abduction of her children at the hands of the CIA is now serving 86 years at a prison in Texas.
The most powerful message that I took away from my time in Pakistan is that the drone victims are the tip of the iceberg. Pakistan has tens of thousands of victims of the U.S. War of Terror. We met with people whose loved ones, sons, fathers, husbands have been disappeared from the streets during the Musharraf regime and never returned. We met men whose 16-year-old sons disappeared one day, and turned up incarcerated without charge in the U.S. prison at Bagram Airforce Base. Some have been there as long as ten years. It is difficult to prove your innocence when there is not particular charge; to be freed when you have no bounded sentence. We heard about the atrocities committed by western-backed dictators and the poverty enforced by a neoliberal global economy.
Our host in Pakistan was the Foundation for Fundamental Rights. FFR supports the victims of drone attacks by mounting legal cases for them in Pakistan an in the International Court. Shahzad Akbar, the director of FFR, who left a lucrative corporate practice to do the right thing is an energetic advocate for these victims. He has three young lawyers assisting him, all women. Shahzad invited some drone victims from North Waziristan to speak to us, and they also accompanied the caravan to Tank. We met with four men whose brothers and cousin were killed along with more than 40 others by a drone strike on a Jirga, or meeting of tribal elders convened to address a land dispute over a mine. There were many young people there as the Maliks bring then to learn how to participate in public decision making procedures.
Waziri photographer Noor Behram showed us photographs he has taken of children killed in drone strikes. He has more than 100 of these photos, but says that often he is too late or there just isn’t enough left to photograph. Malik Jalal Khan, a tribal elder with the Wazir tribe, told of the constant fear and anxiety caused by the continually hovering drones and the strikes. Large groups of people are often targeted so people are afraid to gather, for weddings and funerals, even for town meetings. Children have nightmares. They are afraid to attend school. Many women are taking ant-anxiety drugs and there has been a recent surge of suicides. Some people leave, but most are tied to their land and their livestock.
The stories of the victims of drone attacks are horrific and the photographs are grisly. Targeting individuals for death without trial or even knowing who they are in many cases, is illegal, immoral, and reprehensible. But the bottom line is the War of Terror the United States is perpetrating on Pakistan. The people have elections, but their government is endlessly manipulated by a foreign power with seemingly unlimited resources. Even the people there are uncertain of whether their government is actually complicit in the drone attacks, or in the Taliban attacks for that matter. Many view America as an enemy, but most are happy to befriend American people who are willing to listen to their concerns and to treat them with respect.
The War of Terror is coming home as I speak; Americans are getting nervous and turning their attention inward. But I am wondering if we really want to turn away from the world, or if it would be better to reach out to those already engaged in peaceful resistance; in a creative process developing a new understanding and new tools for social development. Socialist or conservative, traditional or contemporary, we all want peace and justice and my experience is that around the world, people are willing to talk to us and work with us to make a better world.
Judy Bello is a peace activist based in Webster, New York, and a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Task Force on the Middle East. She maintains a regular blog on U.S. foreign policy.