Life in Waziristan is being threatened by a far more fiercesome weapon than the automatic rifles which are commonly used by the rustic tribal folk in the north western borderlands of Pakistan called FATA. Unmanned planes, remotely-controlled from the Nevada desert thousands of miles away, have become an almost everyday sight in the skies above the arid lands of the north.
The drones started flying, infrequently at first, over the northern mountains almost eight years ago. Initially they had hovered in the skies streaming video back to the operators – agents working for the US Central Intelligence Agency. They were gathering information about al Qaeda members allegedly hiding in the cut-off lands.
But now these unmanned planes have become an almost constant, and deadly presence. Their deep, low dirge a terrifying symphony accompanying the villagers’ daily lives. They fly in packs, sometimes as many as a half dozen, circling the villages for hours, hovering over roads, before firing Hellfire missiles.
As many as 3,000 people have been killed, though little more than a few lines ever gets reported in the Western press. This is a war fought largely out of sight of the global media, away from the connected world.
THE TERRIFYING SYMPHONY
IT ACCOMPANIES VILLAGERS’ DAILY LIVES IN WAZIRISTAN
by Pratap Chatterjee
He walked quietly between his two friends as he entered the conference hall in one of the best hotels in an exclusive enclave of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. The carpeted room filled with chairs draped in white as if for a wedding, usually hosted business conferences. But this event was different. The smart suited-business men and laptops had been usurped by rough-hewn boys and traditionally-dressed older men from the tribal mountains a few arduous hours from the capital.
A row of elders greeted the attendees, lightly shaking hands as they gently touched their own chests in a traditional gesture. Deep-cut lines in their sun-hardened skin marked their years, full beards and elaborate head gear denoted their social standing. There was little chat as the three teenage boys filed to their seats. The men gathered had come to discuss death and destruction – the destruction of their homes and villages, the deaths of their children and friends.
Tariq Aziz (ringed) was killed three days after this meeting.
Like many in the room, Tariq Aziz had travelled for eight hours by public bus to join the group. Despite his black kameez, flat-topped cap and the start of a neat beard, Aziz was clearly much younger than many of the other men gathered.
Seated just two rows directly in front was Jemima Khan, the British heiress, also dressed in a black traditional outfit edged with antique red and yellow embroidery, her thick, flowing hair left uncovered while in the hall. She tried hard not to attract attention, but her presence was so much at odds with those around her that it was difficult not to watch her reactions, not least because her former husband and now politician Imran Khan was also at the meeting.
Events a few hundred miles away, in the mountains of the north had brought this odd group together. Waziristan is an inaccessible, remote region on the border of Afghanistan. Few people other than the locals ever travel into the rugged interior. Frequent checkpoints keep journalists and foreigners out. The ubiquitous mobile phones have stopped working since the mobile network was switched off. There is no major industry and little farm-land. Most supplies are driven in by colourfully painted Bedford or Hino trucks, one of the few jobs available. People live as they have for centuries, following old traditions and tribal codes.
More than fifteen years ago, in 1996, Jemima Khan had travelled to the area, with her then husband Imran, and her father, Sir James Goldsmith, the billionaire financier. The tribesmen had regaled the visitors with stories of their fierceness. ‘One of the tribal elders came up to my father and said welcome to Waziristan. I just want to let you know that the last Englishman that came to these parts was 100 years ago, and our great grandfathers shot him,’ she recalled with a laugh. The men were warriors, violence was common, and Kalashnikov rifles carried openly, as they still are today.
But it was not the tribal fighting that concerned the men who had gathered in the Islamabad hotel. Life in Waziristan was being threatened by a far more fiercesome weapon than the automatic rifle. Unmanned planes, remotely-controlled from the Nevada desert thousands of miles away, have become an almost everyday sight in the skies above the arid lands of the north. It was the frequent attacks by these planes, or drones, operated by America, supposedly an ally, that were the focus of the gathering.
The drones had started flying, infrequently at first, over the northern mountains almost eight years ago. Initially they had hovered in the skies streaming video back to the operators – agents working for the US Central Intelligence Agency. They were gathering information about al Qaeda members allegedly hiding in the cut-off lands.
But now these unmanned planes have become an almost constant, and deadly presence. Their deep, low dirge a terrifying symphony accompanying the villagers’ daily lives. They fly in packs, sometimes as many as a half dozen, circling the villages for hours, hovering over roads, before firing Hellfire missiles. As many as 3,000 people have been killed, though little more than a few lines ever gets reported in the Western press. This is a war fought largely out of sight of the global media, away from the connected world.
They’re not just killing men, they are killing the women and children. When we hear the official statements from the US government that no civilians have been killed, how do you explain the dead children’s bodies?
The “Jirga” – a traditional tribal meeting – last October was an attempt to raise attention to the events in this distant land. The villagers brought their evidence. They held up mangled lumps of metal – the remains of Hellfire missiles collected from roadsides and destroyed buildings. Photographs of orphaned children, bodies torn apart, vast craters left in the ground, destroyed buildings, burnt out cars were flashed up and pointed to by the men demanding that somebody be held to account.
What is happening right now is a crime, an injustice,’ shouted Khan Marjan, an angry tribal leader whose face was virtually buried under a large, white turban. ‘Can bombs be dropped on people like this? What would happen if this was Islamabad? And yet we are sitting quietly.’
One young teenager told how he had lost an eye and both legs, an older man his eye too, in injuries they claimed were caused by shrapnel from one of the many blasts. And Tariq Aziz told how a cousin had been killed in early 2010 by a Hellfire missile fired at him when he was on his motorcycle near his home. He showed an ID card and talked of his cousin’s innocence.
Jemima had joined the gathering to hear the stories, but also to offer help. She had spent nine years in Pakistan, married to Imran Khan and still feels very connected to the country, not least because her two sons are half Pakistani and visit the country several times a year.
She had been contacted by Clive Stafford Smith, a British-American lawyer, who cut his teeth representing death row inmates in Louisiana and Mississippi in the 1990s, but gained a global reputation after he took on the Bush administration by representing dozens of young men imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay. The drone war in Waziristan is, for Stafford Smith, the next American injustice that needs taking on.
Jemima had agreed to finance a project aimed at getting digital cameras into Waziristan to record the damage and death caused by the drones, as part of a campaign to prove that innocents are dying. Tariq Aziz was eager to take part. ‘Tariq was an amateur photographer,’ Khan recalled over brunch in West London. ‘He liked football, we know that he was into photography. I suspect that one of the reasons that he came for the Jirga was that he wanted to get one of the cameras that we were providing.’
And so these two very different lives had been brought together.
After Islamabad, Jemima headed to Oman, to work on a project for Vanity Fair. In the serenely beautiful surroundings of the Omani desert she picked up an email. It had been sent by a contact in Pakistan – a lawyer working closely with families of drone victims. The subject line read simply: ‘Recent victim of drones folly’.
Tariq Aziz – the young man who had been sitting just five feet away from her just a few days earlier, the teenager who had been so eager to help with the camera project, was dead. He was just 16. Another casualty of the US drones.
Next: Reign and Rain of Drones – HiTech Terror Kills the Young and Innocent of FATA
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