Living Under Drones: the Psychological, Social, and Economic Impact of Drones in FATA.

[Originally published in the Daily Times Op-ed pages]

The primary focus in the drone debate so far has remained on the civilian casualties. Drone attacks have mostly been concentrated in the North Waziristan Agency (NWA), and some in the South Waziristan Agency (SWA) of FATA in Pakistan. However, the impact of these killings in particular and the presence of drones in general on the citizens of Pakistan is worthy of attention, specifically the psychological, social and economic impact.

Pakistani citizens from North Waziristan protesting outside the Parliament againt CIA-operated US drone attacks on the culmination of the long march from Miranshah to Islamabad on 25 February 2012. The poster on the left reads ‘Drones have devastated us’, and the poster on the right reads: ‘One purpose, one slogan: there shouldn’t be another drone strike’. -Photo: Usama Khilji.

Drones are said to circle the skies in NWA all day and all night, except for cloudy days, with the sound being a lot louder during nighttime, according to locals from the Mir Ali and Miranshah areas. Drones produce a monotonous buzz, almost like the sound of a generator, which together with the uncertainty that comes with the perpetual fear of missile strikes have had an immense psychological impact on the population. Particularly affected are young children who are said to be unable to sleep at night and cry due to the noise. Some children have lost their lives with the impact of the drone missile strikes in their neighbourhoods. Local doctors have declared many adults mentally unfit due to the effect drones have had on them, with the details of the disorders unknown due to lack of, firstly, awareness of mental health and, secondly, expert psychiatrists and psychologists in the area.

Drone attacks have changed the social structure in NWA as well. Firstly, community life has been brought to a minimal level as people avoid getting together in groups, because drones are believed to more likely target groups of people collected together. Funerals of those killed in drone attacks are attended by a small number of people, because drones have targeted funerals in the past, such as the June 23, 2009 attack at a funeral in Mateen, SWA, near the NWA border town of Razmak. Similarly, people have stopped frequenting each others’ houses as guests, fracturing the principle of milmastiya (hospitality) where a Pakhtun is to treat guests well and keep them happy under pakhtunwali (the Pakhtun code of life). Even peace jirgas with respected tribal heads in attendance have been targeted by drones, such as the strike on the jirga to solve a chromite dispute that was struck by two missiles from drones on March 17, 2011 in Datta Khel, NWA, killing around 40, mostly tribal elders.

Pakistani citizens from North Waziristan stage a sit-in outside Parliament againt CIA-operated US drone attacks on the culmination of the long march from Miranshah to Islamabad on 25 February 2012. -Photo: Usama Khilji.

Secondly, the presence of so many different intelligence agencies at work in FATA through spy networks has created a high level of mistrust between the locals, most notably on suspicion of being CIA spies, as these informants are believed to be giving disinformation on areas and persons to be targeted by the CIA-administered drones. This has led to kidnappings and killings of locals at the hands of others due to suspicion of treachery, which is also an unforgivable offence of disloyalty, breaching the principle of sabat (loyalty) in Pakhtunwali.

Sadaullah, now 17, lost both his legs, one eye, and injured his arm when a missile launched by a US drone targeted his house on September 7, 2009, after the break of fast during Ramadan. -Photo: Usama Khilji.

Thirdly, the already frail state of education has deteriorated further due to drone attacks and merits special consideration, keeping in mind the obvious importance of education. Parents are increasingly reluctant to send their children to schools due to the uncertainty about the targets of drone missiles, and instances of moving cars and motorbikes having been hit by missiles from drones, such as in the case of 16-year-old Tariq, killed in a drone strike on October 31, 2011. Moreover, a drone strike on December 31, 2009 killed Asif Iqbal, who had returned to his village to teach English at a girls school in Dattakhel, NWA, after earning a Masters degree from the National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad, and Zainullah, an employee at a girls’ school in Mir Ali, NWA. Furthermore, many children have been injured in drone strikes. Sadaullah, a 17-year-old, who lost both his legs in a drone strike when 15, talked about how he cannot go to school anymore as he has difficulty walking, and how he wishes to play football like he used to but now is only left to watch his friends play.

The economy of NWA has suffered a lot due to drone strikes. With a low literacy rate, most employment in NWA is concentrated in the unskilled labour sector, with a majority of men employed either in extracting chromite from the hills as daily wage labourers in construction, or cutting trees for timber in the forests. Firstly, employment opportunities have been affected as labourers at work, or on their way, have been killed in drone strikes. Four chromite miners were killed on October 30, 2011, as they were on their way to earn a living for their families. This and other such cases have increased fears amongst the locals of being targeted while at work. Secondly, the medical costs for treating the injured is very high as all the injured have to be transported hundreds of kilometers away to Bannu, and in most cases, even further to Peshawar, as local hospitals are underequipped and only good for first aid. Because income levels are very low in the region, families are mostly forced to take loans from friends and family to cover the medical expenses of the injured, loans of up to Rs 600,000, an amount that takes a lifetime for them to pay back.

From all these cases, it is evident that CIA-administered US drone strikes, like the Pakistan army-run operations in FATA, are having an adverse impact on the lives of citizens of Pakistan. The fundamental right to life, right to privacy, right to education, and right to a life free of fear as guaranteed in the Constitution of Pakistan that applies to all citizens, are being breached through drone strikes, and the Pakistani government and the Political Agents’ offices in FATA have consistently failed in protecting its citizens. The government must make sincere and productive efforts in stopping these strikes.

“We want peace, not death” says the poster held by a tribal elder from North Waziristan Agency at a protest against US drone strikes in Islamabad on February 25, 2012. Photo: Usama Khilji.

It is high time the Pakistani state began to treat all citizens as equal human beings with dignity, the first step towards which is compensation to the citizens for being collateral damage in extra-judicial killings as part of a war they have nothing to do with.

(Note: The writer conducted in-depth interviews of victims of drone attacks from NWA as Lead Investigator at the Foundation for Fundamental Rights.)

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