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The Constant Presence of U.S. Drones in the Sky Traumatize and Ruin Lives on the Ground

Beyond the harrowing tragedy of death, living under drones in Pakistan leaves deep psychological wounds.

Nabila draws a picture of what a drone looks like in Pakistan.
Photo Credit: H.H. Bhojani


Nabila’s drawings are like any other nine-year-old’s. A house rests besides a winding path, a winding path on which wander two stick figures. Tall trees, rising against the back drop of majestic hills. Clouds sprinkled over a clear sky.

Nabila’s drawings are like any other nine-year-old’s. With one disturbing exception.

Hovering over the house, amidst the clouds, above the people, are two drone aircraft.

Perhaps this is the scene she saw moments before the drone strike, a mental photograph captured with crayons.

Nabila lives in the village of Tapi, in the northwest of Pakistan, an area perpetually under drones. With the strokes of her crayons, she lets her reality spill out onto paper. (Image credit for drawing: Reprieve).

Image credit: Reprieve






Drones started appearing in Nabila’s drawings after she saw her Dadi (grandmother) blown to pieces by a hellfire missile in 2012, a strike that left her, her 12-year-old brother Zubair and 7 other children injured.

Beyond the harrowing tragedy of death and injury, living under drones leaves deep psychological wounds.

An Arbitrary Threat

A night spent in agony.

“I spent my Eid in the hospital,” Zubair tells me about the day he was injured in the drone strike, running his finger down the faded shrapnel scar above his knee. The physical scar may have faded but the mental scars are etched much deeper.

Nabila lifts up her sleeve to show me where she got hurt. She then grabs my camera and bounces off the walls, snapping photos. I’m in a New York hotel room with Nabila, Zubair and their father Rafiq. Pizza boxes litter the room; the TV drones on, indistinct and irrelevant. The day before, a crisp October 29th, 2013, they had testified at a Congressional hearing, recounting the events of last year. The family is exhausted from the countless, constant interviews with the media; from the cab rides zigzagging through New York City (“New York is like Peshawar, while DC is like Islamabad,” Zubair remarks while we’re on our way to yet another interview); from reciting the same story over and over again. The family is featured in filmmaker Robert Greenwald's documentary  Unmanned: America's Drone Wars. Greenwald and the fantastic teams at Brave New Foundation and Reprieve toiled tirelessly for months to bring them in front of American lawmakers. 

October 24th, 2012, the day Nabila’s Dadi Mamina Bibi was killed, was much like the day in her drawings. A blue canopy stretching out as far as the eye could see. Drones lingering overhead. Nabila and her Zubair working with Dadi in the field next to their home. The drones hovered lower than usual that day, casting a particularly loud thrum over the village. Zubair had grown much too used to their incessant buzzing. He ignored them; no reason to be worried. After all, Zubair isn’t a terrorist. He was more preoccupied with the Muslim holiday of Eid which was the next day--a "magical time filled with joy."

Although English was his favorite class, he was eager to get out of school to get home. After wolfing down his roti(bread), he appeared before God for the afternoon prayer. Dadi had promised him that celebrations would start as soon as he finished his chores.

As Zubair cut grass, he saw two beams of light hit Dadi. A scream pierced through the shroud of smoke that had descended onto the field, blotting out the sun. His thigh burned.

Although, it happened over a year ago, Zubair and Nabila cannot assume that the threat is over since they have not been told why their home was targeted in the first place. In his congressional testimony their father Rafiq asked, "Congressman Grayson, as a teacher, my job is to educate. But how do I teach something like this? How do I explain what I myself do not understand? How can I in good faith reassure the children that the drone will not come back and kill them, too, if I do not understand why it killed my mother?"

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