Memorializing the Forgotten Victims of Drone Strikes and Holding Their Killers Accountable
In July 2012, a US drone strike killed 21-year-old Sadiq Rahim Jan in the Eastern Afghanistan province of Paktia. Afghan media reported that the strike had killed a “Taliban commander.” But Jan had no connection to extremist groups. He was an average young man.
Jan was the first person I memorialized when I launched Drone Memorial, an online tribute to drone strikes victims, last year. Had his relatives in Germany not noticed my work, Jan might have been forgotten or forever remembered by the media as a “militant.” And even if it had been reported that Jan was a civilian, his story would have been filed away as just another casualty of war.
Behind the statistics about drone strike casualties, there are names. The purpose of the Drone Memorial is to make those statistics less abstract. Mass murder has become part of everyday life in the Afghan-Pakistani border region of Waziristan, Yemen, Somalia and in Afghanistan, which is the "most drone bombed country on earth" according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ). And it’s not just the victims of US bombs that need to be remembered. During Israel’s assault on Gaza this summer, hundreds of people were killed by Israeli drone strikes.
No one in the West knows these people’s stories. No one talks about Afghan kids who, while playing in the garden, watched their grandmother get shredded to pieces. Nobody wants to hear about the wedding convoy in Yemen that was obliterated by a drone strike because intelligence in Langley mistook it for an Al Qaeda gathering.
There’s a lot of media coverage dedicated to victims of radical religious groups like ISIS or Boko Haram. But nobody talks about the victims of America’s illegal drone war. I’ve always been interested in this topic and during my research I noticed that a simple memorial for drone strike victims did not exist. Those who were unjustly killed by US drone strikes, which are considered by some to be their own kind of terrorism -- not to mention a violation of human rights and international law -- deserve to be honored. That's why I began this project.
Collecting the names was not easy. There are very few journalists on the ground in Yemen and Waziristan. And the Afghan media often describes victims like Jan as “militants” despite not having any evidence to support their claims. Most of these Afghan news sources were created after the US occupation of Afghanistan and have connections to NATO or the US government. Because of this, NATO war crimes often go unnoticed. It’s only due to the work of a few researchers and independent journalists that these war crimes have come to light.
How do you even define a militant? The US government seems to consider all military-age males in a strike zone to be “enemies” or “armed combatants.” Or maybe you just need to have long hair and a beard? In a recent article for The Intercept, journalist Glenn Greenwald described the work of a photojournalist who discovered that a victim’s long hair and beard is often enough evidence to classify him as a militant. Most Afghans, including myself, look exactly like that. So according to the White House we all are terrorists, enemies or militants.
When I was in Afghanistan last March to cover the country’s presidential elections, I found out that a relative of mine, 35-year-old Zahir Aslamyar, had been killed in Waziristan by a drone strike. Aslamyar was from Kabul. But he had traveled to visit some friends in an area where people are all too familiar with the drones they call "angels of death. One of these "angels" blew him and his friends to pieces while they drank tea and reminisced about old times. Aslamyar left behind two children, a wife and his mother.
I did not expect to add a member of my own family to Drone Memorial. It was overcome with feelings of anger and despair. I felt helpless. The whole drone war, in which you kill a person by pressing a button or by signing an execution order, is deeply inhuman. And it is an insult that this war's chief architect received a Nobel Peace Prize. While discussing drone policy with his aides, President Barack Obama reportedly remarked that he’s “really good at killing people.” Well, he killed Jan, Aslamyar and many other fathers, sons, brothers and mothers. Their deaths would not be possible without his signature. It’s hard to imagine that every Tuesday, when the so-called secret kill list gets updated, Obama signs execution orders and then dines with his family or plays with his daughters.
But Obama and the United States are not solely responsible for drone policy. My home country of Germany relays data between pilots and the drones they control from a US airbase. Berlin also provides the United States with important German technical components. Without these components, drone construction and by extension, the wanton killings of civilians, would not be impossible. Finally, the German intelligence service known as BND provides location data to the NSA, CIA, and other U.S. intelligence agencies, making German Chancellor Angela Merkel just as responsible as Obama for the death of my relative and others.
During the last several weeks, drone attacks in Afghanistan and Waziristan increased heavily. It is sad to know that Drone Memorial will have to add to its already long list of vicitms. However, it is necessary to continue this work, not just to remember the dead, but also to expose their murderers.