Pakistani family shares drone strike tale

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What teenager Zubair Ur Rehman remembers most about the day his grandmother was killed is how “particularly blue” the sky was in the Pakistani tribal region of North Waziristan.

The boy’s beloved Mamana Bibi, the midwife in the village of Tappi, was just a few yards away in her garden, showing his younger sister, Nabila, how to tell when the okra is ready to be picked. “I was excited,” he said of the upcoming Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha.

They all saw the drone hovering, Zubair said through an interpreter in his native Pashto, but that’s not such an uncommon sight where they live, and “I didn’t worry; why would I worry? Neither my grandmother nor I were militants.”

On Tuesday morning, Zubair, 9-year-old Nabila and their father, Rafiq Ur Rehman, told a handful of lawmakers that they were deliberately attacked anyway — the first time members of Congress had heard directly from survivors of an alleged U.S. drone strike.

A report last week from Amnesty International said “we cannot find any justification” for the double strike of Hellfire missiles, on Oct. 24 of last year, that killed Mamana Bibi, 67, and injured eight of her young grandchildren, including Zubair, whose leg required two operations, and Nabila, whose hand was hurt. That was just one of 45 U.S. strikes in the area between January 2012 and August that Amnesty examined.

Which makes the attitude of this family — here to “ask the American public to treat us as equals,” as Rafiq Ur Rehman put it — all the more remarkable. And in an interview after the event, organized by Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., and Robert Greenwald, whose documentary on drones comes out this week, the three Pakistanis said they bear Americans no ill will.

“I’m very happy and thankful that I was allowed to come here and speak from the heart,” Ur Rehman said, drawing one foot up across his knee as he spoke but never looking up. “Americans are just like us,” he feels, so he knew they would in turn “listen with their hearts.”

A generous view

That is quite a generous view from someone whose family was nearly destroyed in a place where children no longer dare to play outside. “I’m not going to lie,” he said, still looking down. “I did feel anger, because it was unjust. But when I thought about it, I thought we have good and bad people in Pakistan as well, and this isn’t the American people; it’s their government. It’s politics.” He blames his own government, too, for its private approval of such strikes.

No one in the family had ever traveled anywhere before, and Ur Rehman, a schoolteacher who has no computer or reliable telephone service, says all he knows about terrorists is what he has heard on the radio. He always had a positive view of President Obama, he said, especially after he found out that he was responsible for sending aid after Pakistan’s floods in 2010. “Now I don’t know what to make of him.”

It’s Islam, he said, that keeps him from entertaining thoughts of revenge. “We believe in God, and we’re not the ones who are supposed to bring justice; you cannot cure harm through harm.”

And although he’s not here on vacation, his first impressions of the United States are positive: “One thing I’ve noticed is that everyone is nice to each other.” Told that he shouldn’t let that fool him, he smiles for the first time, and goes on: “And there are paved streets, and things are relatively clean, and I’ve noticed that men and women respect each other as well.”

Nabila, who had been playing with the interpreter’s iPhone, volunteers that she likes “everything” about the United States — and Zubair, who had been hanging on his father’s every word, his arms crossed over his chest in a mirror image of his dad, says he will go home and tell his friends how strange and beautiful D.C. is: “A place where there’s no drone strikes would of course be a lovely place to live. I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I like gray skies; the drones cannot fly when the skies are gray.”