‘Drones all over my brain’…


A recently released report from the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic of Stanford Law School and the Global Justice Clinic at the New York University School of Law explores what it is like to live under drones and features firsthand testimony from civilians in Pakistan. The report, called “Living Under Drones,” is the product of two investigation missions to Pakistan and features firsthand accounts from those who have been impacted by drones employed regularly by the United States.

Part 1 on what the report details on strikes against rescuers and funerals was already published here at Firedoglake. Now, here’s Part 2, which examines drone surveillance, the effect that the presence of drones in the sky has on the mental health of Pakistanis and how drones breed distrust in Pakistani communities.

The constant presence of drones in the sky brings terror to the lives of the people of Pakistan. It is “harrowing” for children, grown-ups, women, and anyone who hears the sound of a drone and thinks they will be next. And in some respects, surveillance by drones is even worse than drone strikes because Pakistanis do not ever know for certain that a drone in the sky is just overhead to spy.

A humanitarian worker explained:

Do you remember 9/11? Do you remember what it felt like right after? I was in New York on 9/11. I remember people crying in the streets. People were afraid about what might happen next. People didn’t know if there would be another attack. There was tension in the air. This is what it is like. It is a continuous tension, a feeling of continuous uneasiness. We are scared. You wake up with a start to every noise.

One person told researchers, “God knows whether they’ll strike us again or not. But they’re always surveying us, they’re always over us, and you never know when they’re going to strike and attack.” Another interviewee who lost both his legs in a drone attack said that, “[E]veryone is scared all the time. When we’re sitting together to have a meeting, we’re scared there might be a strike. When you can hear the drone circling in the sky, you think it might strike you. We’re always scared. We always have this fear in our head.”

The fear makes anyone and everyone afraid of social gatherings. It makes people reclusive and afraid to leave their homes. As one man, who lost a cousin in a major drone strike on March 17, 2011, said:

We do not come out of our villages because it’s very dangerous to go out anywhere. . . . In past we used to participate in activities like wedding gatherings [and] different kinds of jirgas, different kinds of funerals. . . .We used to go to different houses for condolences, and there were all kinds of activities in the past and we used to participate. But now it’s a risk to go to any place or participate in any activities.”

As Umar Ashraf was being interviewed for the report, he gestured at the small group interviewing him and said, “We do not sit like this, like friends.” This does not happen anymore because people are afraid, “since [they] usually attack people when they sit in gatherings.”

“The Drones Are All Over My Brain”

Anticipatory anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder occurs as a result of the terror Pakistanis experience from drones in the sky. The presence causes “emotional breakdowns.” It leads people to run indoors and hide whenever drones are overhead. It makes people faint, causes nightmares, “hyper startled reactions to loud noises, outbursts of anger or irritability” and sometimes even loss of appetite. It makes people insomniacs too.

“Drones are always on my mind,” a father of three told researchers. “It makes it difficult to sleep. They are like a mosquito. Even when you don’t see them, you know they are there.”

Saeed Yayha was injured by “flying shrapnel” in a major drone strike on March 17, 2011. He must rely on charity to survive. And, for him, drones are like demons or ghosts in the night:

I can’t sleep at night because when the drones are there . . . I hear them making that sound, that noise. The drones are all over my brain, I can’t sleep. When I hear the drones making that drone sound, I just turn on the light and sit there looking at the light.

There are Pakistanis, who do not eat when drones are flying overhead. Ajmal Bashir, “an elderly man who has lost both relatives and friends to strikes, told researchers, “Every person—women, children, elders—they are all frightened and afraid of the drones…[W]hen [drones] are flying, they don’t like to eat anything.” Another man said, “We don’t eat properly on those days [when strikes occur] because we know an innocent Muslim was killed. We are all unhappy and afraid.”

Doctors have treated PTSD. In one case, a female patient from Waziristan had “shaking fits” and “was screaming and crying.” The psychiatrist discovered the woman had observed a drone attack that happened near her home. “She had witnessed a home being destroyed—it was just a nearby home, [her] neighbor’s.”

For children, the fear and stress can be just as profound. Noor Behram, a Waziri journalist who has investigated and photographed the sites of drone attacks, noted, “If you bang a door, they’ll scream and drop like something bad is going to happen.” This sort of psychological trauma in a child could have “long-term ramifications,” one Pakistani mental health professional explained:

The biggest concern I have as a [mental health professional] is that when the children grow up, the kinds of images they will have with them, it is going to have a lot of consequences. You can imagine the impact it has on personality development. People who have experienced such things, they don’t trust people; they have anger, desire for revenge . . . So when you have these young boys and girls growing up with these impressions, it causes permanent scarring and damage.

Drone strikes could very well radicalize these children and inspire them to take up arms against America when they are grown up. They might engage in what the US would consider to be terrorism

Children growing up and engaging in terrorism is a definite recipe for perpetual war.

On top of all this, the communities in North Waziristan do not handle mental illness well. There are only a limited number of “trained mental health professionals” and health infrastructure is poor, which “exacerbates the symptoms and illnesses” Pakistanis experience. Communities also have rather disturbing ways of handling mental illnesses caused by drone strikes.

“Some people have been tied in their houses,” one man said. There are some, a man from Datta Khel—“which has been hit by drone strikes over three dozen times in the last three years alone”—who are “locked in a room.” Others take tranquilizers to “save them from the terror of the drones” or prescription drugs that may barely soothe the pain.

The CIA Has Informants Planting “Chips”

There is a great impact on community trust, according to the report. A number of Waziris happen to believe “paid informants help the CIA identify potential targets.” Additionally compounding the already-dystopian nightmare that is the US drone war, many Waziris believe these informants are planting “chips” or “sims” in vehicles or houses that are to be targeted by CIA drones.

Najeeb Saaqib explained to researchers how he thought these “chips” were working:

I think there are some other intelligence agencies, foreign intelligence agencies, also working there in the shape of our own people. They grow a large beard and take the same positions as our own people, working for those external agencies. They put a chip or something else in places, and then a drone strikes those places. That’s what we think.

In 2009, “chips” were reported by Declan Wash for The Guardian. The report noted the US had launched more than fifty drone attacks in Waziristan in the previous eighteen months and “nine of the top twetny al Qaeda figures” had been killed. The success was attributed to “chips” or electronic devices Pakistanis called “pathrai” (the Pashto word for a metal device), which had “become a source of fear, intrigue and fascination.” Residents and Taliban propaganda were suggesting the CIA was paying “tribesmen to plant the electronic devices near farmhouses sheltering al Qaeda and Taliban commanders.” But, at no point during the investigation missions were researchers able to find evidence of these “chips.”

This belief that “chips” are being planted by “informants” has created much mistrust, “as neighbors suspect neighbors of spying for the US, Pakistani or Taliban intelligence and of using drone strikes to settle feuds.”

One resident of a community impacted by drones asserted, “People have internal enemies and conflicts with each other. [T]o get revenge [on] another party, they put chips on that house.” This signals the house is a target. And, because someone can make your house a target at anytime by planting these “chips,” communities are constantly alert and “suspicious of outsiders” or any strangers, who come into their villages.

One Comment

I know intimately what this is like. It was lower tech than now, but during my years of service as a civilian aid worker moving around in the countryside of Viet Nam (’66-’70), the possibility always existed that some unseen plane would call in artillery on your spot because of “suspicious activity.” Of particular concern were the small light single engine planes that would fly very silently and suddenly appear overhead. To this day I struggle with an impulse to hide whenever helicopters and small planes are overhead and am uncomfortable being in groups out in the open. Mostly, if I hear something, I still just hide out of reflex or are very uncomfortable if I can not. Aggressive war is the greatest of all crimes. It causes an intense fear of sudden death in large segments of the population while spreading wanton death and destruction in some. The US has fought so many aggressive wars during my lifetime, using stealth, deception and massive violence against civilians, that many seem to just be asleep to reality. Such is the nature of Empire once it gets a grip on a society. The sequence of events are as predictable as they are grim.