Are We Ready to Hear from the Drone Victims?

Syed Wali Shah killed in August 2009 by a US strike on the village of Dande Darpa Khel. Photo by Noor Behram, 2009 via Wired

IWM London’s forthcoming video art exhibition, ‘5,000 feet is the best’ by Omer Fast, will present the functioning and psychological suffering of drone operators killing remotely. Is it not right that the British public is also given the chance to view the other perspective – that of the people who live with the terror, night and day, of being murdered or maimed by drone missile?

Noor Behram is a Pakistani photojournalist from the remote tribal region, North Waziristan, who has spent several years capturing images of Pakistani drone victims, particularly, children. The US has been firing drones in the remote regions of North West Pakistan for nearly ten years as part of what White House spokesman, Jay Carney, described “as exceptionally precise, exceptionally surgical and exceptionally targeted” counter-terrorism operations.

The photographs of murdered Pakistani children captured by Noor Behram, like the investigations by the British-based, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, undermine the US claim. In nine years, an estimated 411-884 civilians in Pakistan have been killed and up to a total of 1,472 people injured. The remoteness of the region, its lawlessness and Taliban presence means that verifying the figures is difficult and the figures could possibly be higher.

In June 2011, the US’s counter-terrorism chief, John Brennan, falsely asserted that “in the last year, there hasn’t been a single collateral death.” He claimed that, “if there are terrorists who are within an area where there are women and children or others, you know, we do not take such action that might put those innocent men, women and children in danger.” Investigations by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism discovered 40 civilian deaths that year – the Bureau’s count only including individuals they could verify by name.

Noor Behram has worked with Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer representing families of drone victims, and the British charity, Reprieve, to get his images out to a wider international audience. Behram’s photographs have featured in Wired.com, the Huffington Post US, the Guardian, in Robert Greenwald’s documentary, “UNMANNED: America’s Drone Wars” and been previously exhibited in the UK at the Beaconsfield in an exhibition titled, “Gaming in Waziristan“.

If the British public is to be genuinely informed about the consequences of it’s government’s support for the US drone assassination campaign, they must hear and read the stories of the drone victims. Perhaps, the public will decide that they approve of drone assassinations against the terrorist threat, despite the civilian terror inflicted, despite the radicalising effect and potentially counter-productive nature of the strikes and, their use in indiscriminate “double-tap” follow-up strikes that hit rescuers and funeral-goers.

It might be argued that Behram’s pictures of dead children and destroyed homes are exploitative propaganda. Before publishing a selection of the images, Wired.com, undertook investigations to verify their authenticity to justify the feature but warned: “We don’t know for sure if the destruction and casualties shown in the photos were caused by CIA drones or Pakistani militants. Even Behram, who drives at great personal risk to the scenes of the strikes, has little choice but to rely on the accounts of alleged eyewitnesses to learn what happened.”

Nonetheless, Wired, like the Guardian, MSNBC Rachel Maddow Show and the Huffington Post, concluded in deciding to publish that many of the images were authentic depictions of civilian casualties of US drone attacks. One photograph showing Pakistani children holding fragments of an apparent drone was examined by three US ordnance experts who concluded that the pieces belonged to a Hellfire missile, fired from US drones and helicopters, according to Wired.com

Behram and his supporters have an agenda, Wired warned, however: “Also be aware that (they) came to us with an agenda: discrediting the drone war. ‘I want to show taxpayers in the Western world what their tax money is doing to people in another part of the world: killing civilians, innocent victims, children,’ Behram says.”

This is the agenda of all true war journalists, to produce authentic evidence and reporting of the consequences of war. An exhibition of Behram’s photographs of death and destruction needs to be contextualised, of course. We need to put it alongside the claims made by the US and British government about drones – as well as the findings made by individuals and entites such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the law schools of New York and Stanford universities.

We cannot go on without looking at the full spectrum of evidence on drone attacks if we are to understand what is being done in our name. Noor Behram’s photography would be ideal for a slot in “IWM Contemporary”, the Imperial War Museum’s upcoming art programme.

Residents of Datta Khel, Pakistan, hold up wreckage from a US strike which killed 6 people. Photo by Noor Behram, 2010 via Wired.
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