Stolen Childhood in Afghanistan: 15 Years On

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10/11 year-old, Mah Bibi (Nick Danziger, 2001)

As the 15th year anniversary passes of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, officially launched on 7th October 2001, it is worth recalling the circumstances in which it took place. As food aid agencies warned at the time, the US and its partners were attacking a starving, desperate population, in the midst of terrible droughts and ruled by a fanatical Islamist regime. The story of young Afghan girl, Mah Bibi, captured by photographer, Nick Danziger, and videographer, Laura Ashton, and presented early in 2016 at IWM London, provides just one personal insight into many, many thousands.

The Afghanistan invasion took place following the September 11th 2001 attacks in the US that killed nearly 3,000 and injured many thousands more. The majority of the hi-jackers were Saudi nationals and the responsibility was placed on Osama bin Laden, another Saudi national, and his extremist group, al Qaeda.

The US government demanded that the Taliban regime of Afghanistan hand over bin Laden, where he was thought to operate from. The Taliban regime’s response was to demand evidence from the US establishing bin Laden’s connection to the attack. They suggested that should evidence be provided, they would consider turning bin Laden over to a tribunal organised by states in the Middle East.

President George Bush’s response was that there would be “no negotiations.” Bin Laden was thus given a “free pass” to escape into Pakistan as the US began a bombing campaign with no strategy for capturing their supposed target.  Nearly 10 years later, an unarmed bin Laden was captured and assassinated in Pakistan by a team of US Navy SEALs.

It has been suggested that the US did not have sufficient evidence to prove bin Laden’s connection to the attack. In June 2002, the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, could say only that “investigators believe the idea of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon came from al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan, the actual plotting was done in Germany, and the financing came through the United Arab Emirates from sources in Afghanistan.”

By failing to investigate the Taliban offer, the US and its partners failed to explore, let alone, exhaust, non-violent means to apprehend bin Laden and his accomplices before they launched an attack on Afghanistan. The rush to war in that country and, two years later, in Iraq, was followed by lengthy and bloody occupations that have caused to strengthen the hand of extremist groups like Al Qaeda and now, the even more extremist, so-called Islamic State or ISIS.

Moreover, the US-led rush to attack Afghanistan in 2001 targeted a population already suffering from immense deprivation. A UN estimate suggested that millions of the population relied on food aid for survival. A few days after the 9/11 attacks, the US demanded that neighbouring Pakistan end its food truck envoys into Afghanistan. International aid workers began to evacuate in anticipation of the bombing. “The country was on a lifeline,” one evacuated aid worker reported, “and we just cut the line.” “It’s as if a mass grave has been dug behind millions of people,” an evacuated emergency officer for Christian Aid informed the media: “We can drag them back from it or push them in. We could be looking at millions of deaths.”

Just before bombing commenced at the start of October 2001, the UN warned that military action would likely cause a “humanitarian catastrophe”. Over 7 million Afghanis faced starvation if an attack was not called off, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization warned.

A month into the US-led attack, by the end of October, over a million Afghanis were estimated to have had fled their homes into the countryside where they were exposed to the elements and without meaningful food supplies. Pleas by aid agencies for the US to call off the attacks fell on deaf ears and rejected by Tony Blair.

Mah Bibi

It is in this context that, in 2001, photographer, Nick Danziger, and videographer, Laura Ashton, captured the images and testimony of a 10/11 year old Afghani girl, Mah Bibi and her two brothers that she cared for. Mah Bibi was living in the Ghor Province of western Afghanistan. In 2001, the region was experiencing the effects of a long-term and devastating drought with some people resorting to eating animal fodder to survive.

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Mah Bibi (Nick Danziger, 2001)

“(A) young girl,” Danziger recalled, “simply pushed her way through a massive crowd of men and started telling me her story; it seemed incredible. She grabbed my hand, pushed her way back through the crowd and marched me past all the men to where she was living – a kind of tent cobbled together with disused rags.”

Mah Bibi was trying to claim food as head of the family but was refused as a minor. In her testimony, she explained that she was an orphan, her mother having died in childbirth. Her father had at four years previously gone for food and disappeared. Mah Bibi was caring for her two younger brothers and begging and eating grass to survive.

“We had two cows, ten sheep and land. But since my father went missing we were hungry. So, I sold all of them. For the past four months, I have been begging. This morning, I had no food for breakfast and I ate grass. I don’t have other clothes. These shoes I wear, I have begged for… It is hot during the day and when we are here sitting in the sun, it is unbearable. But at night, we shake from the cold.” Mah Bibi told Danziger and Ashton in a testimony in 2001.

Working with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Nick Danziger went in search of 11 women caught up in conflicts that he had photographed 5 years before to see how their lives had changed and to take new portraits. He found 10 alive – but he found no trace of Mah Bibi. He was told by locals in Ghor Province that she was thought to have got married but died, aged 16.

Photographs and video footage that Nick Danziger and Laura Ashton took of Mah Bibi in 2001 were put on display at the Imperial War Museum in early 2016, in conjunction with the ICRC, in an exhibition called, “11 Women Facing War,” part of the IWM Contemporary series of cutting-edge war art.

A record number of civilians were killed and wounded in Afghanistan in 2015, according to the UN. The over 11,000 killed and wounded was a 4% increase on the previous high, in 2014. One in four of the casualties were children and one in ten was female. Deprivation haunts the population; doctors said in 2014 that over half of Afghani boys and girls were suffering irreparable damage to their brains and bodies due to malnutrition during the first two years of life.

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Mah Bibi and Brothers (Nick Danziger, 2001)

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Mah Bibi (Nick Danzger, 2001)

More:

Video testimony of Mah Bibi for “Eleven Women Facing War” (dubbed in English, video by Laura Ashton, 2001) presented by Canadian War Museum Youtube channel)

– Interview with Nick Danziger about 2016 Imperial War Museum exhibition, 11 Women Facing War – with Pressreader, 2016.

Interview with Nick Danziger about Imperial War Museum exhibition, with Amateur Photographer, 2016

Coming Soon: Military Drones and Pakistani Folk Art by Mahwish Chishty

Recent revelations have put Britain further to the centre of the US-lead drone assassination programme that targets multiple countries, including those where they are not officially at war. This makes timely IWM London’s showing of an art exhibition combining drones and Pakistani traditional art by Mahwish Chishty running from 19 October 2016 – 19 March 2017.

IWM is partially funded by the government, receives large donations from weapons manufacturers BAE Systems and Boeing and has worked closely on exhibitions with the Ministry of Defence. Nearly all of the Museums’ trustees come from the upper echelons of the corporate, security and military sectors. Therefore, the Museum’s coverage of drone surveillance and assassination, particularly, British involvement, will be a test of its editorial integrity and independence.

It has recently been reported, thanks to leaked documents from Edward Snowden, that the US National Security Agency (NSA) conduct intelligence gathering for lethal drone strikes from British soil. Menwith Hill, near Harrogate, North Yorkshire, has been an NSA base since the Cold War and its modern activities have been secret. The British government has refused to answer questions on what goes on but has insisted that operations have their “full knowledge and consent” according to The Intercept’s exclusive report.

From the leaked documents, we now know that Menwith Hill is used by the US to capture foreign satellite communications and to, also, capture wireless communications with the help of satellites orbiting over foreign countries. This information has been used in capture or kill operations, not just in Afghanistan and Iraq but, also, in Yemen and, likely, in Pakistan and Somalia.

Jemima Stratford QC, a British human rights lawyer, advised Parliament in 2014 that British collusion in drone strikes outside of conventional warzones could give rise to charges of murder. “If the U.K. government knows that it is transferring data that may be used for drone strikes against non-combatants … that transfer is probably unlawful. An individual involved in passing that information is likely to be an accessory to murder.”

It is known that Britain has conducted its own lethal drone strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq, first from a US base and, then, from Britain. Recently, a British drone killed three alleged members of ISIS in Syria, in what the UK government justified as self-defence against the threat of ISIS.

Britain has also been involved in the US’ drone assassination programme – British drone operators have been “embedded” with the US and assisted in conducting their strikes.  Ben Emmerson QC, who lead a UN drones investigation, told Parliament that it was “inevitable” that Britain was giving the US intelligence for drone strikes, given the close intelligence sharing relationship between them.

The new Snowden leaks reveal that British participation in the US drone assassination is even stronger, with British soil being used to help collect intelligence for attacks. The ties could go further, given that around 600 staff from UK agencies, including GCHQ, work at the site – perhaps, verifying Ben Emmerson’s QC’s strong suspicion that the UK is working with the US on gathering intelligence for US drone strikes.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimate that between 424-966 civilians have died in Pakistan from US drone strikes since 2004. 573-833 Yemeni civilians are thought to have been killed since attacks started in that country in 2002.

Lies and secrecy have been the hallmark of the drone programme, creating a mythology that Mahwish Chishty’s paintings of drones tap into. In 2011, the US’ counter-terrorism chief, John Brennan, falsely claimed that in the previous year there had been no “collateral” deaths from US drone strikes. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found there to be 40 civilian deaths – and these were only the individuals that they could verify by name.

It is still not known why the US targeted and killed in Yemen 16 year-old US citizen,  Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, in 2011. He died, along with his 17 year old cousin and several other people in the vicinity of the open-café where they ate. Abdulrahman’s father, Anwar al-Awlaki was a radical preacher accused of being an al-Qaeda operative who the US killed by drone strike two weeks before killing his son. However, Abdulrahman had no connection to terrorism. Senior Obama re-election advisor, Robert Gibbs, suggested that the 16 year old should have had “a more responsible father”.

The US’ figures for civilian deaths from drones has been consistently lower than those from independent sources. A significant reason for this is that the US have the policy of treating any military aged male in a strike zone as a ‘terrorist,’ unless posthumous evidence reveals otherwise. Given that it is difficult for investigators and journalists to reach remote tribal regions in Pakistan or Afghanistan where a strike might occur, the US’ policy ensures that civilian deaths will be routinely hidden.

The US is known to have conducted “double tap” drone strikes, whereby a strike is followed up by another. As a result, first responders, passers-by, friends and family coming to the aid of victims, have been struck and killed.

There have been incidents of drone strikes targeting social gatherings, such as weddings and funerals, where innocent civilians are sure to injured or killed. The threat of such indiscriminate strikes have inhibited targeted populations from participating in normal cultural and community activities that involve gatherings. People have also become reluctant to go to the aid of victims in fear of a follow-up strike.

The very presence of drones in the sky is a constant and traumatising presence for communities in the north-west tribal areas of Pakistan. A joint investigation by the law schools of Stanford University and New York University, found mental health illnesses in targeted populations, including insomnia, anticipatory anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder linked to the presence of drones in the sky.

One interviewee, Haroon Quddoos, a Pakistani taxi driver who was injured in a strike, told the investigators: “We are always thinking that it is either going to attack our homes or whatever we do. It’s going to strike us; it’s going to attack us . . . . No matter what we are doing, that fear is always inculcated in us. Because whether we are driving a car, or we are working on a farm, or we are sitting home playing . . . cards–no matter what we are doing we are always thinking the drone will strike us. So we are scared to do anything, no matter what.”

Inevitably, drone strikes are turning populations against the US, as Yemeni activist Farea Al-Muslimi described of his village which was struck by a drone strike: “Now, however, when they think of America, they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads, ready to fire missiles at any time. What the violent militants had previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant.”

IWM’s Drone Test

IWM London’s first exhibition on military drones ran in the summer of 2014. “5,000 Feet is Best” by Omer Fast was a video installation focused on the psychological effects of working as a drone operator. The title referred to the ideal height for a drone.

As I outlined in my review of that exhibition, whilst it is important that IWM began to address this relatively new weapon and the judicial process-free assassination programme, the real victims are not the operators.

Glenn Greenwald, writing for Salon argued,  “I don’t doubt that some drone attackers experience some psychological stress from knowing that they are eradicating human beings with their joysticks and red buttons (though if it’s only “bugs” who are being splattered, why would the stress be particularly burdensome?). But that stress is nothing compared to the terror routinely imposed on the populations in numerous Muslim countries who are being targeted with these attacks.”

To make an informed decision on the drone programme and British involvement, the public must know the impact on victim populations. The raw, painful but important photography of Noor Behram, who visits the aftermath of strikes in Pakistan and takes pictures of the effects, including the injured and the dead, provides us real evidence of what the British government is participating in.

Mahwish Chishty’s upcoming art exhibition at IWM London is a positive step, for it gives a platform for a Pakistani artist with family and friends in that targeted country to express herself on the matter. Her art in this exhibit draws from traditional Afghan/Pakistani “truck art” – intricate artwork that truck drivers cover their vehicles with – is multi-faceted and suggestive, inviting us to reconsider what we think we know about the drone assassination programme and its impact on countries like Pakistan.

Update: Al Jazeera reports on Karim Khan’s legal case against the CIA for the drone killings of his son and brother in Pakistan.

http://players.brightcove.net/665003303001/4k5gFJHRe_default/index.html?videoId=5141147944001&autoplay