Long time peace activist Kathy Kelly is co-coordinator of the Chicago-based Voices for Creative Nonviolence. Kelly just returned from her twelfth trip to Afghanistan, and is now trekking 195 miles across Iowa, with other members of her group and other peace groups, to call attention to the extreme violence and suffering she says is, in large part, a direct result of US military occupation there. And a real killer at the core of the policy, asserts Kelly, is the expanding and “deadly” US drone program there.
I caught up with Kelly, via telephone, last Thursday, as she continued to walk the 18 miles she was planning to cover by that day’s end. The peace activist described in detail some of the things she saw and heard on her most recent trip to poverty-stricken and war-torn Afghanistan. She emphasized, time and again, that the situation on the ground there for everyday people is both tragic and deadly. And the fear of being droned to death by the US military or murdered by the Taliban as collaborators has now driven millions of people out of the exquisitely beautiful Afghan countryside into the capital, Kabul, which has little to offer in the way of work, housing or food for the 5 million people who now try desperately in any way they can to make ends meet.
Kelly recounted one horrific story after another, regarding the impact of US Drone policy. “There were two young men who were studying to be doctors,” said Kelly on June 20th. “One doctor was a pediatrics specialist, and the other was in his third year of medical school. They were in a car driving along the road that happened to be going near an airport, and there had been a suicide bomb attack at the airport,” said Kelly, “so immediately the skies were covered with surveillance [drones], and out of fear for their lives these two guys and their driver, Hekmatullah, dove out of the car, because they thought they’d be safer if they weren’t in a vehicle, just huddled along the roadside, but to no avail. A missile hit them directly, and the driver was instantly killed. The young student doctors survived the initial attack,” said Kelly “and they could be alive and with us today,” but instead of seeking immediate medical care for the budding doctors, the US military, upon arrival, hand cuffed them and then sought orders about next steps.
“After the US military arrived,” said Kelly, “they handcuffed them, as they were bleeding profusely, and on the roadside. One of the young men, Siraj, pleaded for his life. ‘Please, please, I am doctor,” he said, “let me live, please save my life.’ And they didn’t try to save his life. He died on the roadside; he bled to death. They took the other one to an airport and there seemed that there was a possibility that he might be transported or medically evacuated. But they must have taken some time before the orders could be given, and he bled to death in the airport…They’re bleeding profusely on the roadside; they’re begging for help; they are handcuffed – and they are allowed to die.”
Kelly said, “another man told us about how there was a day when children, little children, had gone out to collect fuel on a mountain side, and I’ve heard this story repeatedly told. They were mistaken in the early morning hours for being possible fighters and all of them were killed. There were nine children, in all…”
Kelly says there is no end to the tragic stories of deadly violence that result from US military policy. “Another man talked about how two farmers had gone out with the daughter of one of the farmers, to work in their fields. And a tank fired missiles and killed them,” Kelly continued. “We also talked to some people who’ve been attacked by night raids,” she said, “and one man talked about how suddenly his house was targeted for a raid, and US forces came into his home, killed his two nieces right before his eyes. They were preparing themselves to go to bed; they had long beautiful hair. ‘How could anybody think that they were insurgents?’ he asked me. So he closed up his house, and his family left and came to Kabul.”
Millions Displaced From the Countryside Living in Desperation
Kelly said the situation in Kabul is absolutely desperate. Thousands of Afghans are fleeing the countryside every week, fleeing the terror of the drones and ongoing ground operations by the US military, as well as from the revenge killings by the Taliban. The statistics for people fleeing the countryside are “staggering,” said Kelly, “and once you go outside of Kabul, you realize how vulnerable people feel, living in provinces where even if they are hit once by, let’s say, the United States or NATO airborne vehicles, then they are also more vulnerable to a possible Taliban attack. Because the Taliban might say, ‘Well, somebody in this community must have been working with, or collaborating with, the US NATO forces.’ And so sometimes whole communities just pick up and go.”
“The war creates 400 new refugees, every single day. And where are people going to go? The cities are already bursting and overcrowded, with nothing close to the infrastructure that’s needed for rising populations. And there aren’t jobs for people, but they panic and they flee. And I don’t blame them.”
“And, meanwhile,” said Kelly, “the levels of unemployment, the levels of hunger, the levels of disease, after all these years of warfare, have made life so miserable for people within Afghanistan. Who understands that pattern of life? I feel very close to a particular family there. And the mom in that family spent some time with me and she said she never has electricity, maybe between one and three in the morning they might get electricity. Three to six percent of the country has access to the internet. The education system has become so very corrupt. It’s really hard for a young person to land a position in a university, unless they’ve got some pretty good connections. It is said that the seats are filled even before the entrance exam is even taken.”
And Kelly emphasized it is nearly impossible for people to find work or food in the cities overcrowed with internal exiles fleeing the fighting and drone war in the countryside. “Because of the high rates of unemployment, people aren’t able to bring adequate food into their families,” lamented the peace activist. “It’s not unusual for people to subsist on bread, and potatoes, and tea. The anemia and ill health amongst young women is such that one out of every eleven women dies in childbirth. There are health clinics that have really tried, very, very hard to improve health care delivery, but it remains the most difficult country in the world in which a person can be a woman.”
Kelly noted that the living conditions that thousands of Afghans now endure are taking its toll in many terrible ways. “They’re beset with trauma and nightmares,” said Kelly. “Also, I’ve had a chance to listen to young people who formerly were trained as Afghan Special Forces operatives, and they are reeling from the memories of the stories that they are forced to live with. Likewise, veterans of US wars suffer Post Traumatic Stress, to the extent that we learn of 22 people committing suicide every single day. US military commanders have said that one of the worst causes of harm to US military people is self-inflicted injury.”
Kelly said the violence recently struck very close to home for her. “I breathed this huge sigh of relief last week, when we got word that in spite of the fact that every window in the home that I stay in when I’m there with Afghan Peace Volunteers was broken because of an explosion just a block away… at least no one had been hurt. Three people closer to this attack were killed and 30 were injured. These kinds of incursions are happening in Kabul, and all throughout Afghanistan all the time,” said Kelly, referring to a bombing that could have left her maimed or dead if she was still in the country.
Walking Across Iowa
As Kathy Kelly walks across Iowa with members of Veterans for Peace, and other antiwar groups, she carries a sign that says “Drones create enemies, and decrease security.” “What kind of a future are people looking toward, in terms of ever getting a break from war, after war, after war?” she laments. “I firmly believe that the most civilized thing to do would be to end the drone war immediately, and campaign for reparations to be paid. And to entrust that funding to UN groups that have distinguished themselves as having less of a corrupt track record than others.”
Kelly appears to be well aware that while the 195 mile walk across Iowa will be a relatively flat hike, it is going to be an uphill battle to end the drone assassination policy she so thoroughly detests. She says her resolve to resist only increases with the level of suffering she witnesses in every visit to Afghanistan. She remains undaunted in her determination to resist the US government’s drone program.
“Certainly the peace movement has been doing its best to call attention to the places where the drone warfare is being conducted, and that’s in the Hancock Air Field outside of Syracuse, where people have been taking the issue into the courts repeatedly, and going to jail for ten day and fifteen day stretches. Now, at Creech Air Force Base, and certainly at Whiteman Air Force Base, and I know now the Ripley Field, outside Minneapolis as well as Volk Field in Wisconsin. These are all places where people are letting it be known that they don’t want to be pulled into drone warfare, that they understand that the proliferation of the weaponry and the creation of enmity and antagonism don’t bring us security. (see below on Brian Terrell)”
Kelly said that the tragic bottom line is that the military is engaged, first and foremost, in a program of pacification to pave the way for US corporate hegemony over vital and sometimes rare natural resources in Afghanistan. She asserts that “the US wants be able to control the pricing and the flow, of resources like natural gas, fossil fuels, lithium and other rare earth minerals that are likely to be mined in the future.”
“Meanwhile, in the present,” Kelly concluded, “in terms of job creation, in spite of the fact that the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan’s report on Afghanistan says that the amount of money spent on development has approached $100 billion, you can’t see the effects of that kind of development aid within the country either within or beyond Kabul.”
Resisting Drone Murders
An Interview with Brian Terrell, co-founder of a Catholic Worker farm in Maloy, Iowa.
By Dennis J Bernstein
Would a president of the United States condone or order mass murder and then lie about it? There are many examples of this in modern history, and oftentimes the lies are covered up by fabricating or exaggerating threats to US national security.
Clearly, President Obama is no different! His big lie, and it may very well be his Achilles’ heel, is his massive drone program that continues to murder and maim hundreds of innocent civilians.
And usually, where there is presidential lying going on, there are always a few brave and righteous souls who simply cannot remain silent and tolerate the deadly results of those presidential lies.
Among them is Brian Terrell, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence and co-founder of a Catholic Worker farm in Maloy, Iowa. Last September, Terrell was convicted in federal court of misdemeanor trespassing at central Missouri’s Whiteman Air Force Base to protest the use of unmanned military drones. Terrell was sentenced to six months in federal prison in South Dakota, and was released in May.
I spoke to Terrell at his Iowa residence on June 20th. A long-time peace activist and committed war resister, he appears to be undeterred by his arrest and jail-time and says he will likely be taking similar actions again in the future. As we spoke, he was about to rejoin a 195 mile walk for peace across Iowa with the hope of both raising awareness along the way and sending a message to Washington that murder by drone war must stop
Dennis Bernstein: Exactly what were you convicted of? Were you guilty as charged?
Brian Terrell: Well, I have to say that I think that from the evidence that was presented at our trial by the government, that the federal charge of criminal trespass was trumped. And that I was put in jail because of our opposition to the government’s drone program.
The officers who…from the military police who testified against us, testified that we were peaceable and that we went…entered the base through a gate, through which hundreds, if not thousands of civilians go every day, if they are there on official business. And official business means lots of things, but apparently it doesn’t mean bringing a grievance to our government. So we tried to bring a petition of complaint to the base commander at Whiteman Air Force Base, near Kansas City. One of the…a growing number of places from which drones are operated by remote control, in places all over the world.
Dennis Bernstein: So what did you do when you were in jail?
Brian Terrell: I was in a federal minimum security camp, mostly non-violent federal offenders. By far the largest numbers were, I think, victims of the War on Drugs. People spending…doing an awful lot of time. My six months was very, very minimal compared to what my friends there were putting up with. And it was very, very crowded.
Dennis Bernstein: What did you learn?
Brian Terrell: I learned a lot about what’s happening in this country as far as the criminal justice system, and about the War on Drugs. And I spent a lot of time talking to people, a lot of time walking in little circles, which makes this walk across Iowa that I’ve been participating in particularly therapeutic for me too.
Dennis Bernstein: Did you tell them why you were in? Did people understand what you were doing?
Brian Terrell: Yeah, actually it was very nice that the local newspaper, The Yankton Press and Dakotan interviewed me the day before I was ordered to surrender myself to the prison. And that day the newspaper, the day I arrived, the local newspaper had my photograph and the headline ‘Terrell Says Drone Strikes Must Stop.’ And so that was widely read in the prison by both the guards and the convicts. And so I had a real good introduction, the article was very well done, and immediately everyone knew what I was there for, and had…just, I felt a tremendous amount of support from my fellow prisoners.
Dennis Bernstein: If you knew that you were going to have to serve six months, would you do this again? Or, would you have done it then?
Brian Terrell: I would. And I’d do it again, and probably will do it again, after a while, and…
Dennis Bernstein: Why?
Brian Terrell: Well, I think this, this…I’ve done this before. And this particular time I think the timing, what’s going on in the world, and going on in this country is…that…the alarm has been sounded about these drones, and there’s so much more understanding, and the level of discourse has risen.
Brian Terrell: Somebody asked me that question from the media, before I went in. And I just asked back, well if, saying, and this person was saying “Aren’t you wasting your time. And couldn’t you do more to end the drones by being out and free and talking to people?” And I just said to her “Would you be talking to me now, if I just told you I was a citizen and I was concerned about drones?” And she said “No.” So…
The level of discussion has been…the day before I was released I was watching television and saw the President’s speech. I was released on the 24th of May. And I was seeing his address on the 23rd. And, what was most encouraging was that, just that he was talking at all…because it was not on the President’s agenda to speak about drones, at the end of May. That…number of administration really doesn’t want to, and in fact really has not actually admitted to the existence of this program, even now, officially.
The fact that he was talking about it at all was due to the fact that there are people like me, and a growing number of people in this country, and in other places, in the UK and Pakistan and Yemen, there’s, there’s great movements demanding that this issue be addressed. And, otherwise it wouldn’t be happening at all.
Apparently, it is definitely…the program is moving forward, a paper in your home state the Iowa Press Citizen is reporting their plans to pilot lethal drone strikes from Des Moines don’t show signs of faltering. But peace activists trekking through eastern Iowa this month are hopeful they can send a message. What is the message?
I think that the message that we’ve been getting across, I think reframing the discussion from where a year ago John Brennan was saying that there were zero, none, no collateral deaths with this drone technology. Yeah, that we know who we were killing;, we have pinpoint accuracy; our soldiers are not in harm’s way; it’s economical; the people of Pakistan love it and are glad we’re there taking care of their terrorists. And we’ve chipped away at those lies. And the narrative now is people are talking about the, really, the destructive power of these drones on those people who are called upon to fly them, and watching in high definition video, peoples’ lives bleeding away. And the, the…how this is making things more dangerous around the world. How we are creating enemies faster than we can kill them.
And the absolutely astonishing legal complications that, that assassinations by long distance in countries where we’re not in any kind of…not to mention, not a declared war but no kind of overt hostility being declared in any kind of way.
And the surveillance that a…of drones being…just the other day the..Mr. Mueller of…head of the FBI said, admitted that drones are being used in the United States to spy on Americans.
Well, we know that police departments own them. Now, I’ve seen drones, I’m not sure what they’re doing. But I know the difference between a plane and a drone and they’re definitely flying down the coast of California. They’re up there in the sky, and as I said police stations, local municipalities are almost falling over themselves to get their own drone.
I’m sorta curious to know your response to the President’s nuanced justification for using them, that they are saving lives, and you’ve got to give up a little, to get a little.
Well, I think it’s interesting how he practically, you know, inverted a famous saying of Benjamin Franklin that “Anyone who would sacrifice liberty for the sake of security will get neither.” You know, President Obama disagrees, and says, you know, we can’t have security without sacrificing some liberty.
I also found it astonishing, you know; it is very sad to me that he’s saying something that we wish were true that, he said that everyone in his administration, making these decisions, is haunted by the civilians, the innocent people who’ve died. And I wish that that were true; I wish that they were haunted – and I have to take it maybe as my personal responsibility to haunt these people with the spectres of the death of their victims, because until the President said that last month, his administration was doing everything it could to at first deny, and then minimize these deaths. You know, in actuality this administration is in denial over the damage that it’s doing.
Dennis Bernstein: We just heard from Kathy Kelly about some of the most horrific situations in Afghanistan, there were a couple of young budding doctors who were killed, farmers killed, many people dying every day, and many people committing suicide in Afghanistan, huge numbers because of the suffering. What story or stories come to mind in terms of that suffering for you, maybe even as you sat in jail and thought about all this?
Brian Terrell: Well, one thing that I, that’s really affected me, that I kind of mull over and I’ve only been to Afghanistan once. And that was in, for three weeks in December of 2011, and it was…to see Kabul, which has the remains of a beautiful city that it once was, that was only about a little more than [a] million people before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and actually at that part is like a couple of hundred thousand and then by 2001, it was up to a million, and today it’s five million and growing. You know, in ten years, it’s grown more than fivefold and seeing people living in such misery…I’d never been someplace that was just so hard just to be. You know, hardly…electrical power just hours out of the day, and no sewage, the air is reported to be the worst in the world, and just a very miserable, miserable place.
And I did get a chance to get to the Panjshir Valley and get out of the city, and see what a beautiful place it is. And all the refugees I talked to told me that everyone who talked about their home got wistful, and thought, I’ve come from the most beautiful place on earth, and what would impel someone to leave those places to, as they are coming by the thousands, every day, crowding into the refugee camps in Kabul. How horrible the conditions must be, how dangerous and precarious it is, you know, in the valleys and mountains, for people to take the risk of moving their children, their families and their whole lives, into that city. You know, it has to be a tremendous danger.
Dennis Bernstein: Yes, indeed. Let me conclude this way. If you had the President’s ear for a minute or two, what would you tell him?
Brian Terrell: Oh, I don’t know that he would listen. I don’t know what I would tell him, but I think we have to tell the American people that it is not as easy, this technology is not giving us a simple, easy way of continuing our dominance in the world. And we can’t, we’re not going to find a clean, easy way to kill people that is not going to be redounding upon us.
Dennis Bernstein: Alright, Brian Terrell, I know you’re going to go back and join the folks on the walk. Welcome back to freedom, after six months, serving, actually it was the first federal drone trial, I guess. Serving six months, I guess, and as you say you are willing to do it again, and again, for the good of the people, and for global peace. We thank you for all the courage you’ve shown in trying to bring this subject to light. Be careful.