Secure within the Margalla Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, I sat talking to 16-year-old Tariq Aziz, a schoolboy from the tribal regions in North Waziristan. “How many drones do you see a week?” I asked, expecting him to say three or four. “I see around ten or more, not a week, each and every day. It’s terrifying. My family can’t sleep. I am very tired all the time, and I’ve stopped going to school. We live our life in fear.”
Four days later, Tariq was dead, decapitated and burned beyond recognition by a US-operated Reaper drone. He had been driving with his younger cousin, Waheed Ahmed, who also died in the attack. The two boys had been heading to their aunt’s home. Tariq’s family would later tell me they will never forget that early evening sunset, with the smell of burning flesh and petrol gliding through the village.
I met Tariq Aziz in October 2011, at a “grand jirga” in Islamabad, which had been organized by Reprieve, a British human rights charity. The jirga brought together elected tribal elders from all over FATA (the Federally Administered Tribal Areas), along with politicians, lawyers and the media to discuss the implications of the CIA’s controversial drones program.
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Drones were not new to FATA. Strikes had been targeting suspected militants in their region since 2004. And by 2011, civilian deaths were approaching 3,000 – of which almost 200 were children. Only 185 named militants had been killed in that time – a 16-to-1 ratio. Innocent civilians were drowning in grief, confusion and hatred. American drone strikes weren’t just killing militants: They were creating them too.
Tribal elders and a small group of schoolboys like Tariq had risked their lives to come to the jirga. It was a great honor for the boys to be selected to accompany their leaders. But they had all suffered great losses, too. Each man and boy carried in his pocket a photograph of a brother, sister or friend that had been killed by a drone strike.
Tariq Aziz approached me shyly. He had never met a Westerner. Before we even spoke, he handed me the student ID card of his teenage cousin, Asmar Ullah. No sooner had I looked at the card, Tariq turned his head away and tears rolled down his face.
Tariq spoke with me for hours. He told me about his life: He was the youngest of seven brothers and his father’s favorite. He lived with his mother while his father worked as a taxi driver abroad, sending money home each month for the brothers’ school fees. Tariq told me that after his cousin’s death, he became scared to walk to school or play football with his friends. He could not understand why his family and friends were being targeted. They were not militants, and they would not – or should not – have been on the CIA’s “kill list,” now known as the “disposition matrix” – a list created by the Obama administration aimed at targeting militants who are considered a threat to the United States. Tariq kept asking me, “What have we done wrong? Why do people think we’re bad?”
The last time I saw Tariq, he was washing his hands before afternoon prayers.
This year I traveled back to Pakistan, where I interviewed Tariq’s family members and friends for a forthcoming documentary by Robert Greenwald and Brave New Films titled Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars. They were extremely cooperative with photographs and interviews, anxious to paint a picture of Tariq’s short life. His elder brother Abdul told me, “Tariq was very kind to everyone, young and old. He used to help everyone. … That’s why he was so loved. He was so kind. Everyone misses him so much.”
People ask me how I can be so sure that Tariq was innocent. I reply, “Show me one piece of evidence that he wasn’t.” After all, that’s how the law is supposed to operate, isn’t it? Innocent until proven guilty.
The fact that the US government has not commented on – or even acknowledged – any of the 200 children killed by drone strikes in Pakistan alone speaks volumes to the families of those grieving in the “war of terror” conducted by the United States.