A heavily armed US Air Force Reaper waits on the tarmac in Afghanistan (Courtesy photo/US Air Force).
The Bureau has obtained a document identifying 20 people killed in a single 2009 drone strike. Nobody killed in the strike had ever been named before. In addition, during a recent trip to Pakistan the Bureau also met locals who were able to provide more details of the strike.
The information is being collected as part of the Bureau’s Naming the Dead project, which aims to identify people killed in drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, in an attempt to bring more transparency to the conflict. Launched in October, the project has named 614 individuals. Our data suggests more than 2,500 people have died in the strikes.
The document, which was created by Pakistani local government officials names most of the people who died in one of three strikes to Kurram Agency, part of Pakistan’s tribal areas to the north of Waziristan – the area where the vast majority of such bombings take place.
Many of those who died in the strike have been described as militants, but eye witness reports gathered by the Bureau also suggest that children died.
In the evening of March 12 2009, multiple missiles hit a house in Barjo. The house was reportedly used by local Pakistan Taliban commander Fazal Saeed Haqqani – who survived the strike.
On our recent field trip a local politician told the Bureau that the target was a militant training camp. ‘The guy who ran the camp was called Fazal Saeed. He was training them and survived. He and five or six others were sleeping 160 yards away from the compound as a security measure.’
He added that ‘teachers’ came from North Waziristan to the building to give lectures to the young people every Thursday night. A contemporaneous report by the BBC reported that ‘up to 57’ were present at the time of the attack.
The document listing the dead was compiled by the local tribal administration and lists 20 locals who were killed, as well as their tribe, home village, and their father’s name. It also lists six locals who were injured. But the document does not provide the ages of the casualties.
The local politician told the Bureau that all the dead were aged between 15 and 24. However, as the document does not provide ages of the casualties, it is unclear how many would be classed as children. (The Bureau classifies all those up to the age of 17 inclusive as children.)
The politician was able to recall details about many of the dead men’s families. The father of one of the dead men was in jail for being a ‘militant commander’, the politician told the Bureau. Others were the sons of imams, teachers, farmers or – for several of the dead – men who had gone to Dubai to work as drivers.
The list is detailed, but not comprehensive: the local politician told the Bureau that all the dead were members of the Pakistan Taliban and that a further two Punjabi fighters were also killed, but were not listed. Other media reports suggest that up to 50 were injured, including many foreign fighters.
It is possible that the local administration was most concerned with identifying local militants and their families. The list was gathered by the local Assistant Political Agent, the politician explained, and was shared with the local tribal administration, government and law enforcement bodies.
Two locals who spoke to the Bureau also described witnessing the strike. The two, Ahmed and Mohammed*, came from the same area and were contemporaries of one another, but the Bureau spoke to them separately.
Although their recollections do not perfectly match either the document or the existing reporting, each independently identified people who were listed on the document. Both also claimed that additional civilians – including young children – were killed.
‘A house was targeted. It was in the evening, just before dark,’ said Ahmed. ‘From 3km away, I saw the drone. For 15 minutes the drone was hovering: we could hear the sound. Then it fired… After the drone hit, there was a huge fire. Three of my classfellows were killed.’
Mohammed said: ‘The village is elevated, and the house was in a lower portion [of the valley]… There was a flash in the sky – we were surprised. I saw a flash and heard a big sound. When we reached the place, a second missile was fired on the same target. Then a third one. There was a small shelter outside the house. The third missile hit that, killing goats and cows.’
Each of the eye witnesses put the death toll far lower than either the official or media reports. ‘Seven were injured and 12 were killed. Three women and two children were among the dead… one man was sleeping on the roof of a nearby house and was also killed,’ said Mohammed.
Ahmed put the death toll at ‘almost 12 people including three boys and three girls’.
They independently identified several men whose name matched those on the document. Ahmed said that one man, Ahmed Saeed, aged 22-23 years old – studied at Peshawar University. Mohammed also identified this person a student. ‘His father was a teacher in the government primary school,’ he added. ‘His father survived.’ He identified the father by name, which matches the government document.
Mohammed also identified Zahid ur Rehman, ‘a student at FSA government degree college Sadda. Then he did his graduate degree from the same college…He was my very good friend…He was a very nice guy he was always stressing to me that you should get an education.’
He put Rehman’s age at 21, although Ahmed put it at 24 or 25.
They also identified children. ‘One boy was named Munawa – he was a teenager of 15,’ said Mohammed. Ahmed added that another, Shahidullah, was 16, although Mohammed also identified a Shahid – which could be a shortened version of Shahidullah – who was ‘about 20’.
The testimonies and official report illustrate there is often a depth of knowledge that in the local community about the identity of the victims of the strikes. But it also highlights the problems of reconciling differing reports from eyewitness accounts and official records.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of sources