Tue, Jul 19, 2011 - Page 5 News List

Pakistani’s photos detail civilian deaths by drones

DOCUMENTED:Noor Behram has made it his mission to document that US drone strikes in Waziristan are killing more civilians than Washington or Islamabad admit

The Guardian, ISLAMABAD

For the past three years, Noor Behram has hurried to the site of drone strikes in his native Waziristan. His purpose: To photograph and document the impact of missiles controlled by a joystick thousands of kilometers away, on US Air Force bases in Nevada and elsewhere. The drones are the US’ only weapon for hunting al-Qaeda and the Taliban in what is supposed to be the most dangerous place in the world.

Sometimes arriving on the scene just minutes after the explosion, he first has to put his camera aside and start digging through the debris to see if there are any survivors. It’s dangerous, unpleasant work. The drones frequently hit the same place again, a few minutes after the first strike.

There are other dangers too: Militants and locals are suspicious of anyone with a camera. After all, it is a local network of spies working for the CIA that are directing the drone strikes.

However, Behram says his painstaking work has uncovered an important — and unreported — truth about the US drone campaign in Pakistan’s tribal region: That far more civilians are being injured or dying than the US and Pakistanis admit.

The world’s media quickly reports on how many militants were killed in each strike, but reporters do not go to the spot, relying on unnamed Pakistani intelligence officials. Behram believes you have to go to the spot to figure out whether those killed were really extremists or ordinary people living in Waziristan. And he is in no doubt.

“For every 10 to 15 people killed, maybe they get one militant,” he said. “I don’t go to count how many Taliban are killed. I go to count how many children, women, innocent people, are killed.”

The drone strikes are a secret program run by the CIA to assassinate al-Qaeda and Taliban extremists using remote, wild Waziristan as a refuge. The CIA does not comment on drones, but privately claims civilian casualties are rare.

The Guardian was unable to independently verify the photographs. However, Behram’s account of taking the pictures appeared detailed and consistent. Other anecdotal evidence from Waziristan is conflicting: Some insist the drones are accurate, while others strongly disagree.

According to Behram, the strikes not only kill the innocent, but injure untold numbers and radicalize the population.

“There are just pieces of flesh lying around after a strike. You can’t find bodies. So the locals pick up the flesh and curse America. They say that America is killing us inside our own country, inside our own homes and only because we are Muslims,” he said. “The youth in the area surrounding a strike gets crazed. Hatred builds up inside those who have seen a drone attack. The Americans think it is working, but the damage they’re doing is far greater.”

Even when the drones hit the right compound, the force of the blast is such that neighbors’ houses are also demolished, crushing those inside, Behram said. One of the photographs shows a tangle of debris he said were the remains of five houses blitzed together.

The photographs make for difficult viewing and leave no doubt about the destructive power of the Hellfire missiles unleashed: a boy with the top of his head missing, a severed hand, flattened houses, the parents of children killed in a strike.

There are photos of burned and battered Korans — but no pictures of women: The conservative culture in Waziristan will not allow Behram to photograph the women, even dead and dismembered. So he makes do with documenting shredded pieces of women’s clothing.

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