From Fairbanks to Waziristan

Seeds of Love

            It’s a long, long way from Fairbanks, Alaska to Waziristan, “Pakistan the land which is suffering because of those who have no conscience”.[i] I had the honor and privilege to make that journey in October of 2012 as a part of a peace delegation organized and led by that group of courageous activists known as Code Pink: “Women for Peace”. It was our intention to go to the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas of Pakistan to bear witness to the injuries and deaths caused by that portion of United States led “war on terror” being executed via the use of Unmanned Aerial Combat Vehicles (UAVs or drones).

            The idea for the Waziristan Peace Delegation was born on Sunday April 29th during action planning sessions that took place on day two of the Code Pink sponsored Anti-Drone Summit held in Washington, D.C. Barrister-at-Law Shahzad Akbar is renowned in Pakistan for his past efforts to prosecute corruption in that country. He is the legal director of the Foundation For Fundamental Rights, a Pakistani human rights organization that is representing families who have been injured by U.S. drone attacks. Barrister Akbar asked Medea Benjamin, the cofounder of Code Pink if she would consider coming to Waziristan to visit with those families. She asked if she could bring along some other activists. He said yes. A sign up sheet was passed around and if history is to be just, this may be recorded as one of seeds of love that helped propagate the beautiful garden of a peaceful humanity.

            The idea was taken to Imran Khan, the leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI, the Pakistan Party of Justice) by British human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith of the organization Reprieve. Imran Khan, who is probably the most popular man in Pakistan and possibly their next Prime Minister, made the “March to Waziristan” a large-scale demonstration and a project of the PTI.

            Just as the dark of night accentuates the candle of hope, a glimpse of the worldview “of those who have no conscience” can shed contextual light on the plight of the people “of the land which is suffering”. From Monday through Wednesday of the week, prior to the Code Pink Conference I attended the 8th Annual UAV Summit held by the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement (IDGA). The following two quotes taken from that event.

The Summit’s Monday Chairperson, Dr. Bill Powers of the Marine Warfighting Lab, opened the conference, by saying that these automated weapons systems are needed to help “that young kid, that 18, 19, 20-year-old that’s out there doing God’s work”. [ii]

Lieutenant General Heithold (Vice Commander, United States Special Operations Command) thanked the group of assembled weapons contractors and engineering firms for contributions without which he could not carry out his job. He described this job as hunting and killing people and bragged that the technologies that they had contributed allowed him to track and kill his prey, identifying them from the air by the color of their turban or socks. When asked by one of the contractors in attendance “what is on your shopping list and what can we do to further help you in your mission?” He replied “give me the ability to ‘GPS Tag’ a person from the air.”[iii]

For Lack of Knowledge

            I was not lacking for opinion, comment, advice, and admonition when I announced that I was planning on going to Pakistan’s Northern Tribal areas. Reproductions of exotic and violent yarns are etched into our cultural memory. Some are traceable as far back as Vasco de Gama’s imperial adventures in the fifteenth century. Many a story that was afforded me seemed to end in the same tragic storyline with me losing my head over one thing or another. Some of my dearest friends, who I’ve come to know as open minded and progressive thinkers stated matter-of-factly as if repeating a mantra fashioned during a colonial period, “They hate us”, “They’re incapable of understanding ‘western values’”, “They’re unstable and are likely to turn on those who are there to help them”, and “They’ll cut your head off”.

            Although this does make me somewhat sad I recognize the source. Much has been said in the U.S. mainstream press recently concerning the negative image of the United States in this part of the world. What goes for mainstream news and commentary seems to portray the problem as the collision of “Muslim Rage” with “Western Values”. Rarely is there any consideration given to questions that would uncover evidence justifying such rage or analysis that examines those “Values” any deeper than at face value. Reza Sayah, the international correspondent for CNN Islamabad, Pakistan provided some insight into this mechanism during a luncheon held for us in CNN’s Islamabad studio office. He said that his office prides itself on doing good journalism that they do not produce sensational stories for the sake of sensationalism. He explained that the bottom line of CNN as well as that of the other top networks with the possible exception of Al Jazeera is one based on ratings. The sensation of fear and violence drives up ratings in proportions that reasonable content cannot. So stories get changed or deleted, at the corporate level, that do not fit the “news as entertainment” formula. Fear and arrogance, like the rollercoaster ride or the graphically violent horror movie is profitable, sells advertizing, boosts ratings, and elects politicians.

Fakar and Sayed Economic Victims of the “War On Terror”

            Many a story revealed to me in conversations with Pakistanis shared the commonality of imposed hardship, woven like a thread through their socio-economic fabric. The thread, spun from the destabilizing forces of war, a war that is not of their choosing, is the product of the foreign / military policies of the “super power” that my passport describes as my nationality. What surprises me most is not that "they hate us" – I know now from first hand experience “they” don't- but that after a couple of weeks meeting Pakistanis in all walks of life many of whom were devout Muslims everyone that I spoke with said that they thought that Americans were good people. They however do not understand their portrayal in the American media and they justly dislike the policies of our government especially the U.S. led “war on terror”.

            Two conversations chronologically framing my stay are not only demonstrative of the socio economic impacts of the “war on terror” on the average Pakistani family but are also indicative of their understanding. This understanding that appears to be lacking in my own homeland.

            As I had accustomed myself to doing during my stay in Palestine in the winter of 2009, I arose each morning to theSalat al-Fajr, the beautifully spiritual and reverent chant emanating from the local Mosque that is the Muslim morning call to prayer. Fakar works the night shift at the Chancery, Islamabad, the Guest House where the “Code Pink” peace delegation stayed. He joined me for breakfast on that first morning of my visit and on several occasions thereafter, when I was the first to sit in the dining area. He explained that prior to 2001 and the start of the “war on terror” Pakistan’s economy was in much better shape. There were manufacturing and other jobs enough to employ eight breadwinners in his family. He said that the U.S. “war on terror” subsequent to the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan had transcended the border of Pakistan. He said that since 2001 this had caused the violent death of over 40,000 Pakistani citizens and had near totally destabilized Pakistan’s infrastructure. Eleven years later his family has to suffice on the income of only two of the eight who are still employed. Although he knew that my government was the primary culprit responsible for the problems affecting his country he also understood that there were forces inside his government that were complicit. Many times throughout our stay, including on the eve of my departure, he thanked me for taking a stand against the Drone Attacks and said that the work that we were doing there was of great importance to the people of Pakistan  

            As I was taking a seat in the boarding area waiting for my flight to Dubai the first leg of my return home I happened to catch the glance of a 23-year-old man named Sayed. He motioned that I should join him in the seat next to his, so I complied. He told me that he was on his way to Italy where he held a job as a courier. He said that it was very difficult for him to leave his newlywed wife but that employment was scarce and he was supporting his mother and father as well as other members of his family.

            Sayed took great interest in the fact that I was from “Amrica” and asked me many questions about life in the U.S. He asked me if I had any children and was saddened to learn that my son was living thousands of miles away from me. He said that when we are little children our parents look after us, taking care of all our needs. He insisted that it is our duty when we grow older to be close to them to return that loving care. It made me lament my own failings as a son and the great distance that I had moved from my own parents, Peace be upon them.

            He asked me what had brought me to Pakistan. I showed him some photos that I had taken at the Peace Rally including one of me standing beside Imran Khan.[iv] I then said, “drone hamle band karo” (stop drones attacks in Urdu). He smiled brightly, thanked me for my bravery, and thanked me for caring for the innocent people who are threatened daily by the Drone attacks and for those who have lost their lives. Although this was a common response from Pakistanis upon learning of our mission I do not feel that brave. At no point in our journey did I feel threatened.

            He was most concerned, however, with my perceptions of Pakistan. When I told him that I found the people to be gentle, generous, and most respectful he seemed to be quite overjoyed. He asked that I please tell “Amrica” how I was treated, that Pakistanis are not terrorists, and that Americans should come to Pakistan to visit. It’s a big job because fear obfuscates understanding and paves the way for an unquestioning acceptance of the arrogance of militarism. I am up to the task so therefore I heartily agreed.

“What Law? What Law In the World Allows for a Fourteen Year-old to Be Held Indefinitely?”

            What law indeed? One might think the question rhetorical if she or he had not seen the face of the man proposing it or had not heard his story. It seemed touching but sad that the men assembled that night in the brightly colored tent would find hope in our little group. We had just left a large rally cum-press-conference held by Pakistani Tehreek-E-Insaf (the Party of Justice) at the opulent Islamabad Ramada Hotel. The press conference was held with great fanfare as a public kick-off of the “March to Kotkai South Waziristan”, the great public protest in opposition to U.S. drone strikes, those extrajudicial killings, the assassinations by winged robots that our group had traveled halfway around the earth to attend. But we also came all that distance to bear witness to the suffering caused by those machines and the misnamed “war on terror” of which they are but an instrument. The men who had been patiently waiting for hours to speak with us represented seven of thirty-seven families who are suffering “because of those who have no conscience”. They were to have had a press conference held for them earlier in the day. It was postponed and they were told they had to wait till tomorrow. And so they got us.

            The men all have family members who are currently indefinitely imprisoned at Bagram Air Force Base. The recently touted release of prisoners (around 3000) to the Afghan government has no bearing on their situation. The “release” was a proforma release in that it only assigned an “administrative” authority to the Afghans, the control of the prison actually remaining in the hands of the U.S. with the U.S. having complete authority of all new arrestees (over 600 so far) imprisoned after the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) instituting the “release”. But more specifically their loved ones are Pakistani so their fait falls outside the limited authority granted by that document. They are in limbo, in the vernacular they are up the creek.

            Hamidullah Khan, the son of the man proposing the above question, was only 14 when he disappeared 2008. His family had moved to Karachi from Kotkai in South Waziristan to escape the military action that was going on there. Hamidullah was home from school for summer holidays. He and a friend, Khairullah, traveled by bus to Dera Ismail Khan on the border of Waziristan. His father would have gone along but he could not get time off from his public employee job. Hamidullah was intending on going on to the family’s home in Kotkai to retrieve some of the belongings that had been left behind when the family moved. He asked Khairullah to remain in Dera Ismail Khan and wait for him. That was the last time that Khairullah saw his friend.

            Hamidullah’s mother, Din Roza is desperate for his return. She has fasted every day since his disappearance. The lack of nourishment has caused her to develop crippling chronic health problems including diminishing eyesight. She woke up in the middle of the night on October 2nd frantically repeating a nightmare. She had seen Bagram burning and her son perishing in the flames. At the time her husband spoke to us she was still inconsolable.

            Hamidullah’s father sold their house to have the funds to look for his son. He traveled as far as Khost, Afghanistan searching for answers or clues to his son’s whereabouts. A year later he was searching in Peshawar and someone told him to contact International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). He did and a couple of months later the ICRC said his son was in Bagram prison.

            The detainees are held without charges. When they are brought to Bagram, they undergo a sixty day period of interrogation prior to being visited by the ICRC where they are held in conditions designed to break their will. These conditions include sleep depravation, extreme temperatures, taunting, and physical abuse. We were told of cells containing water up to the detainees calf where he spends weeks during this period. They then each undergo a review by a military officer once every six months. The detainees’ attorneys are not permitted to enter Bagram. They are denied access to their clients and have to participate via videoconference. Once every two months detainees are allowed a video conferencing call from their families via the ICRC. The families have to travel great distance to Islamabad at their own expense to participate. Often the call does not get through. When they do get through the detainee is not allowed to speak of his capture, how he got to Bagram, or of the conditions that they are living under. To do so would risk punishment of loosing his call privileges or worse (i.e. solitary confinement).

            Several of the family members thanked us from the bottom of their hearts. One asked a favor. He said “my brother is one year older than I am and he has spent 11 years in indefinite detention and my whole family is heartbroken because we don’t understand what he’s done and what he’s being punished for.” He then pleaded for us to meet and raise the issue with the Prime Minister because, “the Prime Minister seems to be in a very far place that I am not allowed access to”. He asked us to go and raise the issue with our head of state (what to tell this poor fellow) as well. He repeated, “Because we are desperate for help”.

            The press conference that they were expecting earlier was superseded by the gala one that we had just previously attended. The person responsible for theirs was also one of the leaders of the other. Schedules clash and sometimes adjustments are unavoidable. But the weak always seem to get trampled on. Sometimes that trampling takes the form of benign neglect. I am not finding fault with those who have done works that dwarf my own. I just wish that these gentle suffering souls had the stage that we had a couple of hours earlier and that their voice could be heard by those inaccessible powers “in very far places”. In the very least I hope they got their promised press conference the following day.

Aafia Siddiqui – A Mother Tortured

“My only question to the American Ambassador would be, what worse torture can there be than separating a mother from her children? You don’t have to beat a mother or anything, it’s the worse thing you can do, making her believe that her children are being tortured.” – Dr. Fowzia Siddiqui,[v]

            Dr. Fowzia Siddiqui is an award winning medical doctor, a graduate of Harvard, and a former Director the Epilepsy Program at John Hopkins University. On the evening of October 3rd , in a voice infused with love for her sister Aafia, she shared the story of a real life nightmare so hideous in its brutality and all-consuming in its longevity that works of fiction pale in comparison. The nightmare is the true-life story of the abuse of her sister.

            Eyes sparkling with admiration and love Dr. Fowzia related the story of young Aafia, a valedictorian, a student of “strait A” proficiency and great promise. She told us of Affia’s love of animals. This love was to be tested on a couple occasions when she brought home rabid dogs because they were sick and needed her care. Though these acts resulted in her having to undergo the painful experience of rabies treatment they did not dissuade her from caring for animals and she became the founder of the first Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals in Karachi, Pakistan.


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