After a Drone Strike: Pakistani Family Documents Harrowing Experience

Surviving family documents strike that killed their grandmother, questions terrorist justification.

Supporters of Pakistan's religious party rallies to condemn U.S. drone attacks on militants' hideouts in Pakistani border area of Waziristan, in Lahore, Pakistan on July 5, 2013.
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The sound of armed American drones produces a constant hum over Waziristan in the rural, tribal northern reaches of Pakistan.

Zubair Rehman, 13, became used to the noise and wouldn't think much of it when he played outside or prepared for school. Even when these drones rained down Hellfire missiles on suspected terrorist targets elsewhere in the region, Zubair dismissed it as a foreign concept for the family compound he called home.

"I would hear about drones and I would hear about people being affected by it, but it never affected me," he tells U.S. News at a hotel in Washington, D.C., speaking through a translator alongside his father, Rafiq, and his 9-year-old sister Nabila.

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What happened on Oct. 24, 2012 would forever change his and his family's life, and would eventually bring them to the nation's capital to challenge a political system that employs unmanned aerial systems to target its enemies.

HIs father, Rafiq ur Rehman, documented the drone strike that claimed the life of his 67-year-old mother, Momina Bibi, almost exactly a year ago, in a letter published in the Guardian. He describes the harrowing account of a target explosion that blew up his mother while she prepared the children's clothing to celebrate the Muslim festival Eid al-Adha and showing them how to make a sweet milk-based drink.

She was near nine children, including Zubair, Nabila and their five-year-old sister Asma when the reported drone strike hit, killing the grandmother instantly and severely wounding Zubair.

"After this strike, I saw that it killed my grandmother. It injured my leg," he says. "Now I don't have any interest in life, in doing things I used to enjoy doing."

"I don't like going outside and playing with friends anymore. I get that feeling, I hear that noise. I can't sleep at night. I have no interest in studying. I was pulled out of school, so I feel left behind," says Zubair, wearing traditional clothes and cap.

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It was on Zubair's trip to Islamabad -- where he was informed that the surgeries for his injuries would be prohibitively expensive -- that he first heard of a local lawyer who was investigating drone strikes. Through this lawyer the family first met Robert Greenwald, a filmmaker whose newest documentary "Unmanned" focuses on his research studying the effects of drone strikes in Pakistan.

The family will testify before Congress on Tuesday, Oct. 29 about their experiences.

"Unmanned" first premiered in Pakistan on Friday, Oct. 25. Populist political figure and former cricketer Imran Khan, an outspoken critic of the American drone program, spoke at the screening.

The Rehman family reached out to their local political representative shortly after the 2012 strike. They later received a letter from the Pakistani government denouncing the strike, calling it tragic and unjust. It also pinned the blame squarely on the American government.

A Washington Post report last week unveiled classified CIA documents indicating that the Pakistan government has been aware of at least some of these attacks, despite criticizing them publicly. Some of these memos, images and maps about the strikes were specifically prepared by the CIA for Pakistani officials.

President Barack Obama has also addressed the use of drone strikes. He said in a September speech that the U.S. has "limited the use of drones so they are targeting only those who post a continuing, imminent threat to the U.S. where capture is not feasible, and there is near certainty of no civilian casualties."

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The Rehman family questions how their slain matriarch fits into any of the possible legal framework for targeting terrorists. But Rafiq Rehman, a teacher, says he did not come to Washington to engage in political finger-pointing.

"I only base things on what I can see," he says. "What I do know is my mother was killed by this drone, and these drones are American drones. I'm here to let the American government and the American people know that this happened to us."