Giving a Voice to the Forgotten Victims of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan

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October 5, 2016

The Fund sat down with Shahzad Akbar to speak about his organization, the Foundation for Fundamental Rights (FFR), a Pakistani Fund grantee. The information in this article was taken from that interview.

Sadaullah was only thirteen years old when his home in Waziristan, Pakistan was destroyed by a U.S. drone strike. He and his family had gathered for Ramadan and were set to enjoy a post-fast dinner when the bombs leveled their home. The blast, caused by a Hellfire missile, killed seven of Sadaullah’s family members and left him severely wounded—both of his legs had to be amputated and he lost vision in his right eye. His elderly grandfather was forced to become his sole caretaker.

Shahzad Akbar, the Executive Director and founder of Foundation for Fundamental Rights Pakistan (FFR), was the first lawyer to challenge the U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and the devastating impact they have had on the lives of innocent families in the region. A corporate lawyer by training, Shahzad had spent most of his career working in close cooperation with the U.S. authorities, working as a prosecutor at Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau and as a consultant for USAID projects in Pakistan. This all changed, however, when a drone strike victim walked through his door in 2010.

From that day on, Shahzad was compelled to give up his job, his comfortable salary, and even his unsupportive friends, to seek justice for the countless innocent people who have lost everything to drone strikes. “From one case I got sixteen more families to represent. You…have these people saying ‘we are also in the same boat [as the other drone strike victims].’” Sadaullah was one of Shahzad’s first clients.

In 2010, Shahzad founded FFR to better investigate civilian drone strikes, represent the victims and their families, and to raise awareness around the issue which he felt wasn’t being discussed. FFR also engages in public interest litigation, community advocacy, and is challenging the death penalty and torture in Pakistan. Taking on these incredibly powerful interest groups is also dangerous; people have shot at Shahzad’s office and on several occasions Shahzad has gone to work to find his desk had been searched and disturbed.

In his pursuit of justice for civilian victims of drone strikes, Shahzad has found that one of the largest barriers is the pervasive lack of awareness. “The drone strikes started in 2004 in Pakistan…but no one had really challenged [them] and there hadn’t been much reporting on civilian victims,” he said. This lack of transparency, Shahzad notes, also shrouded the fact that the majority of drone strikes were hitting innocent civilians like Sadaullah—not militants.

Instead, Shahzad says, people are misled to believe that the drones are highly effective: “The public narrative that has been set is that there are evil guys there, and these drones are just taking care of them.” Yet, FFR is consistently gathering evidence to the contrary.

Another major obstacle that Shahzad is fiercely challenging is the complete lack of compensation from the U.S. government for drone strike victims to rebuild their lives and homes. Because Pakistan is not considered a war zone, the U.S. has refused to provide any form of compensation for innocent civilians who are injured or lose their homes or their loved ones as a result of the strikes–unlike Afghanistan and Yemen where it has provided funds. For the families and communities hit by drones, compensation for damage and death is crucial to recovery and can even save lives.

Sadaullah, for example, did not receive any compensation for the drone strike that destroyed his home and, ultimately, his life. Unable to pay for medical expenses, Sadaullah was forced to undergo a botched amputation, causing him to contract an infection that would later take his life. Shahzad is clear that his life could have been saved “if he had been given proper medical care and if he had been given compensation.”

Shahzad asks us to reimagine the exorbitant opportunity cost of drones: “One Hellfire missile costs $65,000 minimum, and each [drone] strike will have 3-4 missiles fired. So we’re talking about each strike costing up to $200,000 fired on [civilians in Pakistan]. Just imagine, a fraction of that money can change a life.”

For Shahzad, the broader anxieties around global insecurity are reducing civilian deaths to mere “collateral damage” in the global war on terror. As he remarked so poignantly, “the moment [national] security is thrown [into the conversation] …every civil right and liberty goes out the window.”