Drone death numbers: has my family been counted?

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On Friday, President Obama announced the number of civilians he believes he has killed with drones over the past seven years. The number is between 64 and 116. These were ordinary people killed in countries where the U.S. is not at war; in places like my village, Khashamir, in Yemen.

Like many grieving families who have lost loved ones to the mistakes of U.S. drones, I don’t know whether my nephew Waleed and my brother-in-law Salem, both innocents, were included in the President’s number. Mr. Obama did not provide names. He did not say in which years the civilians were killed, nor in which country. He did not explain how the CIA decided who counted as wrongfully killed, and who didn’t.

{mosads}The President’s version of transparency – a bare number – does not help the families of the dead. It also does not help us achieve peace in Yemen. I am older and educated, but my worry is for our younger generation. How can Yemen’s young people make peace with the world when their first experience of the U.S. is hovering drones killing innocents, where no-one will admit responsibility?

Instead of killing my brother-in- law Salem, the U.S. should have supported him. Salem was an anti-extremist Imam who preached against al Qaeda only days before he was killed. His speech was so strong and inspiring, I worried al Qaeda would kill him. I spoke to Salem about my fears. He said “If I don’t use my position to make it clear to my congregation that this ideology is wrong, who will? I will die anyway, and I would rather die saying what I believe than die silent.”

It never occurred to me that it would be the U.S., not al Qaeda, who would kill Salem. But that is what happened.

A few days after Salem delivered his sermon, three youths entered the village looking for him. We didn’t know who they were at the time, but it seems they were suspected al-Qaida members.  They found Salem at the mosque, and sat in their car in a dark corner.  They sent a messenger, saying Salem must come and talk to them.  Salem was worried they meant him harm.  Waleed, my 21-year-old nephew was there.  He was a policeman.  He reassured Salem he would go to the car with him for protection. He could not protect him from the drone hovering overhead. In less than three minutes, three missiles were fired.   A fourth came later. They were all killed.

Instead of celebrating my son’s wedding, as planned, I spent that evening trying to recover Salem and Waleed. There were so many body parts, they were scattered everywhere.  

It would have been easy to arrest the three suspected men, rather than use a drone strike. They could have been stopped at any checkpoint – the closest checkpoint is only 1 kilometer away.  The nearest army base is just 3 kilometers away.  

This killing is simply not acceptable. We Yemenis understand the need for counter-terrorism; it is as important to us as it is to Americans. What we cannot understand is why the U.S. had to assassinate two innocents and terrorize a whole village to deal with the three suspects. No matter what these men had supposedly done, surely they deserved a trial? Had the U.S. government reached out to us seeking assistance in their arrest, we would have certainly helped. Salem was already trying to help.  

President Obama says he wants to be transparent, but his efforts have ignored the Yemeni victims of strikes and their families. Since Salem and Waleed were killed, I have done everything I can think of to try to get answers. I travelled all the way to Washington, D.C. in 2013 to speak to the government about my case. I received no answers during my visit, but nine months later, the Yemeni intelligence services delivered me secret bags of cash – cash that came without an acknowledgement of the mistake. I refused.

Bags of cash cannot solve this problem. Only real transparency will restore America’s good reputation in Yemen. We simply want the same respect that the President gave to families of an American and Italian hostage killed in a strike. The public recognition that my family members were innocent. That the U.S. killed them by mistake.

For Americans, drone killing may seem to be an easy solution. And the President seems to prefer to keep the drones’ errors a secret, even where innocents have died. This is a mistake. Drone killing is not the solution to the problems that we face in Yemen. The American drones simply create more problems, ensuring the next generation of Yemenis grow up feeling worthless, angry and fearful.

Salem’s voice was so powerful, and he used it to make peace. He always said he did not want to ‘die silent’. Today I am trying to speak on his behalf and on behalf of all the other victim’s families. What President Obama announced on Friday is not transparency. A mere body count is not the end of the story. It is where the story begins.

Faisal bin ali Jaber is a Yemeni environmental engineer, now living in Montreal, whose innocent family members were killed by a U.S. drone in 2012.

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