Living Under Drones

Elizabeth Henderson Nov 2, 2012

The first armed unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, were flown in Afghanistan in October 2001. Since at least June 2004, the U.S. government has also been deploying drones in Pakistan.

The United States has increased its arsenal of Predator drones from 167 in 2002 to more than 7,000 today. Last month, the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and New York University’s Global Justice Clinic released “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from U.S. Drone Practices in Pakistan.” Research for the report included two investigations in Pakistan; more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses and experts; and review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting. Below are some excerpts that highlight the human cost of the United States’ foreign policy:

Much of the public debate about drone strikes in Pakistan has focused narrowly on whether strikes are “doing their job” — i.e., whether the majority of those killed are “militants.” That framing, however, fails to take account of the people on the ground who live with the daily presence of lethal drones in their skies and with the constant threat of drone strikes in their communities.

The most direct impacts of strikes, in addition to injuries and killings, include property damage, and often severe economic hardship and emotional trauma for injured victims and surviving family members.


“Drones are always on my mind. It makes it difficult to sleep. They are like a mosquito. Even when you don’t see them, you can hear them, you know they are there.” — Mohammad Kausar (anonymized name), father of three.

Interviewees stated that day-to-day activities, such as buying groceries or traveling to work, were nerve-wracking. Safdar Dawar, president of the Tribal Union of Journalists, the main association of journalists in the areas affected by U.S. drones, described in simple terms how people in North Waziristan make everyday decisions about how to spend their time under the shadow of drones:

“If I am walking in the market, I have this fear that maybe the person walking next to me is going to be a target of the drone. If I’m shopping, I’m really careful and scared. If I’m standing on the road and there is a car parked next to me, I never know if that is going to be the target. Maybe they will target the car in front of me or behind me. Even in mosques, if we’re praying, we’re worried that maybe one person who is standing with us praying is wanted. So, wherever we are, we have this fear of drones.”


In North Waziristan, extended families live together in compounds that often contain several smaller individual structures. Many interviewees told us that often strikes not only obliterate the target house, usually made of mud, but also cause significant damage to three or four surrounding houses.

Such destruction exacts a significant cost on communities, especially in a place like the Federally Administered Tribal Area where “underdevelopment and poverty are particularly stark,” and “savings, insurance, and social safety nets” are largely unavailable.

A 45-year-old rural farmer who had to leave his village after a drone destroyed his house, told us how it affected his family:

“A drone struck my home. … I [was at] work at that time, so there was nobody in my home and no one killed. . … Nothing else was destroyed other than my house. I went back to see the home, but there was nothing to do — I just saw my home wrecked. … I was extremely sad, because normally a house costs around 10 lakh, or 1,000,000 rupees [US $10,593], and I don’t even have 5,000 rupees now [US $53]. I spent my whole life in that house … my father had lived there as well. … [I] belong to a poor family and my home has been destroyed … [and] I’m just hoping that I somehow recover financially.”


Drone strikes that kill civilians also exact a substantial toll on livelihoods by incapacitating the primary income earners of families. Because men are typically the primary income earners in their families, strikes often deprive victims’ families of “a key, and perhaps its only, source of income.” Families struggle to compensate for the lost income, often forcing children or other younger relatives to forgo school and enter the workforce at a young age.

Eighteen-year-old Hisham Abrar, whose cousin was killed in a drone strike, explained that “a lot of men have been killed [who are] wage earners for the house, and now the kids and the families don’t have a source of income because of that.” Others in his community do what they can to help, but “they are poor, and they usually just rely on labor services — daily wage earning. That’s only sufficient for themselves, so it’s hard to help others. But whenever they can, they do.”


The most immediate consequence of drone strikes is, of course, death and injury to those targeted or near a strike. The missiles fired from drones kill or injure in several ways, including through incineration, shrapnel, and the release of powerful blast waves capable of crushing internal organs. Those who do survive drone strikes often suffer disfiguring burns and shrapnel wounds, limb amputations, as well as vision and hearing loss.

Khairullah Jan describes the day his brother was killed in a drone attack, and how it has affected his family:

“[One day, [m]y brother was coming from college … dropping his friend to his house, which is located behind our house a few kilometers away. … I was coming from Mir Ali Bazaar … going to my house. That’s when I heard a drone strike and I felt something in my heart. I thought something had happened, but we didn’t get to know until next day. That’s when all the villagers came and brought us news that [my brother] had been [killed]. … I was drinking tea when I found out. [My] entire family was there. They were crying. … [T]o lose such a young one; everybody is sad and it also affects the tribe, our community, as well. My mother is really affected. She is sad all the time, and my father is also heavily affected. At times he used to go to Peshawar or Karachi, he was outgoing, but now he sits at home.”

“I have been affected. The love that I had for studies — that has finished. My determination to study — that is also gone. … [I]f, for instance, there is a drone strike and four or five of your villagers die and you feel sad for them and you feel like throwing everything away, because you feel death is near — [death is] so close, so why do you want to study?”

To read the full report, visit

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