October 30th, 2013
07:21 PM ET

Drone attack survivors take their story to Washington

By Chris Lawrence

Her voice is tiny and soft but has the strength of a survivor.

Nabila ur-Rehman, 9, has come to Washington to talk about how she survived a U.S. drone strike on her neighborhood in Pakistan.

"I saw in the sky that it became dark, and I heard a 'dum-dum' noise. Everything became dark, and I couldn't see my grandmother, couldn't make out anything," she told CNN through an interpreter.

Nabila's family said her grandmother, Momina Bibi, was killed in that strike.

"I saw two missiles come down and hit, and at that moment, everything went dark," said Nabila's brother, Zubair, 13. "I just remember seeing an explosion and everything became dark, maybe because of the smoke from the drone."

Zubair said he could hear his grandmother screaming but could not see her. He was injured.

"Later, I found out that my grandmother was blown to pieces and then I felt like I was on fire. I was in a lot of pain, later I found that piece of shrapnel was found in my leg," Zubair told CNN.

Nabila was 8 at the time and talks about the pain and confusion in the minutes after the strike.

"My hand was hurt, and when I was looking at it, there was blood coming out. And I tried wiping it away with my shawl, but it just kept coming out. I was just really scared and didn't know what to do," she said.

The children and their father have come from Pakistan to tell their stories to members of Congress.

They are hoping it will influence lawmakers to curtail the number of drone strikes in Pakistan, specifically in North Waziristan where the family lives.

That area is mostly controlled by militant groups and operates outside the laws of Pakistani security forces. It is where the United States conducts its most intensive drone campaign, against the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda operatives.

Amnesty International says the drone strikes in question, in October 2012, killed the children's grandmother and 18 other civilians.

In 317 reported drone strikes carried out in the country since 2008, 2,160 terrorists and 67 civilians have been killed, according to a report from the Pakistani Defense Ministry.

It may not be complete though. The report says no civilians were killed in 2012.

The U.S. government does not comment on individual drone strikes, citing the sensitivity of intelligence matters.

But the Obama administration says the United States is not violating any international laws.

"The administration has repeatedly emphasized the extraordinary care that we take to make sure that counterterrorism actions are in accordance with all applicable laws," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Beacon Strategies Jeremy Bash said the situation is combat.

"And occasionally in combat, sadly and unfortunately, there are times targets are injured and killed. But the intended target in every single one of these operations is a terrorist, or a terrorist training camp," he said.

Bash is a former national security official in the Obama administration who worked for Leon Panetta at both the CIA and Pentagon.

He said there are cameras mounted on drones, and if the operators see that women or children may be impacted by the strike, the mission is scrubbed.

"And one of the ways this operation is so effective is that it can be called off at the very last moment, just as the weapon is about to impact. A missile can be diverted if a child or a woman comes into the shot," Bash explained.

He also said in that lawless part of Pakistan, there is no good alternative to using drones.

"We can't send in tanks. We can't bombard the place with artillery. We can't send in B-2 bombers," he said.

The family of Momina Bibi said she was an innocent victim.

"I couldn't see my mom's face. She was blown to pieces. Whatever remains that they could find, they just put in a box, and that's what we had to bury," Rafiq ur-Rehman said.

Rafiq is Nabila and Zubair's father, a teacher who was working at school when his mother was killed.

He said the U.S. government has given his family no explanation about what happened.

"I've seen President Obama come on TV and say with conviction the American government will continue to use drones. I don't understand why it happened to us. We don't know why they continue, and why it killed my mother and injured my children. We aren't causing harm to anyone," he said.

In May, President Barack Obama publicly revealed the guidelines for using lethal drone strikes overseas.

He said there had to be an imminent threat, no hope of capture, and near certainty that civilians would not be harmed. Rafiq said statements like that motivated him to come to the United States and tell his family's story.

"That's why I came here. I am a teacher and I want to educate, let Americans know that this is hurting innocent people, and there are other ways to find solutions and bring peace," he said.

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