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Death From Above: How American Drone Strikes Are Devastating Yemen

On the ground in a country where unmanned missile attacks are a terrifyingly regular occurrence

An unmanned U.S. Predator drone
Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP Images
April 14, 2014 10:00 AM ET

The people of Yemen can hear destruction before it arrives. In cities, towns and villages across this country, which hangs off the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, the air buzzes with the sound of American drones flying overhead. The sound is a constant and terrible reminder: a robot plane, acting on secret intelligence, may calculate that the man across from you at the coffee shop, or the acquaintance with whom you've shared a passing word on the street, is an Al Qaeda operative. This intelligence may be accurate or it may not, but it doesn't matter. If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, the chaotic buzzing above sharpens into the death-herald of an incoming missile.

New Report Documents the Human Cost of U.S. Drone Strikes in Yemen

Such quite literal existential uncertainty is coming at a deep psychological cost for the Yemeni people. For Americans, this military campaign is an abstraction. The drone strikes don't require U.S. troops on the ground, and thus are easy to keep out of sight and out of mind. Over half of Yemen's 24.8 million citizens – militants and civilians alike – are impacted every day. A war is happening, and one of the unforeseen casualties is the Yemeni mind.

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, trauma and anxiety are becoming rampant in the different corners of the country where drones are active. "Drones hover over an area for hours, sometimes days and weeks," said Rooj Alwazir, a Yemeni-American anti-drone activist and cofounder of Support Yemen, a media collective raising awareness about issues afflicting the country. Yemenis widely describe suffering from constant sleeplessness, anxiety, short-tempers, an inability to concentrate and, unsurprisingly, paranoia.

Alwazir recalled a Yemeni villager telling her that the drones "are looking inside our homes and even at our women.'" She says that, "this feeling of infringement of privacy, combined with civilian casualties and constant fear and anxiety has a profound long time psychological effect on those living under drones."

Last year, London-based forensic psychologist Peter Schaapveld presented research he'd conducted on the psychological impact of drone strikes in Yemen to a British parliamentary sub-committee. He reported that 92 percent of the population sample he examined was found to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – with children being the demographic most significantly affected. Women, he found, claimed to be miscarrying from their fear of drones. "This is a population that by any figure is hugely suffering," Schaapveld said. The fear of drones, he added, "is traumatizing an entire generation." 

Throughout Yemen, it seems, the endless blue heaven above has become a bad omen. 

Moath Ali Al-Qawly's (blue cap) father Ali Al-Qawly and Salim Hussein Ahmed Jamil were killed in January 2013
Vivian Salama

In February, at the Khaled Ibn Al Walid School in Khawlan, a district some 45 kilometers from the Yemeni capital of Sana'a, Principal Jameel Al-Qawly anxiously hovers by the door, scolding any young boys dawdling in the sandy courtyard. Moments earlier, he noticed a sticker on the outside window of one of his classrooms: an image of a black flag with the words of the Muslim shahada, which translates to "There is no god but God and Mohamed is His messenger." The flag and slogan constitute a symbol often associated with militant Islamist groups, including Al Qaeda. "I have to keep close watch," Al-Qawly admits, "not to allow just anyone from outside talk to the children."

Youth are thought to be easy prey for radical groups seeking recruits. Air strikes by U.S. drones and Yemeni jets have grown in frequency in recent months, destroying families, and as such have stoked resentment. Psychologist Schaapveld compared the likely trans-generational effect to to that suffered by Holocaust survivors. "For every one person killed," he argued, "there are going to be hundreds that are affected psychologically."

Moath Ali Al-Qawly sits in a classroom at the Khaled Ibn Al Walid School, hiding his eyes under a blue Mobile Oil baseball cap. The 11-year-old has a haunted face, and doesn't appear to be paying much attention to his teacher's math lesson. After class, I approach him and ask what he was thinking about. "My father," he says shyly, "was killed by an American plane."

Moath's father, Ali Al-Qawly, was a teacher at the school. He'd never missed a single day of work in 13 years on the job. Then one January morning last year, he was late. Ten minutes passed, then 30, and finally an hour, until Principal Al-Qawly announced to his students: "Mr. Ali will not be coming today."

Ali and his cousin Salim Hussein Ahmed Jamil had been driving in a rented pick-up truck late in the evening when two men asked them for a ride. "We are this type of people," explains Ali's brother Mohammed, "who when we see anyone walking in the street, we offer to drive them."

Drones are unmanned aviation vehicles, but not unpiloted, with cameras sending images back to a base, allowing operators to analyze the data and act on what they see. There is not much interpretive room allowed for cultural gestures, for giving lifts to strangers. Ali's relatives believe the two individuals that he and his cousin Salim picked up were suspected militants, which would have instantly made a target out of the Toyota HiLux they were driving — a vehicle that now stands, charred, as an ad hoc memorial in the center of Khawlan. 

Cousins Ali Al-Qawly and Salim Hussein Ahmed Jamil were killed in January 2013 outside of Khawlan in an alleged drone strike after offering a ride to two men believed to be wanted militants. 
Vivian Salama

The Yemeni Ministry of Interior cleared Ali and Salim of any wrongdoing or connection to the passengers who rode with them on that day, and ruled the incident, simply, as the work of "fate." Detonated missile fragments, allegedly from the incident, were photographed and sent to an arms expert at Human Rights Watch. They were found to be the remnants of a hellfire missile. The Yemeni military has no planes equipped for hellfires. Neighboring Saudi Arabia does, but experts suggest that Saudi's hellfire-equipped flyers do not go that far beyond the border region. The U.S., on the other hand, has been implicated in hellfire-equipped drone strikes all across Yemen.

In a sense, whether or not an American drone killed Ali is as important as whether or not people believe that's what happened. At the Khaled Ibn Al Walid School, more than a year after the missile strike, Ali's name is still listed on the master schedule in the main office, as if he might soon return from vacation. But the students are under no illusions. They are no strangers to such tragedies, having grown up hearing about, as one little girl described it to me, "the American planes that shoot."  

"Some of the children have been affected," says Principal Al Qawly about his students' mental state vis-a-vis drone strikes. "They get nervous from any small sound. Many of them are angry, or they don't talk as much. Some of them can't sleep."

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