Documentary Puts Focus On Survivors of Death from the Sky

Arts & Entertainment

In Wounds of Waziristan, Saddam, a teenage survivor of drone attacks along the northwestern border of Pakistan, speaks:

“I feel guilty about being alive... When I hear a drone attack, I feel ill all day.”

Saddam lost his brother, niece, and several friends to drones.

Wounds of Warzistan, a 25-minute documentary, featuring survivors of America’s drone warfare, screened at Johns Hopkins University on the evening of Thursday, November 14, 2013.

Madiha Tahir, the film director, participated in a panel afterwards and explained the focus of the documentary, to illustrate “What does it mean to be haunted by loss for these people [drone survivors]?” The film answered this question with stories from survivors, photographs of the late victims, and footage of the dead. Some of the images are not easy to stomach.

Picture another survivor, Karim’s, description of his family: “their coffins were lying next to each other in their home. Their bodies were covered in blood. Later, I found some of their fingers in the rubble.”’

Haunted is how I felt. One could hear this sentiment in the audience, too, with gasps of horror and tears of sadness. Harry Lang, a PhD student in Mathematics reflected on the film, “It presented a different side from everything that’s been in the media. It was well done and brought it alive.”

The atmosphere felt particularly haunted after the film when discussions surfaced a little known fact: The Johns Hopkins University contributes to drone warfare.  Kristina Hallez, a member of The Human Rights Working Group (HRWG), which organized the event explained that the film screening is a “part of a larger campaign about the ethical aspects of drone warfare and Hopkins’ role in the creation of drones. The university hasn’t had any discussion about our role in that endeavor.” Derek Denman, HRWG president emphasized that it’s about “consciousness raising since it’s not heavily advertised that Hopkins is doing this research.”

Much of the details about the drone research remain unknown—“It’s classified evidence,” Hallez explained, “Our university president isn’t even privy to the military contracts because he’s Canadian.” Nevertheless, “according to APL (Applied Physics Laboratory) documents that are in the public domain,” Denman said, it is known that the university is working to “design automated drones.”

After awareness, the next goal of the HRG campaign is action. Paul Kohlery, another member of HRWG hopes to “demand cessation of such research until a discussion is had.” The discussion surrounding the film certainly raised awareness, and may contribute to drone research cessation, too.

A criticism of the film was that it did not discuss the politics of drone warfare. A PhD student in Public Health who declined to be identified “for career reasons” highlighted the critique, “It only showed the human side, which is just a symptom.” Therefore much of the discussion afterwards dug into the complex politics of the region, and how it has been exploited over the past several decades. The film also touches on this theme in a narration of the history that concludes, “America, Pakistani security forces, and the insurgent they’ve created; they are linked and for decades, they’ve been destroying Waziristan together.”

Mira Haqqani, a freshman JHU student from Karachi reflected after the film, “If Pakistan could unite and not create factions within themselves, we could have a stronger voice in the world.”

In the politics of Washington D.C., Pakistan, and all of the other places who claim to have a stake, it is difficult to separate truth from falsehood. The narrator says in the film, “By the time the truth arrives, lies will have led to wasted villages.” Instead of waiting for bureaucrats to debate and decide, perhaps we ought to imagine a better world ourselves. For students at Johns Hopkins and in academia in general, consider Kohlery’s question, “Should a university be doing military research?”

We carry the burden of our actions. Memories of dead among the living should haunt us more than they haunt our brothers and sisters in Waziristan.