x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

London gallery shows pictures of civilian victims of US drone strikes in Pakistan

Exhibition is sponsored by the British rights group Reprieve and by the Foundation for Fundamental rights, started by the Pakistani lawyer Mirza Shahzad Akbar to help drone strike victims.

A man holds debris from a missile strike in North Waziristan, one of a series of pictures a gallery in London is staging allegedly showing innocent civilians killed by US drone missile strikes in Pakistan's tribal region along the Afghan border. Noor Behram / AP Photo
A man holds debris from a missile strike in North Waziristan, one of a series of pictures a gallery in London is staging allegedly showing innocent civilians killed by US drone missile strikes in Pakistan's tribal region along the Afghan border. Noor Behram / AP Photo

A London gallery opened a photo exhibition yesterday that allegedly shows civilians killed by US drone missile strikes in Pakistan's tribal region along the Afghan border.

US officials do not publicly acknowledge the CIA's covert drone programme, but they have said privately that the strikes harm very few civilians and are key to weakening Al Qaeda and other militant groups.

Noor Behram, 39, a photographer who has worked with several international news agencies, said: "I have tried covering the important but uncovered and unreported truth about drone strikes in Pakistan: that far more civilians are being injured and killed than the Americans and Pakistanis admit."

Mr Behram spent the past three years photographing the aftermath of drone strikes in North and South Waziristan. He managed to reach around 60 attack sites, and the exhibit that opened yesterday at the Beaconsfield gallery features photographs from 28 of those strikes.

US officials "don't see that they target one house and along with it, two or three adjoining houses also get destroyed, killing innocent women and children and other totally impartial people", Mr Behram said on Monday.

It is often difficult to verify who is killed in the strikes because the areas where they occur are off-limits to foreign journalists. News agencies often rely on local intelligence officials to determine who perished in a strike.

The exhibition is sponsored by the British rights group Reprieve and by the Foundation for Fundamental rights, an NGO started by the Pakistani lawyer Mirza Shahzad Akbar to help drone strike victims.

The exhibit includes a photo showing an 8-year-old boy allegedly killed in a drone strike in 2009 in South Waziristan, his body surrounded by flowers as it was prepared for burial. Another shows a man in North Waziristan holding what is described as a piece of a missile fired from a US drone, with the rubble of several destroyed mud buildings behind him.

Other photos in the exhibit are more gruesome.

A poll conducted last year in the tribal region by two US-based organisations, the New America Foundation and Terror Free Tomorrow, found that more than three quarters of the residents surveyed opposed the US missile strikes, and nearly half thought they mainly kill civilians.

But some analysts and activists have suggested people in the tribal region are not free to express their true views about the missile strikes because they fear Taliban reprisal.

One political and human rights activist from the Khyber tribal region, Lateef Afridi, said last year that he has found particularly strong support for missile strikes among people he has met from North Waziristan, where most of the attacks have been focused recently.

Mr Akbar, the Pakistani lawyer backing the exhibition, has sought to bring lawsuits against CIA officials connected with the drone programme. He filed a report to Pakistani police on Monday calling for an international arrest warrant for John Rizzo, the CIA's former chief counsel. Last year, Mr Akbar filed a similar report against the CIA chief in Pakistan, prompting the spy agency to withdraw him from the country.

Pakistani officials regularly criticise the drone strikes as violations of the country's sovereignty. But the government is widely believed to have supported them in the past, a position that has become strained after the covert US raid that killed Osama bin Laden on May 2 and humiliated Pakistan.

Reprieve's director, Clive Stafford Smith, said he believes the drone strikes are doing more harm than good in Pakistan.

"I hate to expose the world to pictures of a child with his head blown half off, but that is what the US military calls 'collateral' damage," Mr Smith said. "This is another terrible US policy in the war on terror."