Under fire from afar: Harrowing exhibition reveals damage done by drones in Pakistan

It reveals the human cost of unmanned weapons, argues Jemima Khan
  • @Jemima_Khan

If you want to understand the impact of the "war on terror" on America's ally, Pakistan, look no further than Noor Behram's photographs which show, he says, collateral damage as a result of US drone strikes in the tribal area. Behram, who is from Waziristan, has spent the past four years interviewing survivors of drone attacks, shooting video footage and close-up stills of the damage. The photographs – part of a new London exhibition – are gruesome.

Images of a severed hand, a child with half his head blown off, mangled body parts, demolished homes, a mosque reduced to rubble and the blood-splattered clothes of a woman held aloft by her widower have been converted to QuickTime films by the Beaconsfield gallery and projected, unedited, on to a giant cinema screen which plays on a loop. There is video footage of a lone drone hovering above a village in Miranshah, which resembles a fly on the camera lens. The background noise is of children playing and a rooster crowing.

There is another image, of an empty grave. Eighty mourners attending a funeral were struck by a missile and killed before they could bury the body. A local man who was digging the grave lies mutilated beside it. Similar images are regularly printed in local Pakistani papers, fanning the flames of anti-Americanism. A recent Pew poll found that 97 per cent of respondents viewed drones negatively and 69 per cent now view America as the enemy.

Here in the UK, we are more likely to read reports of how many militants have been killed from unnamed Pakistani intelligence officials. For foreigners, the only way to cover the Afghanistan conflict is to get permission from defence ministries and their press minders to be embedded with the Western armies.

Behram's work appears to reveal the truth about the US drone campaign in Pakistan's tribal region – that far more civilians are being killed than the Americans or Pakistanis will admit. His images cannot be independently verified but are backed up by credible documentation. It also raises questions about the ethics of this new video-game warfare. How likely is it that a "reachback operator" sitting at a video screen up to 7,500 miles away at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, will hit the right target in the middle of the night?

The New America Foundation, which tracks drone strikes, estimates non-militant deaths at 20 per cent of the total of 2,464 fatalities, though Behram believes the toll is far greater: "For every 10 to 15 people killed, maybe they get one militant."

Clive Stafford Smith, founder of legal action charity Reprieve, who together with Pakistani lawyer, Mirza Shahzad Akbar, has launched lawsuits on behalf of victims' families, believes that 95 per cent of those killed by drones are not legitimate targets. He says: "We need transparent figures. We know that the US is lying as they say no civilians are being killed by drones and we've seen pictures of dead women and children." He believes that Behram's photographs provide evidence.

There are other questions which the images raise. How can people surrender to a drone? Why is the US regularly bombing its ally Pakistan in the first place?

Since President Obama came to office, the use of unmanned aircraft has drastically increased. Bush used unmanned predator drones 45 times in his eight years in office, while Obama unleashed 118 drones on Pakistan last year alone.

It's not just America however that is reducing its military's dependence on human beings – within 20 years nearly one third of the RAF could be made up of remotely controlled drones.

Reprieve has called its anti-drone campaign Bugsplat – the official term used by US authorities when human beings are successfully killed with drone missiles. Who needs satire?

'Gaming in Waziristan', an exhibition including images of the aftermath of drone strikes in north Waziristan, is at Beaconsfield, Newport Street, London SE11. info@beaconsfield.ltd.uk