By Matt Lemas
June 11, 2014 "ICH" - "RYOT" - On September 7th 2013, an American drone in Afghanistan struck a car carrying 15 passengers. Everyone was killed in the attack except for one — a four-year-old girl named Aisha.
The girl was traveling with her parents, a sibling, and other relatives to their home in Gamber, a village in the Kunar province of Aghanistan.
Referred to by the locals as “American birds,” U.S. drone strikes are a common fixture in Kunar, where the Taliban reportedly has a strong presence.
The wreckage was discovered by Aisha’s uncle, Meya Kan, and other villagers on the road after they received a phone call from a neighboring village.
Kan saw body parts strewn all around the wreckage, and assumed everyone was dead — until he he heard a voice calling out for water.
It was Aisha.
Upon being pulled from the ruined vehicle, the four-year-old girl was unrecognizable. She’d lost both eyes and her nose.
Journalist Terese Cristiansson came across Aisha’s story while Swedish newspaper Expressen was interviewing Afghan hospital personnel about children who were injured after being forced to plant roadside bombs.
The doctor she met with, Humayoon Zaheer, couldn’t refer her to any roadside bomb injuries within the hospital. Instead, he related one particularly gruesome tale — the story of Aisha.
“We had another case here,” Zaheer told Expressen. “She came in a couple of weeks ago, in September. A little girl who had lost her face in a drone strike. It was a very unusual case. I’ll never forget it.”
Expressen reports that Aisha was brought into the hospital with her nose, both eyes, and one hand missing.
The girl was shuffled to two different hospitals in Afghanistan before being transferred to a medical facility in the capital of Kabul, the only place in the country capable of treating her severe injuries.
A few days after being in Kabul, Aisha was visited by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was at the hospital for a goodwill mission. In an interview with the Washington Post five months after the attack, Karzai recalled that seeing Aisha at the hospital was his “worst day in office.”
“The worst of it was when I went to visit a little girl in the French hospital who had no face, who was 4 1/2 years old, who had no face, completely blown off from the chin up to the eyes. She was blinded — her eyes were there but were blinded. Her arm was also not there. And she had lost the whole family, the entire family, 14 of them, in the bombing in Kunar. And that day . . . [note: there is a 39-second pause as Karzai struggles with his emotions] . . . that day, I wished she were dead and not alive, so she could be buried with her parents and brothers and sisters.”
Following the president’s visit, Aisha was moved across the globe to a hospital in the United States — without the consent of her remaining family. The girl’s two uncles were not allowed to accompany her.
It was at this point — five weeks after the initial strike — that Cristiansson sought to find Aisha. The girl’s uncles granted the journalist power of attorney, which made her the family’s official representative.
Through her research, she discovered that Aisha had been flown to the Walter Reed Military Hospital in Washington. From there, Aisha was put in the care of Solace for Children, a relief organization that treats Afghan children with war injuries, then finds them foster families until they can be flown back to their homes.
As the representative of Aisha’s family, Cristiansson reached out to Solace, but the organization said they’d been told that the girl didn’t have any relatives. After the journalist confirmed to the organization that Aisha did in fact have living family in Afghanistan, Solace declined to participate in any further questioning.
For weeks, Cristiansson was blackballed by the organization and heard nothing about Aisha’s condition. To both the journalist and the girl’s family, it seemed like a cover-up. Aisha’s two uncles believed that the U.S. military was withholding their niece to limit negative coverage of drone strikes.
“They probably don’t want her to become a poster girl for drone repercussions,” they told Expressen.
During this time, the International Security Assistance Force told Cristiansson that the September strike was performed because there were eight Taliban affiliates in the vehicle, and that they regret the civilian casualties.
The family of Aisha, however, said otherwise.
“How could they [commission an air strike?] They are not Taliban and there were several women and children in the car,” said Hasrat Gul, one of Aisha’s uncles.
It was not until March of this year that the family was finally updated on Aisha’s condition. When Cristiansson visted them, they told her that Aisha had been placed with a Muslim foster family in the United States. They added that her wounds had healed, but she’s still without her hand, eyes and nose.
In the end, the two uncles stressed that they just want Aisha to come home, rather than being stuck “in a country that killed her mother, father and little brother.”
“She belongs at home with us,” Meya Jan said.
The Toll of The Drone Program
2014 marks the fifth year of the U.S. drone program under President Obama, and it’s estimated that over this period at least 2,400 people have been killed. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that between 416 and 951 civilians, including 168 to 200 children, were among those who’ve died in Pakistan alone.
Just this March, the United Nations criticized American drone procedure for “the lack of transparency regarding the criteria for drone strikes, including the legal justification for specific attacks, and the lack of accountability for the loss of life resulting from such attacks.”
Nevertheless, the White House has held firm on their stance when it comes to drones.
In September of 2013, the same month Aisha was so badly injured in the devastating attack, the Obama administration denied claims from the aforementioned human rights organizations that laws were being broken.
Obama’s Chief Spokesman Jay Carney said current counterterrorism methods are “lawful” and “effective,” and that other methods would only increase civilian casualties.
In an interview with The New Yorker, President Obama asserted that the use of drones is only necessary when terrorists can’t be captured, and stated that his goal isn’t to “go around blowing things up.” He mentioned that he “wrestles” with the idea of civilians being caught in the crossfire.
“What I’ve tried to do is to tighten the process so much and limit the risks of civilian casualties so much that we have the least fallout from those actions,” Obama told the New Yorker. “But it’s not perfect.”
But accepting those types of imperfections is what led to Aisha’s horrific injuries. Isn’t it time we open our eyes and start to make a change?