THREE VOICES ON THE AISHA CASE
Elisabeth Löfgren, press secretary, Amnesty Sweden.
Amnesty has, on several occasions, made critical statements about US drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.
In October, Amnesty published a report entitled “Will I be next? US drone strikes in Pakistan”, which was a comprehensive review of how international law is complied with during drone strikes.
The report sets out very clear demands for the US to introduce transparency and independent investigations.
Elisabeth Löfgren is of the opinion that the case of Aisha and her family is a typical breach of international law.
"Within international law, there is talk of arbitrary killing and this seems to be one such case."
The fact that ISAF carried out an investigation is not enough, there must be an independent investigator who determines why the strike occurred at all, what evidence existed and who was affected.
"A major problem is that everything is so classified, there is no transparency and we want that to change," she continues.
The fact that Aisha was also kept away from her surviving family and travelled alone to the US is something that Elisabeth Löfgren is critical to.
"That is just cruel. Being close to people she knows is of course important for her rehabilitation," she says.
Said Mahmoudi, professor in public international law at Stockholm University.
In an ongoing war, where both sides have acknowledged being in an armed conflict with each other, the laws of war apply, i.e. you can kill each other without international law applying.
In other words, according to Saud Mahmoudi it is not a breach of international law to carry out drone strikes in Afghanistan, as the Taliban is the warring party.
However, there are laws that say that the strike must be proportionate and that civilians in the vicinity of the target must be taken into consideration.
"But when it comes to international law, it is very difficult to say that a crime has been committed if Talibans were attacked, but civilians were affected.”
In the incident in which Aisha was injured, six civilian deaths were confirmed. Whether the other eight were civilians or Talibans is one word against another.
If there were eight Talibans - is it "proportionate" that six civilians died?
"That is hard to say, because it depends on the target, but if the Taliban was a high-ranking person, it could be deemed proportionate according to international law."
He does not think it likely that Aisha's case will be taken to the International Criminal Court.
Patricia Gossman, Human Rights Watch in Afghanistan.
HRW has repeatedly released reports about civilian casualties in drone incidents.
In February they released the report “A Wedding That Became a Funeral” which mainly investigates a case in Yemen where 12 people were killed and 15 were wounded in a wedding party.
”We are told they take precautions to avoid killing civilians, but that is not what we are seeing. We would like to know how they choose targets”, says Patricia Gossman.
She sees it as a problem that only when ISAF investigates such incidents, there is no real accountability.
”They can say that had an operation against a senior Taliban leader, but they often do not actually name him or say that he was in fact among those killed. We want more transparency”, she says.
She is also critical about that Aisha's family did not receive information about her in a long time.
”It might not be because they wanted to hide her but it is inhumane not to ensure that the information arrives to the family”, she says.
Aisha, 4, was used to seeing the American birds soaring above the village.
She knew that they were dangerous, her mum and dad had talked about it.
On the 7th of September 2013, she became one of the birds' victims.
Meya Jan is at home on his farm in the village of Gamber when he receives a phone call from the neighbouring village.
"Did you hear that a car has been hit on the road to Gamber?" asks his neighbour.
Meya Jan feels a knot building up in his stomach. Did his sister, Taher, and her husband, Abdul Rashid, make it out in time with their children Aisha, 4, and Jundullah, 1?
They had been in Kabul because Taher had been having pregnancy troubles and should be on their way home. He hopes that they stopped for a break in Asadabad, capital of the Kunar Province on the border to Pakistan.
It's the 7th of September but it is still hot, and they are likely to have stopped with some relatives for a rest. They aren't answering their mobiles, so he calls his relative, Hasrat Gul, who is in Asadabad.
"Do you know who drove up here today?"
"Yes, Abdul Rashid drove off earlier with Taher, the children and several other relatives that were going that way," he replied.
It's the beginning of October 2013 and the article we have come to write in Jalalabad in Eastern Afghanistan has fallen through. But as there was a lot of talk at the time about children being injured when they were forced to plant roadside bombs, we decide to visit the city's hospital instead.
Doctor Humayoon Zaheer says he hasn't had any such cases. Instead he starts talking about other people they have treated. Dismembered policemen, children with gunshot wounds from battle crossfire and women who have died in childbirth. He shows us round the hospital telling us about everything they need to be able to provide the best treatment.
Once inside his simple office he suddenly says,
"We had another case here. 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."
Meya Jan and the other villagers rush off down the road towards the site of the strike. People from the neighbouring village have already started gathering. It is late afternoon, but the September sunshine is still baking the green velvety mountains.
Meya Jan immediately sees that it is Abdul Rashid's red car that has been hit. The bombs have carved big chunks out of the ground and there's not much left of the car. Body parts lie scattered around the car.
A man from the neighbouring village says that they had seen a drone circling the area. The Kunar Province has long been a stronghold for the Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami and al-Qaida alike and the area has seen a lot of bloody battles. Most US bases are now deserted and there are few soldiers about. They have been replaced by drones - unmanned planes. The villagers call them ”American birds”.
The neighbour who saw the strike says that it first dropped two bombs and when the injured attempted to flee from the car, it dropped three more. Nobody survived, he says.
Around him on the ground Meya Jan recognises his family members, several women and children. There is blood everywhere and several of them are completely dismembered. He is filled with rage.
When the US troops arrived in 2001, a lot of Afghans believed that the US would come and help them. The country was divided after the Russian occupation, which was followed by a bloody civil war and the brutal Taliban regime. They had hoped that the country would be made stronger. But the opposite happened in Kunar.
Every time they tried to drive anywhere, they were stopped by US soldiers. Several family members had been arrested and later released. Because of the soldiers, the Taliban planted dangerous roadside bombs along the roads.
There may never have been a school for the children, but at least they used to sit under a large tree and learn to read and write. Ever since the drones began to circle overhead, they have been too scared to even sit there any more. Yet another generation without an education. Everyone was caught between the two conflicting sides.
Meya Jan and the others begin lifting the body parts and mangled bodies into a car. They drive them home to the courtyard and line them up in order to wrap and bury them.
15 dead, 3 of whom are women and 4 are children:
Abdul Rashid, 26, Taher, 24, Aisha, 4, Jundullah, 18 months, Abdul Rahman, 28, Khatima, 45, Nadia, 26, Soheil, 3, Osman, 19, Abdul Wahid, 25, Amir, 4, Asadullah, 28, Hayatollah 28, Abdul Wahid, 36, and Mohammad Ullah, 16.
Wiped out. Gone. Dead.
Suddenly they hear a voice.
Doctor Homayoon holds out the two page medical file about the faceless girl. It says that she arrived at the hospital on the 8th of September, about a month before our visit. Doctor Homayoon thinks she was 8 years old, but the file says she was 4. She has lost her eyes and nose, it says.
According to the file, she is from the village of Gamber in Kunar. I remember the drone strike in Gamber from other media and that President Karzai criticized the US for the civilian deaths. So there was a survivor?
I decide to try and find out what happened.
Civilians that are killed in air strikes, but above all in drone strikes, is the most sensitive defence issue that the US and President Barack Obama - also known as the drone president - has to deal with. Throughout his entire presidential term, Obama's military strategy has been to reduce the number of ground troops and replace them with unmanned air strikes piloted from a military base in the US. Primarily air strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan.
This tactic wins points back home. The number of fallen US soldiers is zero. The material costs are even less. And supporters claim that drones are the most effective way to eliminate terrorism. Drone strikes have also killed high-ranking military jihadists in those three countries. In Afghanistan, this is a tactic that has driven large groups of Talibans out of certain areas.
But the strategy has also received a lot of criticism, as the unmanned attacks miss the targets, generate counter-productive unrest among the population and because the people controlling the attacks are emotionally detached from the targets. An ex-drone soldier, one of the people that pushed the bomb button, wrote in the British Guardian newspaper that the images they use do not even clearly show whether the people on the ground are carrying a rifle or a spade.
As a result, there has been criticism that the number of civilian victims is far too high. A much-discussed report from 2012 by Stanford and New York University documented 884 civilian victims, of which 176 were children, from 340 strikes since 2004 in Pakistan alone. Both the UN and Amnesty have demanded independent investigations into drone incidents.
The military term for civilian victims is collateral damage, in other words losses that are only to be expected during war.
The four year old girl that the doctors in Jalalabad are talking about is therefore collateral damage, if their stories are true.
Everyone in the family hears the faint cry for water. It's coming from Aisha, Meya Jan's sister's four year old daughter. One of her hands is missing, her leg is bleeding and there is nothing left of her eyes or nose.
"Aisha's alive, we must get her to a doctor!"
Meya Jan's older relatives lift Aisha into the car. It's starting to get dark, it's already 7pm and they have to drive a long way to reach help. If the girl is to survive, she needs help quickly. They set out onto the poor roads.
They don't reach the hospital in Asadabad until 10.30 that evening. When the doctors catch sight of Aisha, they shake their heads. There is nothing they can do. She is in too bad shape, they say. But they organise an ambulance to take her to the hospital in Jalalabad that night.
Even there, the doctors say straight away that she is too difficult a case for them and that she must be moved to a better hospital. But they do what they can and patch her face together to the best of their ability. The doctor who operates on her is not positive about her chances. He knows that they cannot do anything for her there. The uncle who is constantly by her side looks at him hopefully, but the doctors try to explain that the girl has to be moved to Pakistan for treatment.
The uncle says that he doesn't know how he will be able to pay the medical bills, as they have just lost 14 family members. In the morning, the hospital calls UNAMA (the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) for advice.
UNAMA understands the severity of the situation and say that they will try and get her moved to Kabul, where treatment is better. After four days, Aisha is taken to Kabul by ambulance helicopter.
The doctors in Jalalabad tell me that the faceless girl has been moved to Kabul. They think that she is at the French paediatric hospital. We decide to return to the capital to meet her there. During the three hour journey, we begin searching for her family by phone - partly to find out more about the strike, but also to get their permission to visit her at the French hospital.
But when we arrive at the hospital, it turns out she isn't there. Their public relations manager, Abdul Samad Ibrahimi, says that they have had a similar case but that the girl was eight. He promises to check, as there are often age discrepancies in Afghanistan. Perhaps it was the same girl?
Late that evening, he calls me.
"No, the girl we had was not from Kunar. We have never treated the girl you are talking about."
I start calling the various hospitals that UNAMA usually sends civilian patients to – Emergency, ICRC and the Indira Gandhi paediatric hospital – asking if they have treated a young girl that was injured in a drone incident on 7th September. None of them have heard of the girl.
After several more calls to UNAMA and the doctors in Jalalabad, it turns out that ISAF (the International Security Assistance Force) has taken over the case. So she is at the French military hospital near the airport in Kabul. I contact ISAF to find out if she is still there and ask to meet her.
Barely a week after the drone strike, Meya Jan receives a call from his uncle. He wants him to come to Kabul and be with Aisha at the military hospital near the airport.
Meya Jan does not hesitate for a second. He leaves the farm and his family and takes the long journey to look after his niece. She is all they have left of Abdul Rashid's family. Meya Jan wants to do everything he can for her.
For the next three days, he sits by her bed. He believes that Aisha feels his presence. He is sad when he sees this girl, a girl that used to smile so broadly, lying here without a face.
Suddenly there is a commotion in the military hospital. Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, is on his way to visit the injured.
When Karzai reaches Aisha's bed, he is dismayed.
The President has since said in an interview with the Washington Post that it was when he saw the four year old girl that he felt the strongest hatred towards the US. Karzai demands that Aisha immediately be flown out of the country with a relative, to a country like France or the US for treatment. Various alternatives are discussed, among them a German paediatric hospital has said that they want to treat her. Meya Jan feels grateful - perhaps Aisha will receive help and survive, he thinks.
Suddenly a few doctors and nurses arrive and want to move her. Meya Jan is not allowed to go with her, they say. He demands that himself or another relative accompany Aisha, as she doesn't speak English and is just a young child. But they refuse, they are taking her to the major military base in Bagram and then she will be flown out of the country. Probably to the US.
Meya Jan doesn't know what to think. Are the US military, the people who killed her family and destroyed Aisha's face, going to take her?
Who is going to hold her hand now?
Eventually we get in contact with Meya Jan and Hasrat Gul, the faceless girl's two uncles, by phone. They are back in Gamber, their village. It is too dangerous for a Westerner to visit their area at the moment, but they are prepared to travel to Kabul to meet me.
It has been five weeks since the drone strike and they would really like to talk about the girl, Aisha.
When they arrive in Kabul, they explain that Meya Jan is responsible for Aisha and has been awarded custody. But at first, it is mostly uncle Hasrat Gul who does the talking. He speaks a little English and has occasionally worked on the US military base at Asadabad.
He calmly recounts the entire event, reads out the names of the dead and shows me pictures of the bodies and the bomb-shattered car.
"How could they? They are not Taliban and there were several women and children in the car."
Both of them are distraught with grief after having lost their family, but also in despair over Aisha's situation. They have not heard any news about her for several weeks. They have tried talking with doctors and the military, but no-one is telling them anything.
"We think she is in the US, that's what they told us, but we have no contact and we don't know if she is still in Bagram or if she's been flown out," says Hasrat.
"We think about her all the time and wonder who she's with and if she's scared," says Meya Jan.
They say that they think the US military is trying to hide her because drone strikes are such a sensitive subject.
"Can you find her?" they wonder.
They sign a power of attorney making me their representative and giving me permission to see Aisha and follow her case indefinitely. They also record a touching video message to Aisha in which they say that they miss her and that they are all waiting for her back home.
"She can't see, but she recognises our voices. Can you record a video of her and bring it to us?" says a choked up Meya Jan.
That same afternoon in October I send an email to ISAF – who have not yet wanted to say anything about either the incident or Aisha - and ask for information about Aisha. The power of attorney is attached to the email.
Before they respond, I find out from a source at the French military hospital that Aisha has been flown to Washington. I immediately book a flight from Kabul to Washington. While I'm sitting at the gate, waiting for my flight from Kabul, I receive a call from my source.
"It's a mess, we don't know where she is. When she left us they said she was being flown to the US, but now they won't tell us anything. There is information that says she is still in Bagram or that she has been taken to Germany or Pakistan. We don't even know if she's alive. She could have died from her injuries," says the source.
I manage to exit the gate, return to Kabul and get in touch with ISAF, demanding that they tell me where she is and if she is alive. Again, I write that I have power of attorney and that they must explain how they are legally entitled to withhold information about Aisha's whereabouts. In the meantime, I continue to visit various different hospitals, call the paediatric hospital in Pakistan, email possible hospitals in Germany and talk to all of the doctors who have been involved.
No-one knows what has become of Aisha.
A lot later, an email arrives from ISAF's headquarters. They explain that Aisha is in the US and that I should contact an organisation called Solace, who is now responsible for Aisha.
Meya Jan and Hasrat Gul are over the moon just to know this much. They ask me several times to give their love to Aisha when I meet her.
"Tell her we miss her and that everyone is waiting for her," they tell me again via my interpreter.
It is still unclear as to which hospital or city Aisha is in, but it is easy to find contact information to Solace. It turns out to be a relief organisation that helps Afghan children with war injuries to receive international treatment.
Solace's strategy is to pay for foreign treatment and then place the children with foster families until they can be flown back to their own country. In the middle of all this tragedy there is a glimmer of hope. Few children that have been blinded, dismembered or burned by the war have ever been given the chance of help abroad. In all this misery, Aisha must at least have been lucky. I call Solace and tell them I want to follow Aisha for an article and a documentary.
My first contact with Solace in November is positive, they like the idea of following Aisha's rehabilitation and we agree on a date for a Skype conference. They then tell me she is making progress, but that she will need several years of treatment in the US. They say that she is at the Walter Reed military hospital in Washington. I tell them I am planning on visiting immediately. They reply that the case has a lot of security aspects around it, "as you can imagine," and they don't know if it can be arranged. They have to speak with the Walter Reed hospital first.
I repeat that I have the family's power of attorney and that this should suffice.
The line goes quiet.
"We were informed that she didn't have any family," says Patsy Wilson, one of the founders of Solace.
"That's odd. Aisha has an entire family waiting anxiously, I explain and promise to check if I am allowed to hand out their telephone number. That evening, Hasrat Gul and Meya Jan reply straight away that they are more than happy to share their number. I send the number to Solace."
It goes quiet again. The family in Afghanistan hears nothing and the press department at the Walter Reed hospital don't reply to any emails. Eventually I receive a short email from Solace saying that they are not interested in participating in my documentary.
But what about the family? Shouldn't they be told where and how she is?
Solace refers me to the press office at Walter Reed, who reply that the family can ask local representatives at the base in Kunar about Aisha's condition. The family asks around the base, the hospital and the governor's once again, but are still told nothing.
Weeks pass. The family begin disconsolately believing that the US military have taken Aisha. They even start doubting whether she is alive.
"They probably don't want her to become a poster girl for drone repercussions," they say.
It isn't until December that an opening appears. The family asks around the base, the hospital and the Governor's once again, but are still told nothing. In January I send all of the papers to Solace and Walter Reed. They receive the papers and realise the fact: Aisha has a family in Afghanistan.
And then it goes quiet again.
At the end of January, the family have still heard nothing from Solace. Five months have passed since the drone strike, without the family being informed about her condition. It is becoming a little Kafkaesque. I reconnect with Solace and wonder what is happening and ask them to produce legal documentation proving that they are entitled to withhold her from the family.
"We have just found out that the information we sent did not arrive. We are now working to arrange a telephone conference with her uncle," replies Solace's press secretary, Regan Brown, in an email. In February they make contact and the family starts to feel hopeful.
At the beginning of March I land in Washington. There's a snowstorm and all government offices are closed. In the days leading up to the visit, I had informed Solace that I was on my way. I also contact the family who tell me that they have finally made contact with the organisation but they are pleased I am on my way.
Once again they ask me to send their love to Aisha and tell her they miss her.
I call Patsy Wilson at Solace and ask her when we can meet. She tells me she is not interested. She says Aisha has been placed with a family, but that she is not allowed visitors. I tell her we don't need to meet Aisha at the moment, but that we could meet up to talk about Solace, about Aisha and discuss how we could set up visits. But above all inform the family in Kunar.
Patsy Wilson hangs up on me.
While waiting for a new contact, I drive past the Walter Reed military hospital where Aisha had been treated. It is enormous. Veterans come and go through the gates and the flag is flying high. So, a lonely Afghan faceless girl, so-called collateral damage in a drone strike, was laying inside this place.
Later that night an email arrives from Solace. They write that they have been in touch with the family in Afghanistan and that they have withdrawn their power of attorney.
When I call the family, Hasrat Gul tells me that they were contacted by Solace that afternoon. They have demanded that the family break off all contact with me. They have agreed, as they are scared that Aisha will be send home without treatment otherwise.
"We were too scared to refuse," says Hasrat Gul.
The Solace Organisation is praised in various articles in which injured children are shown and interviewed. It also says that in the first instance they receive their cases via the US military. They are clear on their website about wanting the children to be a bridge between Afghanistan and the US when they return.
Solace does not want to be interviewed but eventually answers questions via email.
How many children has Solace helped?
”Solace has helped 234 children through our medical travel program for children affected by war since 2007."
How many are from Afghanistan?
"One hundred percent of them have been from Afghanistan since the organization has been focused on helping children affected by war. The organization began in 1997 to serve children affected by the Chernobyl disaster."
Who finances Solace?
"Solace is a US 501 (c) 3 non profit organization funded by donations from individuals, corporations, foundations and granting organizations from all over the world. Families do not pay for their children to participate in the medical travel program.
Do the children normally come with a relative?
"No. Children travel to the US with Peace Ambassadors or staff. Peace Ambassadors are qualified Afghan volunteers that escort/accompany children while traveling. These individuals also serve as translators while in the US as they are English-speaking."
How many of the children have been injured in US strikes?
"Solace does not know the answer to this question. We do not investigate how children receive their injuries.”
Why did you choose Aisha?
”Aisha's condition qualified her to participate in our medical travel program."
Why was she treated at Walter Reed and not a normal paediatric hospital?
"Solace is not a representative of Walter Reed and cannot answer this question."
I ask why they didn't contact the family before I had given them the number, identification papers and Governor's testimony.
"Solace was doing everything we could to communicate Aisha's condition with her family. We were unaware her family was not receiving communication. Once we established communication with the family, we apologized for the inconvenience."
Will she be sent home without treatment if a journalist follows her case?
They want the person who killed their family to be put to justice. Money is irrelevent. Solace constantly refers to Aisha's state of health and integrity.
In March I return to Afghanistan. Once again, Meya Jan and Hasrat Gul come to Kabul to meet me. They tell me they are disappointed that I never got to meet Aisha.
"It is thanks to you that we are in contact with Aisha today. Otherwise she would have completely disappeared. We would not have known how to look for her," they say.
They do not understand why it took so long, but say that perhaps there are regulations in the US that they don't know about.
Then Meya Jan lights up and tells me that they have now, finally, been able to talk to Aisha. She has now been placed with a Muslim foster family who speak Pashtun. When they talked to her she said she is getting stronger and stronger.
"She cried and wondered where we are and how everyone in the village is. She spoke to my son and said that 'as soon as I'm strong I'm coming home to the village.'"
Aisha had also said that she had started school, where she had learnt Dari and English.
"She said she has learnt her ABC," says Meya Jan, laughing.
They have received photographs of her, taken over the past few months. Her hand, eyes and nose are gone, but the wounds have healed and sometimes she wears a prosthetic nose.
The family are grateful that Aisha received help abroad, but say that they would have preferred a country other than America. It feels odd that Aisha was being treated in the same hospital and US soldiers.
"We were against the US taking her. They killed our entire family and now they have her. Even Germany and France said they could help her, but the US wanted her so that the case didn't become too big in other countries. We don't understand why none of us got to go with her either, that she had to travel alone."
As for the actual incident, it's one word against another. ISAF, who carried out their own investigation into the case, maintain that eight of the people in the car were Taliban. In an email, they express their regret that Aisha was injured and that civilians were killed during the operation, the objective of which was to kill a high-ranking Taliban leader.
ISAF did not wish to say whether they killed the Taliban leader in the drone strike or provide any other details. As for Aisha, they say that relief organisation Solace is responsible.
Hasrat Gul tells me that the family has been offered compensation for the civilians who died in the strike. $2,000 per victim.
"They want to give us money, but we don't want America's money. We have said that the only apology we can accept is what it says in the Koran: 100 camels."
They want the person who killed their family to be put to justice, that money is unimportant.
Hasrat Gul and Meya Jan realise that it will be difficult for Aisha to return to life in the mountains after having lived in the US for several years. But they think she realises that she cannot live in a country that killed her mother, father and little brother.
"She belongs at home with us," says Meya Jan.