While We Read About Drones, Civilians Are Suffering in Pakistan

Amnesty International recently released a new report and website on human rights abuses in northwest Pakistan. This posting is part of our Eyes on Pakistan blogging series.

We have written extensively on this blog about the human rights crisis in northwest Pakistan over the last few weeks. The northwest region of the country is covered on a daily basis in the mainstream media. However, the focus in reporting is on counter-terrorism issues, and no attention is given to the impact of the conflict on civilian communities who live in the area. You just have to check today’s news to find that the top stories in regard to Pakistan are on a new drone strike and the five Americans who were recently convicted on terrorism charges.

To counter this trend and to change the debate about northwest Pakistan in the US media, we are launching the Eyes on Pakistan Writing Contest. Since this is such a frequent topic, we encourage you to challenge the current media reporting and raise human rights concerns in northwest Pakistan by writing op-eds, letters to the editors, blog entries or news stories on the human rights crisis in northwest Pakistan (Take a look at this example). The best entries will receive a Flip HD camera and get a chance to be re-published on this blog and the Eyes on Pakistan website!

We are providing enough resources to get you started, and you should especially check out our new website Eyes on Pakistan. Through the Eyes on Pakistan project, we have a powerful new tool to track and monitor the human rights situation on the ground. Policy makers from Islamabad to Washington would be well advised to heed the alarming trends it demonstrates. Eyes on Pakistan reveals the human toll of a conflict that is all too often described in the abstract. The site presents irrefutable proof that northwestern Pakistan has become the scene of a grave human rights and humanitarian crisis.

Change the debate now: Start writing and send us your published piece.

Visualizing the Human Rights Crisis in Northwest Pakistan

Amnesty International recently released a new report and website on human rights abuses in northwest Pakistan. This guest-posting is part of our Eyes on Pakistan blogging series.

The Northwestern Pakistan region is remote and has a mountainous physical geography. Over the past several years it has become a dangerous place to collect data and conduct research. Relatively little is known about the overall situation in the region, as no one has gathered enough relevant data to make sense of the situation.  Using geographic information techniques, AAAS (the American Association for the Advancement of Science) at the request of AI-USA, worked to visualize the ongoing human rights situation in Pakistan through Eyes on Pakistan. Focusing on the years 2005-2009, we have created a database of human rights incidents for the Northwestern Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). This database is meant to increase understanding of the situation occurring in Pakistan, both in terms of its recent developments and to determine major trends in the events.

Screenshot of Dawn.com

Media outlets report daily on a wide range of events occurring in the area and were key to the creation of the site. Researchers gathered media reports from popular news sources such as BBC, the Dawn, and the New York Times and created a coding system to identify the main facts of each incident, including: the number of people killed or wounded, the agent of the incident (the group or source responsible for an incident), and the attack methods used (tactic or method employed by agents). Agent was an important category to include in the database so that incidents could be looked at for trends of particular groups acting in certain locations within the two provinces. Agents were parsed into 14 categories, ranging from air strikes, ground offensives, insurgency targeting civilians, collective punishments, to extrajudicial executions. The category attack method was a distillation of the various types of weaponry or attacks used in the incidents reported within the database. Again, it was important to derive spatial trends from the database of media reports, and the ability to see which types of attacks were prevalent in which areas were seen as a crucial set of facts for later data analysis and access by users of the website. Many attack methods were documented, including air strikes, drones, suicide attacks, arrests, and others.
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US Must not Turn Blind Eye to Human Rights Crisis in Northwest Pakistan

This piece was originally posted on Huffington Post.

“I lost my sense when I reached the door of my house and saw and heard the crying of my close neighbors and relatives—as if hell fell on me. When I saw people putting the dead bodies of my children, parents, and other relatives in bed I couldn’t bear it anymore and fell on the ground…”

A 25-year-old man who lost nine family members when two shells fired by security forces hit his house during the battle of Loi Sam (FATA).

A young girl from Maidan flees her village carrying her younger brother on her back, they are trying to escape the fighting between the Taleban and Pakistani government forces in Lower Dir, North West Frontier Province, 27 April 2009. (c) AI

This shocking testimony by a resident of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) is a reminder that it is civilians who suffer as a consequence of the fighting between the Taleban and Pakistani government forces in northwest Pakistan. In the United States, this conflict is too often described from a pure counter-terrorism angle: “For the American people, this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world.” President Obama forgot to mention that this region is also home to millions of people, who do not support or take part in the violence and are simply trying to farm, raise livestock, weave fabrics, transport goods, raise families, build, repair, or teach.

We too rarely hear their stories. They give a human face to the suffering of millions of Pakistanis in the northwest tribal areas.

The consequence of this ignorance is that today many of the residents in northwest Pakistan live in a human rights free zone  where they have no legal protection by the government and are subject to horrific abuses by the Taleban. Unfortunately, many areas of northwest Pakistan now resemble the Taleban-ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s. The world should be alarmed by the way living conditions have deteriorated under the increasingly brutal control of the Pakistani Taleban and its allied insurgent groups; instead, the suffering of the people of this area has been largely ignored, sacrificed in the name of geopolitical interests. Most disturbing is the fact that civilians are increasingly hit on three different fronts: by the Taleban, by the Pakistani army and by U.S. Drone strikes.

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Wrong Strategy? Pakistan Not Smart to Hit Civilians

Am I the only one that notices that press coverage of the conflict in northwestern Pakistan is completely dominated by a geopolitical and counterterrorism viewpoint? I was reminded of that fact again over the last few days with the spike in coverage following the Afghanistan offensive and the related arrests of key Taliban leaders in joint US-Pakistani operations.

An old women carrying her grandson fleeing from Maidan, northwest Pakistan to escape the fighting between the Taliban and government forces, 27 April 2009. (c) Amnesty International

An old women carrying her grandson fleeing from Maidan, northwest Pakistan to escape the fighting between the Taliban and government forces, 27 April 2009. (c) Amnesty International

The most recent example is an op-ed in yesterday’s Boston Globe, titled Pakistan smart to hit Taliban. Its author, Eric Rosenbach, does a good job of analyzing the most recent events and putting them in a broader (geopolitical, of course) perspective. Like many others, he ignores the fact that many of the military and intelligence operations he describes actually affect civilians on the ground, who are not connected to any of the armed insurgency groups. His piece, like most others, are filled with elegant words like “tactical” and, above all, “strategy” or “strategic” (in this case, these words are used 11 times, in the most creative alterations: “strategic game changer”, “strategic reassessment”, “change in strategic calculus”, and so on).

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Desperately Needed Homes Sit Unused in Mississippi

Thousands of residents of the Gulf Coast are unable to exercise their right to return more than four years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita made landfall because of a lack of affordable housing. In Mississippi, however, hundreds of federally funded modular homes like those pictured here sit unused because local jurisdictions are employing zoning ordinances that have a discriminatory impact on displaced residents.

© AI

© AI

After Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) designed a program to build cottages that would initially be used as emergency housing, but could eventually be used as modular homes when placed on a permanent foundation. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) received over $270 million in federal funds to build these one, two and three bedroom homes. Although MEMA has built 2,800 of these “Mississippi cottages,” hundreds of them are sitting unused today despite a desperate need for affordable housing for those who are still displaced by the hurricanes.

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Beaches, Palm Trees, Displacement – Welcome to Sri Lanka's War Zone

A glimpse of the former war zone in northeastern Sri Lanka (c) AIUSA. Screenshot taken from Google Earth

A glimpse of the former war zone in northeastern Sri Lanka (c) AIUSA. Screenshot taken from Google Earth

Amnesty’s Science for Human Rights project just released a satellite image of Menik Farm in Sri Lanka, a de-facto internment camp run by the military, which offers a rare glimpse of the massive displacement caused by the conflict. Mark Cutts, the UN official at Menik Farm, recently told the BBC that “nothing less than a new city had been created.”

Through this image, along with aerial photographs displaying the devastation in the so called “safe zone”, we want to offer the public a rare opportunity to see on the ground details in a country where journalists and international monitors are widely prohibited from documenting the results of the recent military showdown. Graves, shelters and a shipwreck are among the things visible on the aerial photographs. We have combined all this information in a Google Earth Layer (recent version of Google Earth required), in order to give activists around the world access – something the government of Sri Lanka is denying us so far–  and to call for accountability for the crimes committed by both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. (Many thanks to AAAS and Ogle Earth for their help in putting this project together).

Satellite image and photograph of Menik Farm. (c) AIUSA, Screenshot taken from Google Earth

Satellite image and photograph of Menik Farm. (c) AIUSA, Screenshot taken from Google Earth

U.N. emergency relief coordinator John Holmes recently described IDP camps in Sri Lanka as “internment camps”, stating that people are not allowed to move freely in and out. The people in Menik Farm are being vetted by the government to determine if there are any links to the Tamil Tigers.

We continue to closely to monitor the situation on the ground, so stay tuned for further information.

MIA Drops the G Word

MIA on the Tavis Smiley show

MIA on the Tavis Smiley show

In an interview on the Tavis Smiley show, British born musician MIA likened the Sri Lanka government’s targeting of its Tamil minority to be genocide. She said:

there’s been a systematic genocide which has quiet thing because no one knows where Sri Lanka is. And now it’s just escalated to the point there’s 350,000 people who are stuck in a battle zone and can’t get out, and aid’s banned and humanitarian organizations are banned, journalists are banned from telling the story.

In the interview, MIA said that one of the reasons for the global inaction on Sri Lanka was the underreporting of the crisis in Sri Lanka, something the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon echoed comments as well.

MIA said:

You don’t know more about it because due to the propaganda — when you think Tamil, you automatically thing tiger, and that is completely disproportionate. So human beings around the world have to be taught to go Tamil equals Tamil civilians first, and the Tamil Tiger is a separate thing.

But in a story in the NY Times, published the day after MIA performed at the Grammy’s on her pregnancy due date, the Times raised questions that MIA might be a supporter of the Tamil Tigers. “Frankly, she’s very lucky to get away with supporting, even indirectly, perhaps the most ruthless terrorist outfit in the world,” the Times quoted a Sinhalese musician as saying. (The Sinhalese comprise the majority in Sri Lanka as well as the government; many alledge that Tamils–which comprise a minority of the population–have been targeted unfairly in lopsided violence and attacks.)

However in numerous interviews, MIA has denied her links to Tamil Tigers and decried the manner in which all Sri Lankan Tamils are accused of being Tiger supporters if they are critical of the Sinhalese government.

But despite efforts to accuse her of being a terrorist sympathizer, MIA continues to speak up against the violence that displaced her family and continues to displace so many others right now. She says,

…we’re managing to wipe out the whole Tamil population, the civilians, and that is why you don’t hear about it, because the propaganda in the media, because if you’re a terrorist organization, you don’t have the right to speak, that is passed on to the Tamil civilians. The Tamil civilians don’t have the right to speak or right to live, they don’t have any liberties.

So that’s been the key thing, that when you think al Qaeda, you’re not thinking Afghanistan. That if you want to go and fight and kill al Qaeda, then you can, but you can’t wipe out Afghanistan. And that’s what’s happening in Sri Lanka, and I think it’s really important for America to understand that, because they set the precedent on how you fight terrorism around the world.

And it’s really important that just that sort of throwaway comment, “Oh, Tamil, she must be a Tamil Tiger,” actually, the repercussions of that is killing people back home.

Don't Forget the Victims in Georgia

Now I don’t have a house. The weather is nice and I can sleep in the garden, but I don’t know what to do when the rain comes. Nobody is helping me.” A former teacher, Kazbek Djiloev, shared his hardship with us a few months ago as he stood before the ruins of his home in Tskhinvali. His house was one of many that were shelled during the recent Georgia-Russia conflict.

 

We captured this man’s story as an example of how such a military clash impacts civilians. He echoes the voices of thousands more civilian victims, many of whom are unable to return to their previous lives. Stories like Kazbek’s provide a human face to the evidence, including satellite imagery, which demonstrates the effect of the conflict on civilians.

 

Three months after the fighting broke out, 20,000 Georgians are still unable to return home because their homes were destroyed by rockets, looting and torching. Don’t forget them and their stories when you go home for the holidays this year.