Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content


Pakistan's deadly robots in the sky Add to ...

They correctly assume that most drones in Pakistan are controlled by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, but they also believe the CIA secretly funds the so-called Pakistani Taliban - militants at war with Islamabad - and they reject reports that dozens of strikes hit Pakistani Taliban targets. Many people even refuse to believe that drones are responsible for the killing of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in August of 2009.

One man who regularly travels into Waziristan, and did not want to be identified, claimed that paranoia about the drones affects even the farm animals.

"The buffalo get skittish," he said. "They look at the sky and make noises like they're weeping."

He described a strike last year that destroyed a house near Wana, a town in South Waziristan. The missiles hit around midday, killing several people inside but only causing minor damage to nearby shops - a familiar pattern, as many witnesses say the blasts usually have a small radius, to minimize civilian deaths. Children scavenged for scrap metal in the ruins, while the adults were sombre: "Nobody cried. Everybody was silent. I think they were wondering how long this will continue."

People who sleep under the buzzing of the drones say it's hard to settle down for the night, listening to the sound of armed machines nearby.

Muhammad Amad, executive director of Idea, an aid group that works in the tribal areas, was telling a visitor that the drones are counterproductive because they stir up local anger, when he was interrupted by one of his local staffers from Waziristan, interjecting in broken English: "Mental torture," said the bearded man, with sun-weathered skin. He repeated himself, struggling to enunciate: "Mental torture."

"Yes, it's mental torture," Mr. Amad said. "When we lie down under the noise of the drones, nobody sleeps."

Several people from the tribal areas said the same thing. Sleeping pills and anti-depressants have become a regular part of the diet, they said, even in poor villages where few people can afford meat.

Some travel by bus to Peshawar for a consultation with Muhammad Shafique, who founded the city's most prominent psychiatric clinic almost four decades ago. The doctor's name has become part of local expressions, as people will tell somebody who is talking nonsense: "You should see Dr. Shafique."

Ijaz Hussain (right, standing), a pharmacist in Peshawar, says he sells more psychiatric medication every day. Demand is fueled by the rising violence in Pakistan's tribal areas, he says, and shortages have pushed up the price of some antidepressants almost six times above usual rates. Psychiatrists say patients arrive from the tribal areas asking for sleeping pills to help them cope with the buzzing of U.S. Predator drones overhead.

On a recent day, the doctor's waiting room was packed with men in traditional clothes, staring at a television broadcast of women's basketball in a way that suggested they were more accustomed to seeing women in burkas. "They come here with headaches, insomnia, anxiety," Dr. Shafique said. "They lie down at night and they don't know if they will get up again. Especially at night, they are seized with anxiety."

The doctor paused as a Pakistani fighter jet thundered past, so loud that it set off car alarms in the street. Drones are not the only thing that can kill you in the tribal areas, but Dr. Shafique said their omnipresence gets under your skin.

"I understand the U.S. has a job to do, but this 24-hour buzzing in the sky gives people a fear that's worse than dying," he said.

The doctor takes sleeping pills himself these days and writes a lot of prescriptions. Many people don't bother getting a doctor's note, buying their medicine in the markets. Sadiq Hussain, a pharmacist, said rising demand has driven up the price of some anti-depressants to almost six times their usual prices, but the pills remain cheap: they're generic copies, manufactured in India. Of all the many boxes that line the shelves of his small storefront, Mr. Hussain estimated that sleeping pills alone account for a fifth of his business. One of his competitors in a neighbouring shop estimated that sales of the sedatives have increased 30 to 40 per cent in the past year.

Not everybody worries about the drones. Asad Munir, former station chief in Peshawar for Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's leading spy agency, is among many observers who argue that precision strikes cause vastly less damage than the alternative of sending ground forces into Waziristan. Soldiers kill civilians with stray artillery or bombs, he said, whereas the drones only make mistakes when they're given the wrong intelligence. "They don't make more enemies," he said.

Report Typo/Error
Single page

Follow us on Twitter: @globeandmail


Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular