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The Drone Effect: Ghosts, rubble and loss in Waziristan
Tanushree Bhasin  17th Aug 2013

A scene from Wounds of Waziristan

hen Barack Obama finally admitted to the needless loss of life in the Pakistan's Waziristan area due to American drone attacks, he spoke about how the death of innocents would haunt him forever. Interrogating this notion of 'haunting' and what it means for those affected by these attacks is Pakistani filmmaker Madiha Tahir in her film Wounds of Waziristan, which is expected to come out soon.

With Wounds of Waziristan, Tahir tries to foreground the people who materially experience loss and absence — not as abstract body counts, but as the absence of a brother or a niece or a wife. "Haunting is the insistence by the dead that they be acknowledged, that the social conditions that brought about their demise be made known and rectified. So, haunting is about unfinished business. And, it's thoroughly social and political. This film focuses on the people who live in Waziristan and who live among loss. Material conditions, whether it's the rubble after a drone attack or the grave of one's kin, persist in reminding the living of what they have lost," she explains.

Tahir places Obama's declaration of being haunted amidst a greater political spectacle of what she refers to as a situation of "dangerous anti-politics that let's politicians get away with murder". "It ought to be unacceptable that President Obama can make a tasteless joke about drones one year as he did at the Correspondents' dinner, and claim that he is haunted by the loss of life in the next. I think one of the worst things for a politician is to realize that the people who elected him to office take him seriously. By that, I don't mean that we should believe everything they tell us and then be surprised when it isn't true," she says.

The Unmanned Ariel Vehicle is part of a long history of weaponry — starting from bow and arrows, for instance, that puts distance between the self and the opponent. Drones place risk entirely on the victim or target. While the cost of war for the US is lowered, this process reifies the absolute protection of racially white American life alongside a parallel dehumanization of Muslim racially brown bodies. The discussion of drone attacks has largely been centered around questions of what Tahir terms 'proportionality and distinction'.

There may be as many as 50 members of a family living in one house. When you destroy structures like that, you not only destroy people, you also destroy their history. It embodies loss. — Madiha Tahir

The prevailing sense of horror among pockets of American liberals about the total vulnerability of the killed has upended all accepted notions of honour and heroism in war. "What's interesting here is the unease among liberals as their ideas about the economy of life and minimizing risk come up against ideas about heroism. How we deal with these questions won't just re-write the rules of war and our ideas about the proper economy of life, but also what it means to be human."

Speaking about her experiences while making this film, she explained that it's not just a question of life being lost, but also the obliteration of history. "When drone attacks destroy homes — as they often do — they erase entire family histories. Homes in this area are built over time as families grow. There may be as many as 50 members of a family living in one house. When you destroy structures like that, you not only destroy people, you also destroy their history. The rubble that's left in the wake of an attack is a living memory of what happened there. It embodies loss. The people in Waziristan have to live around this loss, near it, in it. They have to live among ghosts," says Tahir.

"I've met several people from the area. I met Fahim Qureshi, a teenage boy who lost his family and one of his eyes in the first drone attack that President Obama ordered when he took office in 2009. Fahim told me how they had to pick through the rubble of the house to find body parts — the remnants of his family. I've heard several stories like these. Another teenage boy, Sadaullah Wazir, lost both his legs in an attack," she added.

The film is presently in the final stages of production and Tahir is crowd-funding to raise money to finish the film soon.

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