By Namir Shabibi
“When more Yemeni children attend school and learn to read, they are better able to contribute to this great nation—as knowledgeable and skilled citizens. This is our dream.”
So wrote the US Ambassador to Yemen, Gerald Feierstein, in the Yemeni Observer this week, in a piece lauding joint USAID-Yemeni Ministry of Education efforts to raise literacy among Yemeni children. Yet he failed to mention one of the biggest impacts which US policy has had on Yemeni children: the wide-spread traumatisation of them through its covert drone programme.
Earlier this year, clinical psychologist Dr. Peter Schaapveld conducted an assessment of the psychological impact of drones on communities in Aden, and came to conclusions which he described as “deeply disturbing.”
“Entire communities,” he wrote, “including young children, who are the next generation of Yemenis, are being traumatized and re-traumatized by drones.”
The children examined suffered from attachment disorders, severe fear of noise, a lack of concentration and loss of interest in pleasurable activities. Those he interviewed appeared as “sullen, hollowed-out shells of children.” In short, classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
For Ambassador Feierstein’s purposes, perhaps the most devastating impact is that the fear instilled by drone strikes has drastically impacted children’s attendance at schools. Suffering from a debilitating cluster of psychological symptoms, their attendance has become infrequent if not non-existent.
One young girl aged eight Dr. Schaapveld interviewed witnessed a presumed drone strike on her neighbour’s house. Before the strike she was a keen student and would study for over an hour. After the strike she became restless and unable to concentrate for more than ten minutes. She also refused to attend school anymore. She frequently vomits at the sound of drone and airplanes.
Dr. Schaapveld described the situation as a “psychological emergency,” with scores, if not hundreds, of children lastingly traumatised by the overhead buzz and strikes of drone planes. These findings echo those from Pakistan, which has witnessed nearly 400 drone strikes and up to 200 child victims. Stanford University’s report on Pakistan, ‘Living Under Drones,’ quotes 14 year old Faheem Qureshi, the sole survivor of an attack on a home which left him disabled:
“Our minds have been diverted from studying. We cannot learn things because we are always in fear of the drones hovering over us… At the time the drone struck, I had to take exams, but I couldn’t take exams after that because it weakened my brain.”
The impact of the US drone war on the Yemeni people is a national one. While the majority of drone strikes have taken place in the provinces of Aden, Sana’a, Abyan, Shabwa and Hadramout, strikes have been recorded in half of the country’s 18 provinces in 2013 alone.
A later report by Reprieve entitled ‘No Safe Place for Children‘ concluded that the US drone programme severely affects child attendance and concentration at schools. As such the programme constitutes a grave violation of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, including Article 28: Children’s Right to Education.
In an interview last month with The Politic, Ambassador Feierstein defended the drone programme but conceded: “nobody likes the drone program; nobody thinks that the drone program is the solution to the problem.”
Ambassador Feierstein then claimed that “the U.S. policy is trying to move beyond kinetic activity to confront violent extremist organizations and really is focused on building the Yemeni economy.”
Yet there are no signs of a shift from ‘kinetic activity,’ in other words drone strikes. In fact, in the recent holy month of Ramadan and August alone, US drones struck twelve times, killing at least 12 civilians according to senior Yemeni Defence Ministry officials. The Los Angeles Times reports that among the children killed were Hussein and Hassan Marwani, who were on a shopping trip while the missiles hit.
It seems unlikely that Ambassador Feierstein has ventured outside of his fortified compound to speak to communities affected by the US’s illegal war on Yemen. While education support programmes are worthy efforts, they are being catastrophically undermined by the terrifying impact of drones on the country’s children.
Namir works as a caseworker in the abuses in counter-terrorism team of Reprieve. His work focuses on Guantánamo, drones and secret prisons.