Drone stricken families hit by PTSD

Published on 2 September 2014 in Report
Ali Abulohoom (author)

Ali Abulohoom


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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common in populations impacted by drone strikes, with children being the hardest hit. (Reuters)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common in populations impacted by drone strikes, with children being the hardest hit. (Reuters)

There is no end in sight for the drone strikes carried out in Marib, Abyan, Shabwa, Al-Bayda, Hadramout, and Dhamar governorates. In fact, it is said that the number of civilian casualties is still on the rise. In most cases the repercussions to families affected by the unmanned planes go beyond the loss of lives, often leaving them clueless, traumatized, and desperate for answers.

Meqdad Toiaman’s father was killed in a drone strike in Marib governorate in 2011. His death was a big blow to the family, both emotionally and economically. Toiaman, 18, found himself in a peculiar situation, suddenly having to bear the burden of financial responsibilities.

Although the attack took place three years ago, the psychological damage it fraught on Toiaman and his family exceeds their personal loss.

“Once my little brother hears the drones or even the airplanes hovering, he keeps shouting and flees to hide behind the water tank. Even my mother was unable to inhibit her worry and fears that the upcoming strike may claim our lives,” he recalls.

“We feel as if no one thinks about us, neither the Yemeni government nor the countries carrying out such attacks. We feel isolated. I wish this is just a nightmare we are going to wake up from and get rid of someday,” Toiaman continued.

Psychological implications

While Mohammed Rashad, an independent psychotherapist based in Sana’a, has not directly treated victims who have suffered losses, he has met with people hit by drone strikes in Dhamar governorate and in Sanhan and Khawlan districts on the outskirts of Sana’a.

“The agony left after the deaths is short-lived and can be overcome with time. However, the psychological damages are not something you can get rid of immediately. In most cases, victims need treatment.”

Rashad said two months ago he prescribed pills for a patient suffering from insomnia, one of the key consequences of the drone strikes that took place in Wesab district in Dhamar governorate last year.

Similarly, “there are hundreds of people with psychological disorders like insomnia, nightmares, hallucinations, and so on. However, those requiring urgent government intervention and psychological treatments fall in line,” he added.

Despite the difficult aftermath faced by several families struck by unmanned planes, Rashad asserted that the Yemeni government remains immune to the devastating effects caused to families.  

The Yemen Times contacted Fuad Al-Ghafari, the director of the Ministry of Human Rights, several times at his office in Sana’a but Al-Ghafari could not be reached.

“It’s not only the people who lose their relatives that remain affected, but even ordinary locals suffer from the consequences. Children are especially hard-hit by psychological troubles like insomnia, nightmares, and a feeling of being isolated,” Rashad said.

Sameeh Al-Wesabi, 35, from Wesab district in Dhamar, is one such case. His village has been targeted by drones, which resulted in the killing of five people in April 2013. Al-Wesabi’s entire family remains terrified, but the options for moving elsewhere are close to none.

“Once my family members hear the drones or even ordinary planes hover, they become terrified and go down to a small trench we dug in the yard of our house,” Al-Wesabi said, describing a technique the family uses to flee from the possible danger of drones.

Al-Mohammed Al-Ahamdi, the legal coordinator of Al-Karama foundation who is currently working on a study about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following the drone strikes, said the study is being conducted in locations where drone strikes have occurred, including Marib, Abyan, Shabwa, Sana’a, Al-Bayda, Hadramout, and Dhamar governorates.

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Image 4045

The study, which is to be completed in October, will bring to light the severe psychological implications drone strikes have on victims weeks, months, and even years after the attack.

“In Hadramout governorate, for instance, the children have suffered from severe panic, shivering with fear once they hear the sound of aircrafts hovering overhead,” Al-Ahmadi said.

Eight-year-old Salim Saeed has been suffering from psychological trauma since a drone strike targeted some alleged AQAP militants in Hadramout, including Saeed’s father.

“He has been walking around the house, pre-occupied, for hours without acknowledging the presence of his family members,” his neighbor Bassam Bayonis described.

Saeed’s family moved to another house within the same area so the family could escape the trauma. Yet, Saeed continues to suffer from the consequences of the strike, even though the strike took place two years back.

In late 2013, a drone strike targeted a wedding convoy in Rada’a district, Al-Bayda governorate, claiming the lives of 12 civilians.

“I still suffer from the aftermath of the strike,” said 35-year-old Ahmed Al-Salmani, who was part of the convoy that helped move the corpses—one of which was his cousin—to the hospital. “Until now, I still see nightmares during my sleep as the scene of the dead bodies remains entrenched in my mind,” he said.

Al-Salmani further explained the bad situation of the locals in Rada’a: “The airplanes’ sound has become terrifying for the people here, they think strikes are imminent any moment.”

Clinical and forensic psychologist Dr. Peter Schaapveld, a London-based expert on psychological trauma, released a report to the UK parliament in March 2013 after his week-long trip to Yemen.

He reported that 92 percent of the population sample he examined was found to be suffering from PTSD—with children being the demographic most significantly affected. Women, he found, claimed to be miscarrying from their fear of drones. “This is a population that by any figure is hugely suffering,” Schaapveld said.

The US, Yemen, and the “war on terror”

Since 9/11, Yemen has become a key battlefield for the United States’ covert drone program. The Yemeni government during the reign of former President Saleh and now under Hadi have both proven to willingly cooperate in America’s “war on terror,” allowing the drones to hover over many Yemeni governorates for the purpose of targeting suspected militants belonging to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

In many cases, these suspects are targeted based on false or lacking information, thereby resulting in the killing of innocent civilians.

Mohammed Al-Qawli, head of the National Authority for Drones’ victims, an NGO founded in April, told the Yemen Times the estimated number of civilian deaths by drone strikes has reached an approximate 80 percent.

While formal statistics cannot be determined on the specific death toll, Al-Qawli says the number ranges between 800-900 from 2002 till date. Most of the people killed are not affiliated with AQAP, he says.

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, US drone strikes in Yemen since 2002 have killed 663 to 1,009 people, of which 88 to 131 were civilians. This does not include the 60-89 civilians killed by “other US covert operations,” such as missiles which were fired from a US warship.

 The numbers presented by both the bureau and Al-Qawli stand in stark contrast to President Obama’s speech at the National Defense University in 2013, explicitly stating that criteria for targeting terrorists with drone strikes are heavily constrained. 

“Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured,” Obama said.

Obama admitted that there’s a wide gap between US assessments of such casualties and nongovernmental reports. “Nevertheless, it is a hard fact that US strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in every war. And for the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss,” he said.

Al Qawli complains, “the US, along with the Yemeni government, so far has not paid heed to whether those people killed were linked to Al-Qaeda or not.”

Al-Qawli adds, “since 2011, the drone attacks have intensified to reach 44. The first operation took place in 2002, and until 2011 there were 14 attacks.”

It is well-known that animosity against the United States is mounting as the attacks have intensified in recent years.

“The people lost confidence in the government when allowing the United States to breach Yemeni sovereignty,” Al-Ahmadi explains.

As such, the popularity of AQAP is increasing amongst the victims’ families and the locals in drone-stricken areas. “As long as the United States continues to strike areas in Yemen with drones which are claiming the lives of innocents in addition to their targets, support for Al-Qaeda is going to increase,” according to Al-Ahmadi.

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