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A human face for drone victims

From Washington, the drone-warfare program looks almost aseptic: Remote-controlled aircraft fire with precision on targets half a world away.

But on Tuesday, this anonymous form of warfare assumed a name and a face: that of 9-year-old Nibila ur Rehman, who, along with her father and older brother, came all the way from Pakistan’s tribal region to talk about the drone strike that killed her grandmother a year ago.

“It was the day before Eid,” said Nibila, a beautiful child with caramel eyes and a shy smile. Through an interpreter, she told her story to lawmakers, staff and reporters in a congressional hearing room: “My grandmother asked me to come help her outside. We were collecting okra, the vegetables. Then I saw in the sky the drone and I heard a ‘dum dum’ noise. Everything was dark and I couldn’t see anything, but I heard a scream. I don’t know if it was my grandmother, but I couldn’t see her. I was very scared and all I could think of doing was just run. I kept running but I felt something in my hand. And I looked at my hand. There was blood. I tried to bandage my hand but the blood kept coming.”

Nibila finished her account and resumed tugging at her blue headscarf and dress, scratching her leg, resting her head on the table and doing other things a 9-year-old would do when asked to sit through a long meeting of grown-ups in a language she doesn’t understand.

When the session ended, an intern working for the congressman who hosted the hearing presented Nibila with two dishes of ice cream, vanilla and chocolate. The child eyed them warily. Told by the interpreter what the substance was, she took a tentative taste of the vanilla and then hungrily spooned more into her mouth. She smiled and nodded.

It was a heartwarming moment. But the United States owes Nibila something more than a dish of soft-serve.

The lawmaker who hosted the Pakistani family — the first victims of drone warfare to speak on Capitol Hill — presented them as evidence that the program should be abolished. That goes too far: The drones have been enormously successful in killing off al-Qaeda leaders. But the program has operated in such secrecy that Americans have not had an opportunity to debate the consequences of the killings done in their name.

The Washington Post reported last week that top Pakistani officials have for years secretly endorsed the CIA drone strikes, received briefings on them and sometimes requested the attacks, even as they publicly denounced them. The attacks in Pakistan expanded dramatically in recent years, reaching 117 in 2010 before declining to 23 this year. Along the way, hundreds of civilians have been killed.

The Associated Press account of the strike that claimed the life of Nibila’s grandmother was typically anodyne: “A U.S. drone fired a pair of missiles at a mud brick compound near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan on Wednesday, killing at least one person, intelligence officials said. There were conflicting reports about whether more than one person was killed in the attack in Tappi Khun Khel village in the North Waziristan tribal area, a major hub for Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan.” The report said a cow and a buffalo were also killed.

Rafiq ur Rehman, Nibila’s father, gave his version on Tuesday. “Only one person was killed that day: my mother,” he said. As he went on, the interpreter choked up and had to pause before repeating his words in English: “I am the primary school teacher in my community. As a teacher, my job is to educate. But how can I teach something like this? … How can I in good faith reassure the children that the drone will not come back and kill them too?”

Unfortunately for the cause, the lawmaker who hosted the event was Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., the flamboyant liberal who last week used an image of a flaming cross in an email likening the tea party to the Ku Klux Klan. Only four other lawmakers attended the event.

But the story of young Nibila and her family deserves more notice. Only a few outliers in Congress — such as Grayson on the left and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., on the right — are likely to oppose the use of drones. But even if officials conclude that drone strikes are necessary, they owe the public a more honest account of casualties and a promise to compensate innocent victims with something more than frozen desserts.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank. (c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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